Marvin Gaye – circa 1971
“Father, father / We don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate” – ‘What’s Going On?’ (Marvin Gaye)
Marvin Gaye is dead. The news of the African-American singer’s untimely demise saddens and shocks his many fans throughout the world. Their dismay only deepens with each successive revelation. Marvin Gaye was shot to death. The gunman was a preacher. That holy man was the singer’s own father.
What sort of life could have led to such a tragic exit?
Marvin Gaye (2 April 1938 – 1 April 1984) is born Marvin Pentz Gay, Junior, in Washington, D.C. His father, Marvin Pentz Gay, Senior, is ‘a charismatic storefront preacher.’ The Reverend Gay works ‘as a part-time postal clerk and often not at all.’ Thus, it is Marvin’s mother, Alberta, who carries ‘the burden of the family’s finances’ by working as ‘a domestic’, a household servant for others.
Marvin is the eldest of the Gays’ four children. He has a younger brother, Frankie, and two younger sisters.
The church to which the family belongs is ‘eccentric – a small Christian subculture which celebrates Jewish high holy days.’ Although the church is ‘joyful’, it is also ‘severe.’ There is ‘no drinking, no dancing, no nonsense.’ The Reverend Gay is ‘a scholarly but violent man’ who will ‘beat his children for minor infractions and frivolous behaviour.’ Marvin rebels and pays ‘the price in corporal punishment.’
Marvin begins his musical career playing organ in his father’s church and singing in the church choir. He becomes a member of the orchestra at high school, but quits school before graduation.
Marvin Gay joins the U.S. Air Force but his is ‘a short and troubled spell of military service.’ “My discharge was honourable,” the singer later claims, “Although it plainly stated, ‘Marvin Gay cannot adjust to regimentation and authority.’” The Reverend Gay could have predicted that outcome.
It is sometime after his stint in the armed forces that Marvin Gay adds an ‘e’ to his surname, becoming Marvin Gaye. He begins singing doo-wop on street corners and associating with other aspiring young African-American vocalists. From 1956 to 1957 Marvin Gaye sings with the vocal group called The Rainbows. Other members of this changeable aggregation include future soul music artist Don Covay, Bill ‘Fat Boy’ Stewart and Reese Taylor.
Along with two other members of The Rainbows, Marvin Gaye forms a new vocal group, The Marquees, which exists from 1957 to 1958. The group is taken under the wing of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Bo Diddley. As well as providing backing vocals for Bo Diddley, their new sponsor helps them secure a recording contract of their own. The Marquees record their first singles, ‘Baby You’re The Only One’ in 1957 and ‘Wyatt Earp’ in 1958.
Around this time, Marvin Gaye wins a talent contest singing ‘The Ten Commandments Of Love’, a 1958 hit for Harvey And The Moonglows, the vocal group previously known simply as The Moonglows. ‘Harvey’ is Harvey Fuqua and, perhaps not coincidentally, he is one of the judges of the talent contest that selected Marvin Gaye’s performance of the Moonglows song as the winner. In fact, Harvey Fuqua is looking to put together a whole new version of The Moonglows. The Marquees, as a package, are offered the gig. The Moonglows new line-up (with Harvey Fuqua acting more as manager than singer) releases the following singles: ’12 Months Of The Year’ in 1958; and ‘Mama Loocie’, ‘Blue Skies’, ‘Beatnik’ and ‘Unemployment’ in 1959.
In 1960 Harvey Fuqua moves from The Moonglows Chicago base to Detroit. Marvin Gaye follows him. Fuqua sets up two record labels, Tri-Phi and Harvey. At the same time, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, also based in Detroit, is just starting to enjoy its first successes. Motown is notable for being a label run by a black man, featuring black recording artists, yet marketed as The Sound of Young America (not Black America). In other words, Berry Gordy is quite willing to help part white teenagers from their pocket money, not just black teenagers. Gordy saw The Moonglows when they toured Detroit and takes an interest in Harvey Fuqua’s new project and, consequently, Marvin Gaye as well.
Harvey Fuqua’s labels are swallowed up by the larger Motown corporation. Fuqua marries Gwen Gordy, Berry Gordy’s sister, and so, literally, joins the family, becoming a record producer for Motown. Harvey Fuqua is ‘Marvin’s guru father figure.’ Marvin Gaye is signed to Anna, the subsidiary label owned by Gwen Gordy (though, confusingly, it is named after her sister). Like Harvey Fuqua’s label, Anna too is soon swallowed up by Motown in 1961.
At first, Marvin Gaye is employed around Motown as a drummer. He appears on the early records of Smokey Robinson And The Miracles and tours with them (as their drummer) for six months. But Marvin Gaye has ambitions of his own.
Marvin Gaye fancies himself as ‘a crooner in the silky-smooth style of Nat [‘King’] Cole.’ He wants ‘to sit on a stool, smoke a cigarette, nurse a martini and interpret the ballads of [George] Gershwin and [Cole] Porter.’ Berry Gordy indulges this fantasy and even produces some songs in this vein for the handsome young vocalist. ‘The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye’ (1961) is the artist’s first album. A trio of singles are also issued in this mode: 1961’s ‘Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide’ and 1962’s ‘Sandman’ and ‘Soldier’s Plea.’ However, Berry Gordy grows impatient and declares that since Marvin has ‘failed to crack the adult market’, his future lies with the rest of Motown on the pop charts.
During the 1960s, Motown is a virtual production line. Singers come into ‘Hitsville U.S.A.’, are fitted with an appropriate song by Motown’s teams of producers and songwriters, and are sent out to make a (usually successful) assault on the pop charts. Marvin Gaye’s established trait of chafing at authority and restrictions makes him ill-suited for this environment. Yet he is also ambitious, and that characteristic holds his rebellious nature in check. Sometimes, Marvin Gaye is listed amongst the composers of the songs he releases; sometimes he just sings the material with which he is presented. Motown has comparatively few solo male recording artists – only Stevie Wonder springs to mind – with most of their signings being vocal groups like Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Temptations.
Marvin Gaye’s first success is with the appropriately titled self-composed track ‘Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’ (US no. 46) in 1962. The matching album, ‘That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’ (1962), represents the peak of his time as a Motown hit-machine. Marvin Gaye co-writes the other tracks from this album cited here. On ‘Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’ and the follow-up, ‘Hitch Hike’ (US no. 30), Marvin Gaye is given vocal back-up by Martha And The Vandellas. The girls go out on their own and Marvin Gaye is one of the three authors of their biggest subsequent hit, 1964’s ‘Dancing In The Street’ (US no. 2). ‘Pride And Joy’ (US no. 10) is the third single drawn from ‘That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’. All three are produced by Mickey Stevenson. The album also contains ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’. Another of this song’s co-authors is Norman Whitfield, the record’s producer. Although not issued as a single at the time, ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’ has grown in stature to become one of Marvin Gaye’s better known songs. The singer asks of a girl apparently besotted with him, “You had a romance / Did you break it by chance over me? / If it’s so I’d like for you to know that I’m not worth it you see.”
In June 1963 Marvin Gaye marries Anna Gordy, sister of Motown supremo Berry Gordy. Marvin’s bride ‘is a woman seventeen years his senior.’ The couple go on to have one adopted child, Marvin III (born 17 November 1965).
The team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland, best known for their work with Motown’s premier act, The Supremes, furnish Marvin Gaye’s next hit, ‘Can I Get A Witness?’ (US no. 22) in November 1963. This ‘rough and tumble gospel-blues track’ seems to equate the church and the law court. In the church, parishioners are asked to ‘bear witness’ to the works of The Lord, while in a law court, a ‘witness’ is called upon to present their version of events related to the case at hand. The song manages to jumble and blend the two as Marvin Gaye testifies “I love too hard my friends sometimes say / But I believe a woman should be loved that way.”
‘When I’m Alone I Cry’ (1964) is released in April. The same month, ‘Together’ (1964) (US no. 42), an album of duets with Mary Wells, is issued. The following month sees the release of the duo’s double-sided single ‘What’s The Matter With You Baby’ (US no. 17) backed with ‘Once Upon A Time’ (US no. 19, UK no. 50). The parent album includes versions of songs like ‘I Love You For Sentimental Reasons.’ Although Mary Wells is Marvin Gaye’s first partner in a duet, she is not the last. Motown seems to like the idea of pairing ‘the golden boy of Hitsville U.S.A.’ with a succession of leading ladies.
Marvin Gaye shows he hasn’t completely forgotten the adult market by releasing ‘Hello Broadway’ (1964) in November, an assemblage of show tunes.
‘You’re A Wonderful One’ (US no. 15), a solo pop single from back in March, is carried forward with ‘Try It Baby’ (US no. 15) from June, ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ (US no. 27) from September and ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’ (US no. 6, UK no. 49) from December to the album ‘How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You’ (1965) in January. The title track is another Holland / Dozier / Holland number and it’s relaxed, finger-snapping melody makes it very popular and timeless.
Smokey Robinson takes over as architect of Marvin Gaye’s singles in 1965 for ‘I’ll Be Doggone’ (US no. 8) and ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ (US no. 8). These are ‘two of Smokey’s most compelling uptempo productions.’ ‘A Tribute To The Great Nat ‘King’ Cole’ (1965) in November finds Marvin still trying to woo the supper club crowd.
In 1966 Marvin Gaye’s output continues with ‘One More Heartache’ (US no. 29) in February, the album ‘Moods Of Marvin Gaye’ (1966) (US no. 118) in May, ‘Take This Heart Of Mine’ (US no. 44) in June and, one of Holland / Dozier / Holland’s better offerings, ‘Little Darling I Need You’ (US no. 47) in August. These are eclipsed by a duet with Kim Weston. Taken from the shared album ‘Take Two’ (1966) in August, ‘It Takes Two’ (US no. 14, UK no. 16) is a fun outing that charts in January 1967.
Although Gaye’s duet with Kim Weston is more successful than his previous pairing, in 1967 he moves on to a third partner. Tammi Terrell is Marvin Gaye’s most prolific duet partner and their series of collaborations also makes her the longest lasting of his associates. Ironically, given later events, Tammi Terrell gave up a career as a medical student to begin her solo recording career with Motown in 1966. Most of the songs recorded by the team of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell are both written and produced by the husband and wife team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. This gives their work a genuine ease and familiarity. In 1967 the combination of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell release the singles ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (US no. 19), ‘Your Precious Love’ (US no. 5), and the double-sided ‘If I Could Build My Whole World Around You’ (US no. 10, UK no. 41) b/w ‘If This World Were Mine’ (US no. 68) as well as the album ‘United’ (1967) (US no. 69). In amongst all that, Marvin Gaye also puts out the solo single ‘Your Unchanging Love’ (US no. 33). Although the teaming of Gaye and Terrell is justly celebrated, it is not all rosy. One night in 1967 she collapses in Marvin Gaye’s arms on stage. Subsequent medical examinations discover the cause is a brain tumour.
Despite this ominous shadow hanging over them, the paring of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell remains productive in 1968, releasing a second collaborative album ‘You’re All I Need’ (1968) (US no. 60) and the singles ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’ (US no. 8, UK No. 34), ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ (US no. 7, UK no. 19), ‘You Ain’t Livin’ Till You’re Lovin’’ (UK no. 21) (a track produced by Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol) and ‘Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey’ (US no. 24).
1968 is also an important year for Marvin Gaye’s solo career as the singles ‘You’ (US no. 34) and ‘Chained’ (US no. 32) are followed by the album ‘In The Groove’ (1968) (US no. 63) and the landmark ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1). It’s an unlikely hit. Fellow Motown act Gladys Knight And The Pips already scored with their version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ (US no. 2, UK no. 47) in October 1967, so another version by another Motown act thirteen months later is a real dark horse. Norman Whitfield, the song’s co-author, is considered ‘Marvin’s main motivator in the mid-to-late Sixties’ and produces the album. However the two ‘nearly come to blows’ due to both being ‘head-strong.’ ‘Whitfield’s songs appeal to Gaye in their reflection of the turmoil of Marvin’s marriage to Anna.’ The partnership between the singer and his wife is beginning to sour. On this song, Marvin Gaye, previously a purveyor of silky-smooth standards and uptempo pop, displays a new fire and grit in his voice as he sings, “I bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew / About your plans to make me blue / With some other guy that you knew before / Between the two of us guys you know I love you more.” Norman Whitfield’s inventive production equals the singer’s verve. A harrowing string section is pitted against deep bass keyboard notes and tribal drumming that infuses the song with a sense of primitive dread.
The next album, ‘M.P.G.’ (1969) [for Marvin Pentz Gaye] (US no. 40), features the singles ‘Too Busy Thinking About My Baby’ (US no. 4, UK no. 5) and ‘That’s The Way Love Is’ (US no. 7). Both are co-written (with parties other than Gaye) and produced by Norman Whitfield. Good as they may be, they are also uncomfortably similar to ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. This is reasonably commonplace at Motown where Berry ‘Gordy’s innate caution dictates follow-ups that only slightly alter the elements of the previous hit; a formula is mined until it is commercially exhausted.’
‘Easy’ (1969) (US no. 184) is the third album of duets for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Still working under the auspices of Ashford & Simpson, the duo offer up ‘Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By’ (US no. 30, UK no. 26) and ‘What You Gave Me’ (US no. 49). On 16 March 1970, ‘after undergoing six brain tumour operations in eighteen months’, Tammi Terrell dies at Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia. She was 24. In April, another of her duets with Marvin Gaye, ‘The Onion Song’ (US no. 50, UK no. 9), is released posthumously. Her untimely demise deeply affects Marvin Gaye. He becomes ‘something of a hermit, dropping out of the touring scene and rarely appearing in the [recording] studio.’
Released in January, ‘That’s The Way Love Is’ (1970) [borrowing its title from the previous year’s hit single from ‘M.P.G.’] consists mainly of cover versions such as Marvin’s take on ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ (UK no. 9). The 1970 singles ‘How Can I Forget’ (US no. 41) and ‘The End Of Our Road’ (US no. 40) are, perhaps understandably, rather desultory.
With the new decade, the times are changing for Motown Records. The hit machine formulae of the 1960s are largely exhausted. In 1970 Diana Ross splits from Motown’s highest profile group, The Supremes, in favour of a solo career at Motown. Stevie Wonder is also beginning to flex more creative muscle and this begins to flower in 1971.
Marvin Gaye too seizes control of his own career in 1971, writing and producing what is generally accepted as his greatest album, ‘What’s Going On’ (1971) (US no. 6, UK no. 56). After playing golf with two members of the Detroit Lions football team, they go back to Marvin’s place for ‘a few beers.’ Running back Mel Farr recalls, “Somebody said, ‘Hey now, what’s goin’ on?’ Marvin laughed and said that was a great name for a song. He sat down at the piano and started fiddling around.” Marvin Gaye says, “I was very much affected by letters my brother [Frankie] was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home.” So the opening lines of Gaye’s best song, ‘What’s Going On’ (US no. 2), are: “Mother, mother / There’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying.” The album is recorded ‘amid a haze of marijuana smoke.’ ‘What’s Going On’ is followed into the singles charts by ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ (US no. 4) and ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ (US no. 9) and the album includes tracks like ‘Wholly Holy’ and ‘Save The Children’ (UK no. 41). These songs, and the album as a whole, are really just one big piece of music cut into individual slices. ‘What’s Going On’ is ‘a seemingly effortless blend of psychedelia, soul and jazz delivered with singer-songwriterly acumen.’ It is also ‘the first time a major Motown artist has taken a public stand on controversial issues.’ For all his canny guidance of Motown in the 1960s, when it comes to this album, ‘Berry Gordy is not pleased, to say the least.’ Perhaps his judgment is affected by the deteriorating state of his sister Anna’s marriage to Marvin Gaye? Whatever the case, Marvin Gaye takes a stand against his record company boss and it becomes ‘one of the company’s largest-selling albums.’
For his next project, Marvin Gaye creates the soundtrack for the motion picture ‘Trouble Man’ (1972) (US no. 14). The title song, ‘Trouble Man’ (US no. 7), is released as a single.
Those expecting Gaye to return with another album of socially conscious works a la ‘What’s Going On’ are surprised by ‘Let’s Get It On’ (1973) (US no. 2, UK no. 39). It is ‘one of the most joyous celebrations of sex ever recorded.’ The song, ‘Let’s Get It On’ (US no. 1, UK no. 31), is co-produced and co-written by Marvin Gaye and Ed Townsend. Marvin tries to reassure the object of his desire that “We’re all sensitive people / With so much to give” and “There’s nothing wrong with me loving you” because “Giving yourself to me can never be wrong / If the love is true.” Sung in a cooing, high voice, the song finally pleads “Stop beating ‘round the bush / Let’s get it on.”
The thematic change in Marvin Gaye’s recordings can be explained by changes in his personal life. He separates from Anna Gordy in 1973, though the divorce is not finalised until 1975. In March 1973, Marvin Gaye meets 16 year old Janis Hunter who ‘would become the second great love of his life.’ From a woman seventeen years older than him, Marvin Gaye switches to a woman eighteen years younger than him. Janis bears him two children: Nona (born 1974 and nicknamed ‘Pie’ by her father) and Frankie (born 1976, named after Marvin’s brother). Marvin Gaye and Janis Hunter marry in October 1977.
Marvin Gaye’s commercial standing can be measured by the fact that his next (and final) partner for vocal duets is the Queen of Motown, Diana Ross. ‘Diana And Marvin’ (1973) (US no. 26, UK no. 6) features ‘You’re A Special Part Of Me’ (US no. 12), ‘My Mistake Was To Love You’, ‘Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart’ (UK no. 25) and the highlight, ‘You Are Everything’ (UK no. 5). On this Thom Bell and Linda Creed composition, Marvin Gaye pulls out the stops with one of his most fiery and moving vocal performances.
‘I Want You’ (1976) (US no. 4, UK no. 22) is another ‘suite of overwhelming libidinous energy’, this time largely composed by Leon Ware. The song, ‘I Want You’ (US no. 15), is issued as a single.
‘Live At The London Palladium’ (1977) is a double album. Three sides are recorded live, but the fourth side is devoted to a lengthy (10:00) song in which Marvin Gaye tries to catch up to the disco movement of the mid to late 1970s. For a person brought up in a household where dancing was forbidden, trying a tune expressly designed for dancing is odd. Fittingly though, it deals with a fear of dancing. Edited down to a single as ‘Got To Give It Up (Part 1)’ (US no. 1, UK no. 7), the self-composed song is conveyed in a feather-light falsetto: “I used to go to parties / And stand around / ‘Cos I was too nervous to really get down / And my body / Yearned to be free / So I got up on the floor and found / Someone to choose me.”
Marvin Gaye moves on to ‘one of the weirdest Motown records ever.’ The terms of his divorce settlement with Anna Gordy requires Marvin Gaye to make two new albums and pay the royalties to his ex-wife as alimony. So he composes a double album titled ‘Here, My Dear’ (1978) (US no. 26). It includes ‘bitterly funny’ songs like ‘You Can Leave, But It’s Going To Cost You.’ The sprawling (6:15) ‘When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You’ begins with a spoken word introduction where Gaye declares, “You know when you say your marriage vows, they’re supposed to be for real / If you don’t honour what you say, you lie to God.”
‘In Our Lifetime’ (1981) (US no. 32, UK no. 48) chronicles the ‘agonised conflicts’ swirling about Marvin Gaye at the time. His second marriage ends in divorce in February, a month after the album’s release. The dissolution is brought on by Janis Hunter’s affair with singer Teddy Pendergrass, described as ‘one of Gaye’s closest friends.’ Gaye’s own behaviour is worryingly eccentric as he becomes ‘increasingly interested in metaphysics [a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of being, and the truth].’ Finding him ‘virtually unmanageable’, Motown Records cuts Marvin Gaye loose after this album.
Marvin Gaye re-emerges at CBS Records with ‘Midnight Love’ (1982) (US no. 7, UK no. 10). The single, ‘Sexual Healing’ (US no. 3, UK no. 4), is co-written by Odell Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Gaye’s biographer, David Ritz. The singer notes, “I’ve got a heart just like an oven / I need some lovin’” so “When I get that feeling / I want sexual healing.” Ritz claims “It was my way of suggesting what I believed he needed, a reconciliation of the confusion, fostered in childhood, between pleasure and pain.” The song is one of ‘the biggest hit[s] of Gaye’s long and erratic career.’
The comeback proves short-lived. His ‘dependency on drugs worsens’ and he is consumed by paranoia and fear.
On 1 April 1984, at his parents Los Angeles home, Marvin Gaye intervenes after his father verbally abuses Marvin’s mother. Marvin physically attacks the old man and is fatally shot. In a bizarre twist, the gun used by Marvin Gay, Senior, had been given to him four months earlier by the same son who now lies lifeless at his feet.
So what sort of life led to this moment? Marvin Gaye grew up in an authoritarian atmosphere which he tolerated for some time before rebelling against it and joining the armed forces. The rules and regulations of the air force chafed Marvin Gaye until he was discharged. Becoming a singer, Marvin Gaye joined the production line at Motown Records until he threw off the corporate chains with ‘What’s Going On.’ Finally, he came full circle to the confrontation with his father that resulted in his own death. There is a clear pattern of ‘oppression’ and rebellion repeating through Marvin Gaye’s life. Of course, some of his problems are, arguably, self-inflicted (the romantic mishaps, the drugs, and the metaphysics). Yet, after all the dust settles, there is still the music of Marvin Gaye. It too shows a duality of smooth, angelic higher thought and fierce, earthy impulses. It is, perhaps, a rebellion of the mind, body, creative spirit and soul against inherent limitations and boundaries. But in that conflict are created songs that linger on. In his music, Marvin Gaye is alive. ‘Marvin Gaye was one of Motown’s most enigmatic – and consistently popular – acts.’ ‘His songs are loved the world over, sung and resung by younger generations who feel the sincerity of his struggle and the joy of his spirit.’
- ‘The Very Best Of Marvin Gaye’ – Sleeve notes by David Ritz (Motown Records, 1994) p. 3, 4, 8, 9
- ‘What’s Going On’ – Sleeve notes by Marvin Gaye (Motown Records, 1971 – 2002 reissue) p. 2
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 91
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 90, 125
- wikipedia.org as at 11 February 2013
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Motown’ by Joe McEwan, Jim Miller (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 282, 284,285
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 130
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 131, 170, 192, 346
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 35, 36, 72
- lyricsfreak.com as at 25 February 2013
Song lyrics copyright EMI Songs Australia Pty Ltd.
Last revised 26 August 2014