Name originally Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr., changed name to Marvin Gaye for professional purposes; born April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C.; died of gunshot wounds April 1, 1984; son of Marvin (a minister) and Alberta Gay; married Anna Gordy, c. 1964 (divorced, 1976); married Janis Hunter, 1976 (divorced, 1982); children: (first marriage) Marvin III, (second marriage) Nona, Frankie.
Marvin Gaye was one of the best-selling soul artists of his generation, a Motown prodigy whose work displayed everything from sexual passion to social consciousness. Gaye's murder at the hands of his own father in 1984 shocked all but his closest friends, who knew of his family quarrels, his cocaine dependency, and his despondency despite a brilliant 1983 comeback. New York Times contributor Robert Palmer called Gaye "one of the most gifted writer-arrangers, and one of the most musicianly singers, in pop music," adding that his songs "have enjoyed a life far longer than that of most pop and soul hits."
Gaye's tragic life was foreshadowed by his difficult childhood and rebellious teen years. He was born in 1939 in Washington, D.C., and was named after his father, Marvin Pentz Gay. The elder Gay was an evangelical minister who ruled his home with an iron fist, often beating his willful son. Although Marvin, Jr., first learned music in church, often performing after his father's sermons, he longed for a secular career. After serving briefly in the Air Force, he returned to Washington and joined a vocal group called the Marquees. He added the "e" to the end of his name because he thought it looked more professional.
The Marquees made several recordings and attracted a following among the rhythm and blues crowd. In 1958 singer Harvey Fuqua drafted them to replace his original backup group, renaming them the Moonglows. During a concert in Detroit in 1961 Gaye met fledgling music producer Berry Gordy, whose Motown Records business showed great promise. Gordy persuaded Gaye to sign with Motown as a solo artist, and shortly after joining the label Gaye married Gordy's sister, Anna. Gaye's first work for Motown was as a backup instrumentalist on disks by Smokey Robinson, among others. He was not long in proving himself as a vocalist, however. His fourth Motown single, "That Stubborn Kinda Fellow," was the first of a staggering number of pop-soul hits that he would accumulate through the 1960s.
As Motown Records flourished, so did Marvin Gaye. His solo recordings and duets with Mary Wells and Kim Weston quickly assured him superstar status. Gaye's best-known works from the 1960s--hits such as "Can I Get a Witness," "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You," and most importantly, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"--are considered soul classics today. In the mid-1960s Gaye teamed with soprano Tammi Terrell for a series of romantic ballads, many of which also topped the charts. The Gaye-Terrell hit list included "You're All I Need to Get By," "Your Precious Love," "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing," and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
Tragedy struck Gaye in 1967 when Terrell collapsed in his arms in the middle of a live concert. She died three years later after immense suffering caused by a brain tumor. Although Gaye claimed that he was not romantically involved with Terrell, her illness and death affected him profoundly. He took a hiatus from the business, and when he returned he insisted on retaining creative control of his work. At the time--1971--this demand was new to Motown; Gordy produced most of the albums and relied on a team of songwriters who churned out formula hits. Gaye was not the only artist who rebelled against the Motown system, but he was the first to do so. Late in 1971 he released What's Going On, an album of songs he wrote, sang, and played himself.
What's Going On was a milestone for Motown as well as for Gaye. The album addresses such timely issues as the Vietnam War, pollution, addiction, and the miseries of ghetto life--the first Motown work to deal with social ills. down beat contributor Steve Bloom describes the recording as "a blistering indictment of America's misguided priorities combined with God-is-the-answer proselytizing--clearly the work of a preacher's son." One single, "Mercy, Mercy Me," made the Top 10 on the pop charts, and Gaye was praised universally for his cogent musical statements.
Ironically, having established himself as more than a dance-stepping, crooning Motown star, Gaye returned to romantic music almost immediately. Here too he blazed a new trail, however, offering frankly sexual songs that heaped praises on unseen lovers. His last hit of the 1970s, "Let's Get It On," added volumes of suggestion to his reputation as a seductive ladies' man. Sadly, Gaye began a long downward spiral in the mid-1970s, largely because he became seriously involved with cocaine use. He divorced Anna Gordy in 1976 and immediately married Janis Hunter. That marriage too collapsed, with allegations of beating and mental harassment. At one point Gaye even arranged for his second son to be kidnapped and brought to him in Hawaii (Hunter endured a week of anguish before she discovered her son's whereabouts). During this period Gaye also attempted suicide by ingesting an ounce of cocaine in an hour.
By 1981 Gaye found himself deeply in debt to his ex-wives and the federal government. A tour of Europe, including a royal reception in England, revived his confidence somewhat, and he signed a new contract with Columbia Records. The executives at Columbia began to sort out his finances and brought him back to the studio to record. Gaye's 1982 release Midnight Love was hailed as a masterful comeback; the single "Sexual Healing" won him his first two Grammy awards.
Unfortunately, Gaye had been unable to kick his cocaine habit. A tour in the wake of the Midnight Love album was marred by fits of paranoia and stage fright, and after it ended Gaye retreated into the home he had bought for his parents and spent most of his time taking drugs. He was shot at point-blank range after a Sunday morning quarrel with his father, the last of many heated arguments between the two. He died one day short of his forty-fifth birthday.
Gaye died without a will, owing millions of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. In the ensuing scramble to make money off his name, many of his family members revealed the details of his last months--he was portrayed as a distrustful, anxious, and desperately unhappy person who tried repeatedly to free himself from the use of cocaine. Some even suggested that he provoked his father into the shooting as a macabre form of suicide--he had been making suicide threats for some time.
In a Rolling Stone feature about Gaye's estate, Mary A. Fischer wrote: "The temptation is to think of Marvin Gaye as a reckless, selfish man who only took care of himself--and didn't even do a very good job of that. There was, of course, another side to him that was generous, charming and deep, and that produced so much memorable music. But he suffered from a lack of the thing he desperately longed for but never received--his father's love. Finally, it did him in." Steve Bloom preferred to accent the positive contributions Gaye made to the world of pop and soul. Bloom called Gaye's legacy "a body of brilliant ... music that will endure and continue to serve as inspiration to all," concluding: "Risk-taking, rule-breaking, and love-making were what Marvin Gaye was all about."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Marvin Gaye's Career
Singer, songwriter, guitar and piano player, 1956-84. Member of group the Marquees, 1957-58, and the Moonglows, 1958-61; solo or duet performer, 1961-84. Signed with Motown Records, c. 1961, had first hit record, "That Stubborn Kinda Fellow," 1962. Moved to Columbia Records, 1982. Military service: Served in United States Air Force.
Marvin Gaye's Awards
Two Grammy Awards, 1983, for single "Sexual Healing." Numerous gold and platinum album citations.
- Selective Works
- Soulful Mood Motown, 1961.
- That Stubborn Kinda Fellow Motown, 1963, re-released, 1989.
- Marvin Gaye Live on Stage Motown, 1963.
- When I'm Alone I Cry Motown, 1964.
- Marvin Gaye's Greatest Hits Motown, 1964.
- How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You Motown, 1964, re-released, 1989.
- Hello Broadway Motown, 1964.
- (With Mary Wells) Together Motown, 1964.
- Tribute to Nat King Cole Motown, 1965.
- The Moods of Marvin Gaye Motown, 1966, re-released, 1989.
- Take Two Motown, 1966.
- (With Tammi Terrell) United Motown, 1966.
- (With Terrell) You're All I Need to Get By Motown, 1968.
- In the Groove Motown, 1968.
- MPG Motown, 1969, re-released, 1989.
- Marvin Gaye & His Girls Motown, 1969.
- Easy Motown, 1969.
- That's the Way Love Is Motown, 1969, re-released, 1989.
- Marvin Gaye's Greatest Hits Motown, 1970.
- What's Going On Motown, 1971.
- Troubled Man Motown, 1972.
- Let's Get It On Motown, 1973.
- (With Diana Ross) Marvin & Diana Motown, 1974.
- Marvin Gaye Live Motown, 1974.
- Marvin Gaye Anthology Motown, 1974.
- I Want You Motown, 1976, re-released, 1989.
- The Best of Marvin Gaye Motown, 1976.
- Marvin Gaye Live at the London Palladium Motown, 1977.
- Here My Dear Motown, 1978.
- In Our Lifetime Motown, 1981.
- Midnight Love Columbia, 1982.
- Dream of a Lifetime Columbia, 1986.
- Romantically Yours Columbia, 1986.
- Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye Motown, 1986.
- Compact Command Performance, Volumes 1 and 2 Motown, 1986.
- I Heard It through the Grapevine Motown, 1989.
- Ritz, David, Divided Soul (biography), 1986.
- down beat, January 1986.
- High Fidelity, April 1979.
- New York Times, April 2, 1984.
- People, January 24, 1983; April 16, 1984.
- Rolling Stone, May 10, 1984; May 24, 1984; October 9, 1986.
- Time, October 11, 1971.