Marvin Gaye: 'the Prince of Soul'. Listening to his voice is almost like having liquid gold filtered through your ears. Couples have fallen in love dancing to his love songs; his sexy, soulful music is a sure-fire aphrodisiac.
Gaye was what can only be described as a tortured genius. He adored his mother but his relationship with his father was volatile, sometimes culminating in physical violence. Like many of his fellow artists, he more than dabbled in the drug scene, progressing from marijuana to cocaine. Gaye was notoriously difficult to work with, yet could be so laid back he was practically horizontal. His violent death at the age of 44 still has the power to shock new readers.
The Early Years
Born in Washington DC to the Rev Marvin and Alberta Gay on 2 April, 1939, Marvin Pentz Gay Jnr endured a horrendous childhood at the hands of his brutal father, who would use any excuse to beat him. Marvin was the oldest of four, who were all bed-wetters, living in fear of their father's moods. He was a tyrannical control freak who insisted on absolute obedience.
When the children grew into young adults the boys were banned from athletics and the girls were not allowed to wear sleeveless dresses, nylons, make-up or nail polish, nor were any of them allowed to go to dances or see movies. Marvin Snr banned all music except gospel. Marvin Jnr recounted that had it not been for the love of his mother, who encouraged his singing, he would have ended up a child suicide statistic.
While attending Cardozo High School, Marvin Jnr met other musically talented students, and they formed a band, the DC Tones. Because no-one knew of his singing ability, Marvin played piano and drums. He never learned to read music, but he could play any tune by ear. Having to keep his life outside home a secret to avoid angering his father caused him so much stress that he left school at 18 and joined the Air Force, which he found just as hard to endure. Faking mental illness, he was given an honourable discharge, with the comment: 'Marvin Gay cannot adjust to regimentation and authority'.
Finding his old bandmates, they reformed and called themselves The Marquees, with Gaye (he added the 'e' as a tribute to his idol Sam Cooke) as lead singer. They were heard by Bo Diddley, and he was so impressed that he offered to produce their first record, a double-sided re-recording of 'Hey Little School Girl' and 'Wyatt Earp'. The Marquees were then hired by Diddley's friend Harvey Fuqua, on the strength of Gaye's powerful vocals. Gaye moved from Washington to Chicago where he sang backup vocals for Chuck Berry and Etta James, but his dream was always to be out front milking the applause for himself.
Gaye kept in touch with Fuqua, who knew of an ambitious family in Detroit called the Gordys, who were starting out on their own musical path. Introductions were made in 1960, and straight away Gaye made all the right moves on Berry Gordy's sister Anna, who was 17 years his senior. Gaye is quoted as saying he first used marijuana in 1960, while on the Motown Revue tour. He had an affair with a 'shake dancer' with the glorious stage name 'Titty Tassel Toni', and she introduced him to the drug. Gaye and Anna Gordy were married in January 1961.
The Motown Star
Gaye refused to take the stage tuition offered to all Motown artists, something he later regretted. However, he did allow Maxine 'Miss' Powell to teach him to sing with his eyes open, so he didn't look like he was singing in his sleep.
He was interested in the kind of music that Nat King Cole and Perry Como had made their own. Unfortunately, the fans didn't go for slow ballads, they wanted R&B. When Gaye relented and recorded 'Stubborn Kind Of Fellow', it scored a top 10 hit. This success was quickly followed by 'Hitch Hike', 'Pride and Joy', and 'Can I Get a Witness?' of the same type. Still not giving in, he recorded his mother's favourite songs 'Ramblin' Rose' and 'Mona Lisa' on a tribute album, but it failed to generate sufficient sales. For the next six years he concentrated on giving the public what they wanted, and churned out hits 'How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)', 'I'll Be Doggone' and 'Ain't That Peculiar'.
With his wife Anna Gordy, who composed the music, Gaye wrote 'Baby I'm For Real', a song with a haunting soulful melody, about a man expressing devoted love for his woman1. His biggest hit was in October 1968, a cover of 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine', followed by 'Too Busy Thinking About My Baby' and 'That's the Way Love Is'.
Berry Gordy teamed Marvin up with various girl singers, resulting in some massive hit records.
Duets and Singing Partners
Mary Wells: Gaye and Mary Wells released the album Together in 1964. Their single 'Once Upon A Time' just scraped into the UK top 50 bestsellers in July 1964.
Kim Weston: Gaye and Kim Weston released the album Take Two in 1966. Their single 'It Takes Two' reached number 16 in the UK top 20 in January 1967, and remains a popular play song on radio. It sounds just as fresh as it did four decades ago, encompassing the Motown sound and DJs everywhere know it's a sure fire track to entice reluctant oldies onto the dance floor.
Tammi Terrell: Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1945 - 70) collaborated on three albums: United (1967), You're All I Need (1968) and Easy (1969). Their version of 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' by the Ashford/Simpson songwriting duo, which featured on United, just made the US top 20 singles chart. The track was covered by Diana Ross a few years later and was a bigger commercial success, earning her a Grammy nomination; but the Gaye/Terrell original recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Gaye and Terrell had six UK hit singles: 'If I Could Build My Whole World Around You', 'Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing', 'You're All I Need To Get By', 'You Ain't Living Till You're Loving', 'Good Lovin' Ain't Easy To Come By' and 'The Onion Song'. After Terrell collapsed in his arms during a concert, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Her health deteriorated rapidly and she died just before her 25th birthday. Gaye, who often spoke of his love for her, took two years 'time out' to recover from his devastation at her death.
Having to do everything the Gordy way, churning out endless love songs, didn't sit well with Gaye, and he was champing at the bit to do his own thing. He was well-known enough to go it alone, but he lacked the nerve. He felt his musical talent wasn't being utilised and he didn't want to stagnate. His conversations with his brother about the war in Vietnam, and the continued mourning for Terrell, prompted some serious soul searching and he expressed himself in his songwriting.
For his Motown album What's Going On, Gaye had to negotiate with the Motown producers for total creative control of his music, and it was ground-breaking because he had written and produced it himself. 'Mercy Mercy Me', 'Inner City Blues' and 'What's Going On'2 were all hit singles from the album. Following the commercial success of What's Going On, Gaye was given a renewed recording deal with Motown worth $1 million, making him the highest earning black singer in history.
Other Motown artists, like Stevie Wonder, followed Gaye's lead. As they noted his success, it gave them the confidence to negotiate their own contracts when they came up for renewal.
With Diana Ross there were several US hit singles taken from their album Diana & Marvin, and two British hits: the smash 'You Are Everything' which reached number five, and 'Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)'. Released in late 1973, the album had had to overcome plenty of obstacles along the way, and the cover picture of the two stars facing opposite directions was quite telling. The collaboration project had been planned since 1971, but when both singers were eventually available, Diana was pregnant. She flatly refused to record in the same studio as Gaye because he was smoking marijuana.
Despite the pleas of Berry Gordy (Motown's founder and Diana's lover), Gaye refused to quit smoking while Diana was around. In the end, both singers were given separate studios to record their sections, and much post-production was required to bring about the desired result. This one collaboration of Motown's greatest male and female artistes was eagerly anticipated by the public, who lapped up the publicity about 'artistic differences' and the album was an international success.
Diana subsequently gave birth to a beautiful bouncing baby girl with a very dark complexion. As Diana was married to a white man, this event added fuel to the rumour that she and Gaye were romantically involved. The gossip assuming the little girl was the result of a tempestuous relationship between Motown's king and queen did nothing to harm sales of the steaming-hot love songs album. The speculation added to Gaye's 'sex god' reputation, and women couldn't get enough of him.
Gaye and Diana Ross also duetted with Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson on the single 'Pops, We Love You', which was a tribute to Berry Gordy.
Gaye wrote, produced and performed the soundtrack for the 1972 20th Century Fox film Trouble Man. The film was a turkey, but the album and single were successful for Gaye.
Let's Get It On
Gaye built up a reputation as a love god, but his own private life was a mess. His marriage to Anna was volatile, with physical violence on both sides. It was an atmosphere he had grown up in, watching his father beat up his mother, so this was considered acceptable behaviour. Anna failed to conceive, something which irked Gaye to the extent that in 1965 he got her to fake a pregnancy. At the due date the couple produced an adopted son, Marvin III, for the media, and trumpeted him as their own.
Gaye had many affairs during his marriage to Anna, and he also liked to watch pornography, leading to a particular liking of voyeurism (watching other couples having sex). Being the superstar he was, there were many opportunities and countless willing bodies to indulge his fantasies.
Gaye met Janice Hunter when the 16 year old backing singer turned up to add vocals to 'Let's Get It On'. He was 33, and they spent the following year hiding out in a cabin in Topanga Canyon, California. Janice had no problems becoming pregnant, and Nona Marvisa Gaye arrived in September 1974, with son Frankie Christian arriving 14 months later. Gaye was overjoyed at becoming a 'natural' father; he and Anna divorced in 1977 and he married Janice as soon as he was legally free to wed.
Gaye was a generous man with his time and money, he employed homeless people and had a habit of leaving waitresses $50 tips. He bought his parents a neo-Tudor mansion in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, and his father a brand-new Cadillac.
The divorce judge ordered Gaye to pay Anna $5,500 per month for her and their adopted son's upkeep until the final settlement, which she expected to be around $1million. He couldn't even come up with the first payment of $5,500, despite owning a five acre estate, a beach property in Jamaica, 14 cars, a yacht, a speedboat and a part share in the New Orleans Jazz NBA franchise. The US Government were also chasing Gaye for back taxes on his royalties. He was sued by four musicians for non-payment of wages and an ex-manager put in a claim for $2million that he claimed he was owed.
Gaye had specially built a recording studio on Sunset Boulevard, where he could relax and indulge himself. The gigantic hot tub and over-sized water bed were legendary, and he was never alone. When his 1978 album Here, My Dear was deemed a flop, he was heading for bankruptcy. The title was a bitchy reference to Anna's financial demands which the expected sales were hopefully going to satisfy. With the still-unpaid taxes, the Government descended and locked him out of his own studio.
Hopelessly addicted to cocaine, and unable to indulge due to his lack of funds, Gaye flew to Hawaii and became a beach bum for nine months. He did the rounds of all his old friends, including Motown pals Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, begging for cash for his next fix. He even asked his mother to sell the jewellery he'd given her, to enable him to buy more drugs. At one time he was snorting an ounce an hour.
The problems were too big for me. I just wanted to be left alone to blow my brains away with high-octane toot. It would be a slow but relatively pleasant death, certainly less messy than a gun.
- Marvin Gaye, speaking in 1980.
Gaye agreed to do a European tour to try and ease his financial burden. Now estranged from Janice, his next girlfriend was Eugenie Vis, whom he met after a concert in Amsterdam. He was a cold lover towards her, and introduced her to group sex. He made her perform sexually with other people then despised her for acquiescing. Janice divorced Gaye in February 1981.
While he was away, Motown producers used the opportunity to release an album In Our Lifetime in his name, without his permission. He had been working on it for years, and in his opinion it was unfinished. When he heard that it had been released, he was apoplectic with rage. The working relationship of over two decades broke down irreparably with Gaye refusing to record anything for Motown again. Motown sold his contract to CBS Records in 1982.
While Gaye was hiding out from the IRS in Europe, he had a heart-to-heart talk with an old friend who had been disturbed by the pornographic material scattered around Gaye's living quarters. His friend helpfully suggested he needed some 'sexual healing', perhaps some counselling, to enable him to right his path and save him from himself. The words, unheard by the master of self-indulgence, did strike a chord with Gaye the songwriter, and he produced his most famous lyrics from it. CBS released 'Sexual Healing' as a single immediately, capitalising on his exposure in Europe, and featuring it on a hastily-recorded album Midnight Love. It was the biggest-selling soul track in years, winning Gaye two Grammy Awards: Best R&B Male Vocal Performance and Best R&B Instrumental.
The commercial success of the single 'Sexual Healing' led to Gaye's recording company CBS promoting a tour, which was supposed to last from April until August 1983. Gaye only had two sources of income: touring and record royalties. Those who knew Gaye didn't expect the tour to be a success, because by then his behaviour was increasingly bizarre. He hated touring, due to the physical demands and his inability to cope with down-times from his drug-fuelled rampages.
Pot is a quick giggle, but coke was a different deal. Blow is what really let me fly. There were moments when I really thought I was gone. I'm talking about times - really down times - when I snorted up so much toot I was convinced I'd be dead within minutes. I rather liked the idea of there being nothing left of me but my music.
- Marvin Gaye in an interview with his biographer.
Drugs had addled his brain, he was paranoid that a hit-man was going to shoot him and he wore a bullet-proof vest at all times except when he was performing onstage. He hired bodyguards and had them guard his living quarters whether he was there or not, to ensure no-one could poison his food. At one point he hired the 'celebrity' lawyer F Lee Bailey3 to try to discover who was attempting to poison him.
Gaye recorded the song 'Abraham, Martin and John' as an album track. He poured his heart into the poignant song which reflected on the lives of the assassinated American presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy, and civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jnr. The recording was issued as a single only in Great Britain, where it scored a top ten hit in May 19704 - it was deemed unsuitable for the American market due to its political overtures. It is somewhat ironic that this unique, haunting tribute record about three men who had been shot dead was performed by an artist who would, on the eve of his 45th birthday, meet the same fate at the hands of his own father.
For Christmas 1983, Gaye had given his father the gift of an unregistered handgun. On the night of 31 March, 1984, Gaye was at his parents' home when a violent argument broke out, during which Gaye defended his mother. The following morning his father started yelling at his wife again and their son once again intervened. After a physical fight, Marvin Gay Snr went for his gun and shot his son through the heart, killing him instantly. He then stepped forward and fired again. Marvin's brother, Frankie, and his wife Irene were also in the home and they called the authorities. Marvin Gay Snr surrendered immediately, and he got a six-year suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter at his trial. He died of pneumonia on 18 October, 1998, aged 84 years. The son he killed had lived just 44 years.
Marvin Gaye will be remembered in history as a true genius for expressing his inner feelings in song. When he sings it's like painting a canvas.
- Motown songwriter Leon Ware.
An estimated 10,000 people attended Gaye's funeral, which was conducted by the Chief Apostle of the House of God, his family's church. Smokey Robinson gave a reading, and Stevie Wonder sang. Gaye was laid to rest in his gold-and-white uniform-style suit, with an ermine wrap around his shoulders. Gaye was posthumously elected to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
In an interview with Blues and Soul magazine, Gaye was asked how he wished to be remembered. He replied:
As one of, if not the, greatest artist to walk the face of the earth.