He was so handsome, so incredibly talented. He had so much potential left, and a career that could have continued on for so much longer — if only. Who did it bigger or better than Marvin Gaye? I have a hard time thinking of any contemporary artist that’s even in his league.
Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. grew up in a very religious home. From all accounts, his father preached in a strict sect of the Seventh-day Adventist Church called the House of God, which blended Orthodox Judaism with Pentecostalism. Young Marvin sang in his father’s church, and played instruments in the choir.
After a brief stint in the Air Force (he was discharged for not following orders), he started a career at the fledgling Motown Records, changing his name to separate his identity from his father’s, and also in homage to Sam Cooke, who had also added an “e” on to his last name.
When Marvin Gaye first emerged, he sang in doo wop groups that had minor hits. He played drums on early Motown hits like Please Mr. Postman and Fingertips part 2, Stevie Wonder’s first hit. He co-wrote Dancing in the Street. He practically pleaded with record company execs to become a singer in his own right. Appropriately enough, his first solo hit was Stubborn Kind of Fellow.
His early successes were lovey-dovey dance songs performed to screaming fans, like Hitch Hike. In those days, the Motown singers were like a family. So many of Marvin Gaye’s earliest tracks feature backing vocals by the likes of The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Temptations. Marvin’s good looks and smooth singing style made him a desirable duet partner, and he sang with many of Motown’s best. His collaborations with the stunningly beautiful Tammi Terrell stand among his most lasting hits. The Onion Song, Your Precious Love, and of course, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough — click there for an early music video with the two in their mid-Sixties heyday. Tammi was just amazing, beautiful and talented. In 1967, Marvin Gaye was performing on stage with her when she collapsed in his arms. She was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her health deteriorated as Motown released more of their hits, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, and You’re All I Need To Get By. She succumbed to the illness in 1970. They say Marvin Gaye never recovered from her death.
That was the beginning of a downward spiral that led to a great deal of introspection for Marvin Gaye.
His marriage to Anna Gordy was crumbling, and he felt frustrated by his musical expectations, singing silly love songs in the midst of personal turmoil and worldwide political upheaval. He recorded What’s Going On on June 1, 1970. Berry Gordy called it uncommercial, and refused to release it. Marvin Gaye refused to record any more songs until he did. And we all know how that ended.
What’s Going On became one of Marvin Gaye’s career highlights, and put him in an entirely new direction. He might not be considered the legend that he is, were it not for What’s Going On. It’s a song that is truly timeless and tragic. “Father, father; We don’t need to escalate. You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate.” As long as there is strife in the world, that song will never die. Same goes for Mercy Mercy Me, and Inner City Blues. Those songs will live forever, and they’re just as fresh today as they were thirty-odd years ago.
For the remainder of the decade, Marvin continued on as a hit making machine. Trouble Man, Let’s Get It On, his duets with Diana Ross — Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart). I Want You. Got To Give It Up In the Seventies, Marvin Gaye seemed unstoppable, and the variety of his lyrical and musical range inspired legions of artists to follow. But personal demons threatened to devour him whole. Divorce, drug addiction, depression, record label conflicts, and the taxman led Marvin to flee. By 1979 he was living in a bread van in Hawaii.
During his self-imposed exile, he moved to Europe and recorded In Our Lifetime?, an album that proved to be his last with Motown. From his new residence in Belgium, he signed with Columbia Records to release his final album, 1982’s Midnight Love, which spawned the hit “Sexual Healing.” Marvin Gaye’s last two big public performances were the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All Star Game, and What’s Going On at the Motown 25 celebration in 1983. After that, he moved back into his parents house to get his head straight.
If you’ve seen the E True Hollywood Story, you already know. Marvin Gaye’s last year was filled with threats of suicide, premonitions of his death, and finally – one day before his forty-fifth birthday, he was murdered by his father, the Minister. They say it was an argument over misplaced business documents. His father was then discovered to have a brain tumor, and because of that, his charges were reduced from first-degree murder to five years probation. He lived out the rest of his years in a home, and died of pneumonia in 1998.
Marvin Gaye’s life was certainly cinematic, but there have been hurdles en route to making a Marvin Gaye biopic — many of which have to do with music licensing. Law & Order’s Jesse L. Martin will play a late-period Marvin in Lauren Goodman’s biopic, Sexual Healing, which reveals the last three tortured years of his life and uses the music from Marvin’s Columbia Records period.
This was a tough Lost One to write, because the circumstances of Marvin Gaye’s death make me almost angry. It makes me feel robbed. That such a great talent was snuffed out… over what? When I contemplate the overall picture of his life, such a feeling of loss washes over me. If only he’d kicked his habit and found true love, after singing so many songs about it. If only he didn’t go back to his parents’ house. If only the weight of his foreshadowing didn’t turn out to be so crushingly true. If only.
This video clip is an excerpt from Real Thing: In Performance 1964-1981.
Who are the successors to Marvin Gaye’s throne? Many lay claims, but few fit the bill. One artist who seems to be following his trajectory — both in the good and bad ways — is D’Angelo. He’s an incredibly talented gentleman who seems to be struggling to find his way, and I’m waiting with baited breath for his next album. (Really Love is really hot. What a great, soothing, summertime barbecue jam).
It’s been more than twenty years, and we still miss you, Marvin.