Music Monday: Marvin Gaye

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
photo of marvin gaye

Marvin Gaye was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, DC. As a singer, songwriter, and producer, Gaye played a significant role in the early development of Motown. For twenty years, he was an important R&B singer, with one of the finest voices in pop music, and he has been a major influence on the generations of singers who have followed him.

Gaye had a difficult childhood, and often argued with his abusive father. He often said that his mother's support and encouragement of his musical talent were what got him through those years. His arguments with his father grew more frequent in his teen years, and he dropped out of school at 17 to join the Air Force. Gaye found military life difficult, and faked illness in order to receive a general discharge.

After returning to Washington, Gaye and his friends formed a vocal group called The Marquees. The group had powerful mentors – Bo Diddley and, later, Harvey Fuqua – and recorded a few singles, including "Wyatt Earp" and the holiday song "Santa Done Got Hip." They didn't have much success, though, and The Marquees broke up in 1960.

Gaye moved to Detroit, where he signed a deal with the Motown subsidiary label Tamla. He imagined himself not as an R&B singer, but as a singer of jazz and standards in the style of Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, both of whom he cited as important influences. His first success came not as a singer, but as the co-writer of "Beechwood 4-5789," a hit for The Marvelettes in 1962. Gaye's own records started to land on the charts later that year, and he had his first top ten hit in 1963 with "Pride and Joy." For the next twenty years, Gaye was a regular on the pop and R&B charts. He had his first #1 pop hit in 1968 with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

two of marvin gaye's albums

Throughout the 1960s, in addition to his own solo work, Motown liked to use Gaye as a duet partner for its female stars. He recorded one album each with Mary Wells and Kim Weston. His longest partnership, though, was with Tammi Terrell; they recorded three albums together (United, You're All I Need, and Easy). Tragically, Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly after their first album was released. She was unable to tour, and able to record only under medical supervision. Several operations to remove the tumor were unsuccessful, and Terrell died on March 16, 1970.

Gaye struggled with depression after Terrell's death, but did return to the studio that summer. In June, he recorded his new song, "What's Going On." Motown's Berry Gordy refused to release the song, saying that it was too political. Gaye went on strike, refusing to record any new material until Gordy released "What's Going On." When the song finally came out in early 1971, it was a smash. Gaye demanded, and got, creative control for the What's Going On album, which he recorded over a ten-day period.

Ever since Terrell's death, Gordy had been urging Gaye to return to duet work; Gordy wanted to pair him with Diana Ross, who was trying to get her solo career off the ground after leaving The Supremes. (By coincidence, Ross's first big solo hit was her version of the Gaye/Terrell song "Ain't No Mountain High Enough.") Gaye was reluctant; he had come to think that his partners were cursed. Wells and Weston had both left Motown after their duet albums with Gaye, and neither had much of a career after leaving; and Terrell's death still weighed heavily on Gaye. He finally agreed to the project, though, and Diana & Marvin – by now, Ross's solo career was doing well enough that she got top billing – was released in 1973 to mild success.

That put a strain on the relationship between Gaye and Motown, which came to a head in 1981. Gaye had been working on a new album, which he wanted to call In Our Lifetime? Someone stole Gaye's master tapes from his London studios and delivered them to Motown, which edited and mixed them without Gaye's knowledge and released the album as In Our Lifetime (without the quesion mark, which Gaye thought significantly changed the meaning). Gaye retreated to Europe, vowing never again to record for Motown.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye with Grammy. Herald-Examiner Collection

In 1982, after lengthy negotiations, Gaye was released from his Motown contract. He signed with Columbia Records and released Midnight Love, which included the biggest-selling song of his career. "Sexual Healing" spent ten weeks at the top of the R&B chart, and Gaye won his first Grammy Awards for the song.

Gaye spent several months in 1983 touring in support of the album. It was a difficult tour. Gaye had developed an addiction to cocaine, and was frequently ill and increasingly paranoid. After the tour, he moved into his parents' home in Los Angeles.

On April 1, 1984, Gaye was attempting to intervene in an argument between his parents when his father shot and killed him. Marvin Gay, Sr. was charged with voluntary manslaughter – the charges were lowered from first-degree murder when it was discovered that Gay, Sr. had a brain tumor – and received a six-year suspended sentence.

Marvin Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2014, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016. In 2003, the Library of Congress added What's Going On to its National Recording Registry, an honor roll of recordings of unusual cultural or historic significance.

In addition to the albums linked above, more of Gaye's music is available for streaming or download at Freegal and Hoopla.