Marvin Gaye Biography

Marvin Pentz Gay Jnr., 2 April 1939, Washington, DC, USA, d. 1 April 1984, Los Angeles, California, USA. Gaye was named after his father, a minister in the Apostolic Church. The spiritual influence of his early years played a formative role in his musical career, particularly from the 70s onwards, when his songwriting shifted back and forth between secular and religious topics. He abandoned a place in his father’s church choir to team up with Don Covay and Billy Stewart in the R&B vocal group the Rainbows. In 1957, he joined the Marquees, who recorded for Chess Records under the guidance of Bo Diddley. The following year the group was taken under the wing of producer and singer Harvey Fuqua, who used them to re-form his doo-wop outfit the Moonglows. When Fuqua moved to Detroit in 1960, Gay went with him: Fuqua soon joined forces with Berry Gordy at Motown Records, and Gay became a session drummer and vocalist for the label.

In 1961, the singer married Gordy’s sister, Anna, and was offered a solo recording contract. His first release for Tamla Motown was ‘(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over’, released under his birth name Marvin Gay. Renamed Marvin Gaye he initially began as a jazz balladeer, but in 1962 he was persuaded to record R&B, and notched up his first hit single with the confident ‘Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’, a Top 10 R&B hit. This record set the style for the next three years, as Gaye enjoyed hits with a series of joyous, dance-flavoured songs that cast him as a smooth, macho, Don Juan figure. He also continued to work behind the scenes at Motown, co-writing Martha And The Vandellas’ hit ‘Dancing In The Street’, and playing drums on several early recordings by Little Stevie Wonder. In 1965, Gaye dropped the call-and-response vocal arrangements of his earlier hits and began to record in a more sophisticated style. The striking ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’ epitomized his new direction, and it was followed by two successive R&B number 1 hits, ‘I’ll Be Doggone’ and ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’. His status as Motown’s bestselling male vocalist left him free to pursue more esoteric avenues on his albums, which in 1965 included a tribute to the late Nat ‘King’ Cole and a misguided collection of Broadway standards.

To capitalize on his image as a ladies’ man, Motown teamed Gaye with their leading female vocalist, Mary Wells, for some romantic duets. When Wells left Motown in 1964, Gaye recorded with Kim Weston until 1967, when she was succeeded by Tammi Terrell. The Gaye/Terrell partnership represented the apogee of the soul duet, as their voices blended sensually on a string of hits written specifically for the duo by Ashford And Simpson. Terrell developed a brain tumour in 1968, and collapsed onstage in Gaye’s arms. Records continued to be issued under the duo’s name, although Simpson allegedly took Terrell’s place on some recordings. Through the mid-60s, Gaye allowed his duet recordings to take precedence over his solo work, but in 1968 he issued the epochal ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ (written by Whitfield/Strong), a song originally released on Motown by Gladys Knight And The Pips, although Gaye’s version had actually been recorded first. With its tense, ominous rhythm arrangement, and Gaye’s typically fluent and emotional vocal, the record represented a landmark in Motown’s history - not least because it became the label’s biggest-selling record to date. Gaye followed up with another number 1 R&B hit, ‘Too Busy Thinking ’Bout My Baby’, but his career was derailed by the insidious illness and eventual death of Terrell in March 1970.

Devastated by the loss of his close friend and partner, Gaye spent most of 1970 in seclusion. The following year, he emerged with a set of recordings that Motown at first refused to release, but which eventually formed his most successful solo album. On ‘What’s Going On’, a number 1 hit in 1971, and its two chart-topping follow-ups, ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ and ‘Inner City Blues’, Gaye combined his spiritual beliefs with his increasing concern about poverty, discrimination and political corruption in American society. To match the shift in subject matter, Gaye evolved a new musical style that influenced a generation of black performers. Built on a heavily percussive base, Gaye’s arrangements mingled jazz and classical influences into his soul roots, creating a fluid instrumental backdrop for his sensual, almost despairing vocals. The three singles were all contained on What’s Going On, a conceptual masterpiece on which every track contributed to the spiritual yearning suggested by its title. After making a sly comment on the 1972 US presidential election campaign with the single ‘You’re The Man’, Gaye composed the soundtrack to the ‘blaxploitation’ thriller Trouble Man. His primarily instrumental score highlighted his interest in jazz, while the title song provided him with another hit single.

Gaye’s next project saw him shifting his attention from the spiritual to the sexual with Let’s Get It On, which included a quote from T.S. Eliot on the sleeve and devoted itself to the art of talking a woman into bed. Its explicit sexuality marked a sea-change in Gaye’s career; as he began to use cocaine more and more regularly, he became obsessed with his personal life, and rarely let the outside world figure in his work. Paradoxically, he continued to let Motown market him in a traditional fashion by agreeing to collaborate with Diana Ross on a sensuous album of duets in 1973 - although the two singers allegedly did not actually meet during the recording of the project. The break-up of his marriage to Anna Gordy in 1975 delayed work on his next album. I Want You was merely a pleasant reworking of the Let’s Get It On set, albeit cast in slightly more contemporary mode. The title track was another number 1 hit on the soul charts, however, as was his 1977 disco extravaganza, ‘Got To Give It Up’.

Drug problems and tax demands interrupted Gaye’s career, and in 1978 he fled the US mainland to Hawaii in a vain attempt to salvage his second marriage. He devoted the next year to the Here, My Dear double album, which provided a bitter commentary on his relationship with his first wife. Its title was ironic: he had been ordered to give all royalties from the project to Anna as part of their divorce settlement. With this catharsis behind him, Gaye began work on an album to be called Lover Man, but he cancelled its release after the lukewarm sales of its initial single, the sharply self-mocking ‘Ego Tripping Out’, which he had presented as a duet between the warring sides of his nature. In 1980, under increasing pressure from the Internal Revenue Service, Gaye moved to London, England where he began work on an ambitious concept album, In My Lifetime. When it emerged in 1981, Gaye accused Motown of remixing and editing the album without his consent, of removing a vital question mark from the title, and of parodying his original cover artwork. The relationship between artist and record company had been shattered, and Gaye left Motown for Columbia Records.

Persistent reports of Gaye’s erratic personal conduct and reliance on cocaine fuelled pessimism about his future career, but he relocated to the incongruous surroundings of Ostend, Belgium and re-emerged in 1982 with a startling single, ‘Sexual Healing’, which combined his passionate soul vocals with a contemporary electro-disco backing. The subsequent album, Midnight Love, offered no equal surprises, but the success of the single seemed to herald a new era in Gaye’s music. He returned to the USA, where he took up residence at his parents’ home. The intensity of his cocaine addiction made it impossible for him to work on another album, and he fell into a prolonged bout of depression. He repeatedly announced his wish to commit suicide in the early weeks of 1984, and his abrupt shifts of mood brought him into heated conflict with his father, rekindling animosity that had festered since Gaye’s adolescence. On 1 April 1984, another violent disagreement provoked Marvin Gay Snr. to shoot his son dead, a tawdry end to the life of one of soul music’s premier performers.

Motown and Columbia collaborated to produce two albums based on Gaye’s unfinished recordings. Dream Of A Lifetime mixed spiritual ballads from the early 70s with sexually explicit funk songs from a decade later, while Romantically Yours offered a travesty of Gaye’s original intentions in 1979 to record an album of big band ballads. Although Gaye’s weighty canon is often reduced to a quartet of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, ‘Sexual Healing’, What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, his entire recorded output signifies the development of black music from raw rhythm and blues, through sophisticated soul to the political awareness of the early 70s, and the increased concentration on personal and sexual politics thereafter. Gaye’s remarkable vocal range and fluency remains a touchstone for all subsequent soul vocalists, and his lover man stance has been frequently copied as well as parodied.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.