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Marvin Gaye - Biography

Born 2nd April 1939

Died 1st April 1984

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The seeds of Marvin Gaye's life-time of discontent were sown in childhood.

Born April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C., Marvin Pentz Gay, (Marvin added the "e" later) was the oldest son of a preacher of the Apostolic Church. The church was joyful, the holy roller music intoxicating. But also severe, with its no-drinking, no-dancing, no-nonsense regulations.

The church set Marvin, his brother and two sisters apart from their peers. Marvin's mother worked as a domestic and carried the burden of the family's finances.

The Reverend Gay worked as a part-time postal clerk and often not at all. A scholarly but violent man, he beat his children for minor infractions and frivolous misbehavior. Marvin rebelled and eventually paid the price in corporal punishment.

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.

He quit high school before graduation and joined the Air Force, only to be discharged. After working with seminal rocker Bo Diddley, he joined the Moonglows, a five-part harmony group. It was the end of the fifties and Marvin's impressions of the dawning Golden Age of Doo-Wop would prove powerful and permanent.

Harvey Fuqua had founded and led the Moonglows. A writer and musician, he became Marvin's guru father-figure. When the group broke up, it was Fuqua who led Gaye to Detroit and Berry Gordy's Motown Records.

Gaye got involved, even marrying Berry's sister Anna, a woman 17 years older than himself. Marvin recorded an initial series of records which ran contrary to Gordy's notion of selling black dance music to white teenagers.


Marvin dreamed of becoming a crooner wanting to sit on a stool, smoke a cigarette, nurse a martini and interpret the ballads of Gershwin and Porter. Gordy indulged Marvin's fantasy, even producing a number of his early efforts. But Marvin and Motown failed to crack the adult market.

Gaye's destiny was Top Ten. His colleagues - Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, the Miracles - were scoring so resoundingly. Gaye jumped into the game with "Stubborn Kind of Fellow", a self-penned piece of autobiography that established his ability to rock in the rhythms of Young America.

The song hit in 1962, as did a long series of others - "Pride and Joy", "Can I Get A Witness?", "I'll Be Doggone", "Ain't that Peculiar". As a writer, Marvin contributed to "Dancing In The Street", the revolutionary anthem by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.

Not only did Gaye score as a solo artist, but proved himself a polished duet partner. "What's the Matter With You, Baby" with Mary Wells, "It Takes Two" with Kim Weston enjoyed widespread popularity.

But it was his pairing with Tammi Terrel that created a series of classics - "You're All I Need to Get By", "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing", "You Ain't Livin' Till You're Lovin'" and "Good Lovin' Ain't Easy to Come By" - remarkable for their sweeping lyricism.

The Gaye / Terrell partnership represented the peak of the soul duet, as their voices blended sensuously on a string of hits written specifically for the duo by Ashford And Simpson.

Terrell developed a brain tumour in 1968, and collapsed on-stage in Gaye's arms. Records continued to be issued under the duo's name, although Simpson allegedly took Terrell's place on some recordings.


Norman Whitfield became Marvin's main motivator in the mid-to-late sixties. Their relationship was difficult. Two head-strong men who nearly came to blows, they created sounds combining passionate yearning and restless anger.

Whitfield's songs appealed to Gaye in their reflection of the turmoil of Marvin's marriage to Anna. Their most formidable collaboration, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", expressed an anguish not before heard in Marvin's voice.

As the 1970's decade started, and on the strength of new sales records, Marvin articulated his declaration of independence in 1971. Now he would produce himself, singing his own songs, setting his own agenda.

The result was a landmark in world pop. "What's Going On", a stunningly complex construct - and one of the first concept albums - in which Gaye's views of Vietnam, ecology, racism and religion are fashioned into haunting musical modes.


Gaye evolved a new musical style that influenced a generation of black performers.

Built on a heavily percussive base, Gaye's arrangements mingled varying influences into his soul roots, creating an instrumental backdrop for his sensual, almost pleading vocals.

Marvin loved to shock. Who else would move from a masterwork of high social consciousness to a celebration of wild eroticism? The shift from "What's Going On" to "Let's Get It On" in 1973 delighted Gaye's fans and served to strengthen his image as both unpredictable and mysterious.

While making "Let's Get It On" 33 year-old Marvin met Janis Hunter who, at 16, would become the second great love of his life.

The break-up of his marriage to Anna Gordy in 1975 delayed work on his next album.

Gaye continued exploring notions of sexuality in 1976 with "I Want You". A year later, he hit again with "Got to Give It Up", the seductive homegrown dance groove which became a successful oddity in the age of disco. Ironically, the song speaks of Marvin's shyness and obsessional fear of dancing.

"I Want You" brought critical acclaim in 1976. The album was written by Leon Ware, who had, originally, intended recording the material himself, but was persuaded by Marvin to allow him to record the set. The title track was another number 1 hit on the soul charts, as was his 1977 disco outing, 'Got To Give It Up'.

Drug problems and tax demands interrupted his career, and in 1978 he fled the US mainland to Hawaii in a vain attempt to salvage his second marriage. "Here, My Dear", in 1978, documented the decay of his marriage to Anna. Its theme, "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You", was especially poignant. By the time the album was out, Marvin's second marriage was also in shambles.


In 1980, under increasing pressure from the Internal Revenue Service, Gaye moved to Europe where he began work on an ambitious concept album.
Inside Marvin's heart and head, wars raged on. He talked about giving up music and becoming a monk. He talked about being a bigger sex symbol than Elvis. He poured his agonized conflicts into his final album for Motown "In Our Lifetime" and nearly hit rock-bottom in London.

When the album emerged in 1980, Gaye accused Motown of remixing and editing the album without his consent, of removing a vital question-mark from the title, and of changing his original cover artwork.

The relationship between artist and record company had been shattered, and Gaye left Motown for Columbia. With the new contract and "Sexual Healing" topping the charts, Marvin ended three years of exile in 1982.

His comeback was triumphant, but quickly turned tragic. His dependency on drugs worsened, his emotional stability collapsed, his humor and easy charm gave way to paranoia and fear.

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 been there since Gaye's childhood.

On April 1, 1984, in his parents Los Angeles home, Marvin physically attacked his father for verbally abusing his mother. Gay Sr. responded by shooting his son using a gun that Marvin himself had given him four months earlier, thus putting to rest a bitter, life-long struggle.

Motown and Columbia collaborated to produce two albums based on Gaye's unfinished recordings. 'Dream Of A Lifetime' mixed spiritual ballads from the early 70's with sexually explicit funk songs from a decade later, while 'Romantically Yours' offered a different reading of Gaye's original intentions in 1979 to record an album of big band ballads.

Since then, the power and reach of Marvin's music has increased. In 1997, the album of 'big ballads' was issued under the title of 'Vulnerable'.

His legacy as artistic rebel and sensual romanticist is secure.
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. Marvin Gaye is very much alive.

Thanks to David Ritz - Author of "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye"
If you'd like a copy of this book - click here

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