Lost Ones: Marvin Gaye

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.

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Comments

  1. Being from Detroit, I grew up listening to “Marvelous Marvin”, and then during a trip to Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting him one day on the street. Very nice man. I had heard a different version of the problems between Marvin and his Father that caused his death. Such a loss of great talent.

  2. coco_fiere says:

    I still remember coming in the house to find my mother in tears, grieving for Brother Marvin. I think it was so profound for you to say you felt robbed by his death. I agree that we were robbed of many more years of his genius and because he didn’t die at his own hands or some random accident, it hurt more. Your profile on him is outstanding and once again, you taught me something–I didn’t know he played drums on Fingertips Pt.2 and that Berry Gordy refused to release What’s Goin’On? initially. I wonder if his decision was clouded by Marvin’s marriage to Anna being rocky at that point (we know how that turned out). Here, My Dear is one of my faves of all time for “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” and “Funky Space Reincarnation” and because you could feel him in every note. Great post yet again, Afrobella. Peace

  3. Excellent post Bella.

  4. David — what story did you hear? I always believe that saying, there’s three sides to every story. I was a little one when he died, but I definitely remember hearing about it. I believe there was a tribute on the Grammys that year, and I remember being shocked that his own father killed him. So, so so sad.

  5. Trinichica says:

    What a tragedy! He is sorely missed; his life, his music, his soulfulness, . It is truly a loss. My mood is bleu now…take care bella and have a great weekend.

  6. Bella,

    Thank you so much for this article. I remember the day Marvin Gaye died. April 1, 1984: my mom and I were driving to my grandma’s house and the announcement (an early report) came over the radio. Mom was so overwhelmed; she pulled over the side of the road, strangely enough, right next to a funeral parlor. She wept silently, because she’d lost an old friend.

    When Left Eye died, I said, “That’s a shame.” When Aaliyah passed, I said, “Wow, that’s too bad…” But I’ve NEVER had the kind of response that my mom had when Marvin died. It showed me just how connected a person can feel through inner beauty radiating through music, and just how deeply it hurts when that beauty fades, and is snuffed out, senselessly.

    Marvin was the voice, still IS the voice, of my mom’s generation. It’s a real tragedy that “What’s Going On” is so relevant and poignant today. We’re still fighting over ideology (and oil), we’re still screwing up our environment, and we’re still not united under one love. I wonder what Marvin Jr’s sermon would have been today…

  7. jerseybred says:

    Thanks for this Bella, I have been on youtube for a while listening to old songs [after you click on the link there's always another performance on the right waiting to be viewed] I enjoyed listening to these songs it always been me back to childhood and “digging in the crates”

  8. Sisreese says:

    Thanks Bella for the post… although the fact that such a brilliant star burnt out so young is sad, very very sad… This post did bring a smile to my face… ‘I Want You’ is one of my favorite songs of all time! and in a point in my life, when loves seems out of my grasp – that song is a true reminder of what passion is all about, hidden in the melodies of that song and many others – brother Marvin lives on, thankfully. Also, the link to the D’angelo song Really Love, was literally sweet music to my ears, like many of our brothers we’ll have to keep D in our prayers… later Sis

  9. Hi Bella,
    great post today!!!!!!!!!!!1

  10. suburbanbushbabe says:

    “Berry Gordy called it [What's going On] uncommercial, and refused to release it.” Amazing to imagine he didn’t see the brilliance of “What’s Going On.” Great post. Gaye was a framework for my coming of age in the ’70s. I can’t say enough how influential he was to me. “What’s Going On” was every bit as groundbreaking as Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was a fluid, seamless integrated piece of fabuslous lyrics, music, and sheer brilliance. It played a sound I had never heard before and that immediately touched my heart — and my feet! Gaye was a true genius and I am not surprised his life was filled with such turmoil. Look at at Van Gogh. As regards Sexual Healing I defy any artist to try duplicating that incredibly orgasmic wail of his.

  11. Wonderful post Bella, and to all those who have commented. You guys really got me in the mood to crank up iTunes and revisit this awesome talent. In fact, that’s just what I’m gonna do right now…

  12. kindanice says:

    Marvin Gay was one of a kind. Few artist remind me of him because few are able to honestly explore their life and put themselves out there like he did.

    Currently, I can think of only one artist that rips his soul open consistently in his music, Lyfe Jennings. As a new fan, I’m still overwhelmed with realness of his music. Marvin Gaye was the last person to give me that feeling. Miss him too much.

    kind.

  13. Hey Patrice,

    This was one of your best posts. Loved it.

    Oh and Jesse L. Martin was perfectly casted for this role. I know he was a Broadway actor, so I have confidence that he will do it right.

  14. Loved the post. I have always been intrigued by so many of the Motown artists (that was REAL music to me; I’m 25!) so I always pick up whatever I can to research them. I found a book in my college bookstore on sale for $5! I picked it up and it turned out to be, hands down, one of the best books on Marvin’s life that have ever been released. The book is called “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye” By the end of the book I understood, a little better, some of the demons that he’d been dealing with. He always felt insecure, he’d been ridiculed from his childhood on (by his father) & he felt the overwhelming need to escape (escape the fans, Berry Gordy, his parents, his life…) but he seemed to be on the road to recovery when he was killed. Man…I think I sat still for about 10 minutes after I read the book and just thought about everything I’d read. If anyone of you want to read more into the life of Marvin Gaye…please, please, please pick this up!

    Great post again!

  15. Also…I’d heard that the argument, which caused Marvin Sr. to shoot Marvin Gaye, had something to do with his father’s cross-dressing/sexual lifestyle.

    But again…that’s me recalling sitting at the dinner table with my aunties back in the day as they talked this over. Could all just be hearsay! (But we know for a fact Marvin Sr WAS a cross dresser)

  16. This post gave me a very very heavy heart. Marvin is my all time favorite singer. People are always asking me “What do you know about Marvin Gaye, you’re only 18?” Trust me when I tell you age has nothing to do with it. I am an old soul, and Marvin’s music has sooo much soul that it is totally impossible to ignore. And bella I feel you when you speak about being robbed…I feel that with my beloved Marvin and many other artist as well. His life was indeed a rollercoaster, but I am forever grateful to him for leaving all the heaven sent music that he did. I truly miss him….. I really do.

  17. I think Otis Redding would be another good lost ones post. I hold him and his music close to my heart as well.

  18. Hi Afrobella, I’m from Germany and stumbled into your page about Marvin Gaye while looking for more facts about his alas, too short life. It was Alicia Keys’ rendition of “Mercy mercy me” at the N.Y.C. Live Earth Concert that made me remember instantly how much I loved the original! And I’ve been listening to it on Youtube a hundred times since. I was so sad and shocked at Marvin’s death in 1984 and I am feeling sad all over again. I remember the Commodores opening lines on “Nightshift”: Marvin, he was a friend of mine… Thank you for honouring this wonderful artist. Peace and Love to all on earth. Marvin will live on forever in our hearts.

  19. designdiva says:

    I heard his father killed him because he (Marvin Jr.) was demanding money for drugs. But I remember I was ironing some clothes when I heard he died. I cried because I felt like I knew him. My mother couldn’t sing and instead of singing lullabys, she’d play Marvin. I have to find that book and read about what really happened. Thanks for the post, bella.

  20. I don’t mean to be rude, but I wonder why the black community worships Marvin like we do. Music aside, he seemed like he wasn’t a very good guy. His first child’s mother was 15 (he was 26) and his second was 17. All of these people making love to Let’s Get it On are making love to an album that was inspired by a high school junior! He beat both of his wives, coerced the younger one (Jan, the mixed one) into affairs, didn’t pay child support and had a serious porn problem. Maybe it’s because I’m younger (I wasn’t born when Marvin died) so I don’t really get all the praise. I like his music a lot, but by all accounts, he seemed like a despicable man. I know some people blame it on drugs and other people say he was mentally ill and that may all be true, but it just seems to me like he was a despicable beat who happened to have choir boy good looks.

    By the way, designdiva, my mother was born and raised in the Gramercy area, and rumor has Marvin’s father was molesting his little girl Nona and Marvin found out and confronted his father about it. That could just all be made up, but between Marvin Sr’s weird sexual habits and Marvin Jr’s Madonna/whore complex (and Nona’s druggie teen years), I think there’s some truth in the rumor. If that’s true, then I bet that Marvin Sr killed Marvin Jr because he was afraid that Jr would kill him first. Even as freaky as he was, I could see Marvin Jr. going crazy because somebody violated his “pure” daughter.

    • Hi Deanna!!! I have never heard of those various allegations until now! :P Well, if the supposed allegations are true, then you are right. Marvin Gaye would be a despicable, vice-filled individual; immersed in drugs, physical abuse, and pornography addiction.

      In my mere opinion, most stars struggle with a few or with several life-bounding vices, and Marvin Gaye Jr may be one of them :(

  21. lagwadia says:

    man im young marvin gaye was a ver nice man im an old soul so that why i love him and i got permission 2 marry him when i get to heaven where he went god bless you marvin love

  22. Christy Jackson says:

    What each of us has to truly remember is that Marvin Gaye, above all else, first and foremost, was human. We as a society are so quick to place celebrities on a pedastal and then when they die, or are murdered tragically, as in this case, at such a young age especially, and then when all the dirty wash is hung to dry for us to read about (drugs, beatings, etc.) we feign shock. WHY? Marvin was the product of a cross-dressing, abusive, eccentric minister father, who was really just a glorified freak in the church community, and a mother who was loving, gracious and beautiful. Though Marvin’s mother was somewhat timid, strong when she had to be, but afraid of her husband, in the autobiography by David Ritz on Marvin’s life, “Divided Soul,” he offers a thorough take on the twisted-but-so-true triangle of love & hate shared by Marvin Sr, Mrs. Gay and of course, little Marvin. Mrs. Gaye’s summed up words in the bio were this: “Marvin Sr. never liked Marvin. He was jealous of him. Marvin was special—my favorite child and his father hated him from the time he was born.” A child was abused for nearly 44 years of his life, and his anger, resentment and pain was only intensified by his drug demons. Both Marvin and his father was a tragedy waiting to happen, a downright explosion. One would only soon wind up killing the other, going from past history. Living under one roof…Marvin’s crazed mind and sexual appetites, not to mention Marvin Sr’s obvious mental illness…what was really bound to happen if you think long and hard about it? Pretend this wasn’t Marvin Gaye, the singer from Motown who gave us the ultimate soul classic album, “What’s Going On.” Let’s all dig deeper in our minds and recall family members, friends, neighbors even, who we know or have known during our lifetime who have hatred, resentment and mental illness. Better yet, look in the mirror: how does your father feel about you? How do you feel about you? Do you love yourself? Marvin didn’t. Do you abuse drugs and alcohol and are fighting those demons? Did your father beat you horribly as a child and never give you love? This was Marvin, but the fact that it was Marvin Gaye does not make it exceptional, for as I will reiterate, he was human. And so was his father. The fact that Marvin’s music touched us all for so long and made us think, feel sexy, feel happy, feel inspired at times and just plain ole’ feel GOOD is what makes us still mourn and miss him. He was a truly great artist in every right, but he was a mere man after all, and each of us has a debt to pay for life, and that is death. We all have a date with death…we must never forget that all the people involved in the Marvin Gaye Life Story were…human. Leave it alone. Celebrate his music and let the man, the human being, just rest in peace. He’s in no more pain now, but his music will live forever and THAT will never die. I take solace in that, for it was not his life story, but his music, rather, that touched me back in the day and today still. Who isn’t driving home after a long day’s work, stuck in a traffic jam, out of a cigarette and then What’s Going On or Got To Give It Up plays on the radio. We swing our shoulders, tap our feet on the gas, turn up the volume and smile. Marvin’s music, not Marvin’s death, makes us manage to still feel good. P.S. And to the writer who wrote of Marvin Sr’s alleged molestation of his granddaughter, Nona. That’s an out and out lie. Marvin’s wife Jan never physically saw Marvin in the many months leading up to his death and neither did his children. The only visitors Marvin held company with were drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes and the like. Stop feeding the rumor mill.

  23. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, the tragic lives of the four iconic soul men. They overshadowed Percy Sledge, Barry White, Issac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, in the controversies of their lives or their deaths. But Marvin Gaye had a special quality because he awakened so many of us to music that went beyond the emotional. His, like Bob Marley’s was a conscious music that sought to educate and address social inequality at a time when most soul singers (there was no rap, then) did not realize the profound effect they had on the black population and on the poor and did nothing to address the issues of need and injustice. Despite his faults, here in America Marvin stands out for his willingness to lead the fight against social injustice. Stevie Wonder,too stands out because although he never sought to lead, he educated the masses through his music. Because of these men – Bob, Marvin and Stevie- we are truly blessed.

  24. The house Marvin Gaye bought his parents, I read recently that after Marvin’s death the house was sold to a Homosexual couple. They wrote a article stating that they have a dog, And when ever the dog walks into the bed room that use to be Marvin’s where his father killed him, The dog barks. It makes me wonder if Marvin’s spirit still hangs around in that house. Marvin Gaye’s father died back in 1998 in a rest home, I wonder what were his conversations like in that rest home, And whether or not they hated him living their. Marvin’s younger sister was doing a play about her brothers life, It hasn’t made it to Los Angeles yet i don’t believe. Dick Gregory was a close friend to Marvin and was in contact with him around the time he was murdered, And i wonder if Dick fed into Marvin Gaye’s paranoia. The reason i say this, Dick Gregory even till this day speaks alot about hidden conspiracy theories which i believe fed into Marvin’s paranoia although the drugs he was using was doing it to him. I read that Dick Gregory had mixed up some kind of health drink and gave it to Marvin because at that time Marvin thought he had been poisoned, And this drink rid his body of any poison toxin so he thought. You’d be susprised how people around Marvin during his last days probably contributed to his demise.

  25. funkystarkitty50 says:

    I have loved Marvin for years. My parents saw him live years and years ago and I remember hearing his music around the house a lot. I also remember when he died even though I was a little girl. I remember feeling sad, but not knowing why–not really understanding. It was only until I read the book by his brother and the one by David Ritz, that I began to see how much of a tortured soul he was. Even though he was a gifted singer and songwriter, his personal life was a mess and people took advantage of him all the time. I sometimes wonder what he would have been like if he had lived. He changed R&B forever and he will always be missed. But his music lives forever.

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  27. ymous_anon says:

    I’m a white guy and I think Marvin was one of the greatest performers ever. And I think his song “whats going on” was one of most meaningful in human history. “…war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate…” tears in my eyes, humankind is still on the wrong road.

    peace, love and all the simple good things in life to all the world

    Ymous Anon

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Lost Ones: Marvin Gaye June 29, 2007 [...]

  2. [...] I paid homage to Marvin in this Lost Ones post — I gave up writing that series because it ached to work on it. That post in particular got under my skin, and the feelings I voiced then still hold true now. [...]

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