(b. 2 April 1939 in Washington, D.C.; d. 1 April 1984 in Washington, D.C.) singer and songwriter and one of the most successful and popular soul artists during the early years of the Motown era.
Marvin Gaye (originally Gay) was the second of four children of Alberta and Marvin Gay, Sr., a minister. He grew up in a modest home in a poor, segregated section of the nation's capital. Raised by devout Seventh–Day Adventists, he was the product of a strict and often abusive upbringing. In contrast to Gay's mother, a strong, pious woman who left home each morning at 5 a.m. to work as a maid, his father was an uninspired, effeminate man who drank excessively and even beat his children. His fits of rage were tempered, ironically, by a millenarian religious devotion that prized restraint. Indeed, for much of their childhood, the Gay children were expected to immerse themselves in worship from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, making them the object of ridicule from schoolmates who considered their religion (and their father) peculiar. Nonetheless, at the age of three, Marvin began singing gospel hymns at the House of God, his father's church. As members of the congregation began to notice Marvin's considerable vocal and instrumental talents (he also played the organ), his father demanded that he pursue a religious vocation. Of his relationship with his father, Gaye would later say: "Living with my father was like living with a king, a very peculiar, changeable, cruel, and all–powerful king." That Marvin would, as a teenager, turn to more secular pleasures like sex, Viceroy cigarettes, and doo–wop music defied his father's uncompromising expectations.
Marvin attended Cardozo High School, where he studied drums, piano, and guitar. A shy, handsome adolescent, he immersed himself in musical pursuits, often skipping classes to watch singers like James Brown and Jackie Wilson perform at the Howard Theatre. An inconsistent student, he dropped out of school in 1957 and joined the U.S. Air Force, where he hoped to learn how to fly. Once he realized that his unruly temperament was not fit for the military, Marvin wanted out. His honorable discharge (1957) read: "Marvin Gay cannot adjust to regimentation and authority." He did achieve one milestone while serving in the Air Force — he lost his virginity to a prostitute. This experience unleashed an internal struggle between physical desire and moral reserve that bedeviled him throughout his adult life.
When he returned to Washington in 1957, Gay joined with friends Reese Palmer, James Nolan and Chester Simmons to form the Marquees, a doo–wop group that performed mostly in front of high school audiences. During their first year together, rhythm–and–blues pioneer Bo Diddley agreed to produce their first record, "Hey Little Schoolgirl," on the Columbia subsidiary label Okeh. Despite high expectations, their debut failed to reach the charts — a disappointment for Gay especially, who had long dreamed of becoming a "black Sinatra." After a number of humiliating months as a dishwasher at People's Drugstore, a local all–white establishment in Washington, D.C., Gay met Harvey Fuqua, a record promoter who had been impressed with his magnetic performance at a recent high school talent contest. Fuqua, who was then in the process of re–forming a group named the Moonglows, invited Gay and his friends to Chicago to sign with his label, Chess Records.
In 1959 the Marquees changed their name to Harvey and the Moonglows and recorded their first hit, "Ten Commandments of Love." It was as lead singer for Harvey and the Moonglows that Gay got his first exposure to the life of a road performer. Despite his initial excitement at this, experience soon taught him that opportunities for black performers came with profound limitations in Jim Crow America. "We ran into all kinds of racist shit," Marvin recalled. "I thought about Joseph and Mary being turned away, but that wasn't comfort enough. Jesus turned over tables in the temple, and I was ready to break down doors." This early period of Gay's professional life involved a search for identity, informed by the burdens of his own tortured past as well as the stark realities of a racially segregated society. Gay then decided to change his last name by adding an "e" to the end — at once a sign of independence from his father and a defiant response to those who had questioned his sexual identity.
In 1960 Gaye and Fuqua moved to Detroit, where they teamed up with Berry Gordy, Jr., the determined entrepreneur who had founded the Motown Record Corporation one year before. After about a year as a backup singer, studio musician and drummer for Smokey Robinson's band and other Motown acts, Gaye signed a contract with the company as a solo artist. Shortly thereafter, he married Gordy's thirty–seven–year–old sister, Anna, a move that elicited severe criticism from those who saw the Gaye–Gordy marriage as blatant opportunism. Nonetheless, with Anna's encouragement, Gaye entered the studio and recorded his first album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye (1961), a modest collection of subdued, jazz–influenced ballads. After recording several more albums that failed to impress critics, Gaye was urged to modify his sound to conform to the increasingly popular genre of rhythm and blues (R&B) music. Somewhat begrudgingly, Gaye did so, recording his self–referential "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," which quickly reached the top–ten list. It was not until 1964, however, that Gaye got a taste of the kind of stardom he wanted, with hit singles like "Hitch Hike," "Can I Get a Witness," and especially "Pride and Joy," which climbed to the top ten on both the pop and rhythm–and–blues charts.
By this time Motown was growing into one of the most successful black–owned businesses in America. As the civil rights movement heated up during the summer of 1964, so did Marvin Gaye's career. Following his first batch of hits — including "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)" which soared to number six on the charts — Gaye began to do collaborative albums with some of Motown's hottest new female vocalists, including Mary Wells (Together, 1964) and Kim Weston (It Takes Two, 1967). His most successful collaboration, however, was with Tammi Terrell, a promising young R&B singer with whom Gaye recorded three albums in conjunction with the famous writing and production team of Ashford and Simpson. Their first hit single together, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (1967), was the first of nine songs to make the charts, including "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "Your Precious Love" (both in 1968). By the time Terrell died of a brain tumor in March 1970 at age twenty–four, Gaye's marriage to Anna — despite the adoption of a son, Marvin Pentz Gaye III, in 1965 — was disintegrating. He was bordering on depression (it was during this period that he first threatened suicide) and was involved with cocaine. "My heart was broken," he claimed. "My own marriage to Anna had proven a lie. In my heart I could no longer pretend to sing love songs for people. I couldn't perform. When Tammi became ill, I refused to sing in public."
Despite his personal torment, he continued to record hits. In 1968 Gaye finally hit number one with "I Heard It through the Grapevine," which he followed with a deeply personal album, M.P.G. (1969), that exposed his marriage crisis and deepening depression. Continuing to abuse drugs, Gaye also grew more disillusioned with the state of the nation. Indeed, following the deaths of four protesters at Kent State University and his brother's return from Vietnam in 1971, Gaye was explosive. He recorded (and coproduced) his best–selling album What's Going On, a musically diverse and politically charged manifesto on the contemporary problems of racism, poverty and war. Hailed as Motown's first "concept album," it contained soul–wrenching top–ten hits like "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," "Mercy Mercy Me," and the famous title track, the lyrics of which spoke for a nation in chaos: "War is not the answer / Only love can conquer hate / We've got to find some way / to bring some lovin' here today." Because of the album's success, Gaye received Billboard's Trendsetter of the Year award, Cashbox's Male Vocalist of the Year award and an NAACP Image Award in 1971. He followed this success two years later with Let's Get It On, an album whose sultry title song debuted at number one.
At the peak of his career, however, Gaye's personal life continued to crumble. Addicted to drugs and unwilling to perform in concert, he initiated a tumultuous affair in 1971 with sixteen–year–old Janis Hunter. Anna finally filed for divorce in 1975, at which point Janis was pregnant for a second time with Gaye's child. While Gaye was in Hawaii and Europe to avoid charges of tax evasion, Motown released an unfinished album, In Our Lifetime, without his permission. Furious, Gaye signed with CBS Records in 1981, ending an almost twenty–year partnership with Motown. In one last grasp for glory, he released Midnight Lover (1982), a compilation of love ballads that won him two Grammy Awards in 1983, for best male vocalist and best instrumental performance. The album's best–selling single, "Sexual Healing," remained at number one for four months, becoming the fastest–selling soul single in more than five years. In 1983, during an erratic concert tour, Gaye was hospitalized for drug–related complications and developed an acute case of paranoia. He returned to Los Angeles, a broken man. On Sunday, 1 April 1984, the eve of his forty–fifth birthday, Gaye was shot to death by his father during a violent altercation about finances in his parents' home. Marvin Gay, Sr., was later acquitted of his son's murder, claiming that he acted in self–defense.
More than ten thousand people attended Gaye's open–casket funeral in Los Angeles, at which Stevie Wonder sang and Smokey Robinson read the Twenty–third Psalm. A longtime friend, Robinson later reflected on Gaye's legacy: "The tragic ending can only be softened by the memory of a beautiful human being. He could be full of joy sometimes, but at others, full of woe, but in the end how compassionate, how wonderful, how exciting was Marvin Gaye and his music."
—Timothy P. McCarthy
Sources with information on Gaye include Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (1985); David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye (1985); Gerald Early, One Nation Under Groove: Motown and American Culture (1995); and Pamela Des Barres, Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon (1996). An obituary is in The New York Times (2 Apr. 1984).
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Vol. 1: 1981–1985. Gale.