Entertainment Profile: Marvin Gaye
by Kenney Dennard
Known throughout the mid and late 60's as The Prince of Motown, Marvin Gaye won the hearts of many for his soulful crooning. He was the top selling male vocalist for Motown Records but yet uncomfortable in his own skin. It was because of his discomfort that Marvin would not settle on being produced and written for. He wanted everything in his own way. It was in his own way that he changed the game forever with Motown, paving a way for other artists to write and produce for themselves and be free to make their own decisions. But for Marvin, it wasn’t an easy road getting there. It was always a fight.
He was born Marvin Pentz Gay on April 2, 1939, to parents Alberta and Marvin Gay, Sr. in Washington, DC. Father Gay was a minister at the House of God and a strict disciplinarian to his children. He wanted his kids to follow his path into ministry. But Gay, Sr. quit the ministry after he was not promoted Bishop at the House of God Church. Marvin later said that his father was never the same person again. He began to drink and tension grew between the father and son.
Marvin Jr. learned to play the piano and drums and to his father's dismay, fell in love with secular music. He began singing in several local doo wop groups throughout the DC area. He eventually ran away from home and joined the US Air Force. That only lasted a short time because of Marvin's lack of respect for authority. He finally faked mental illness and was discharged. Marvin moved back to DC and worked as a dishwasher while singing with several groups at night. He finally was recruited to sing with Harvey and the Moonglows in 1959. They started out singing background vocals for Etta James and Chuck Berry but eventually had a local hit of their own, "Mama Loochie." Harvey eventually disbanded the group, yet he took Marvin along with him as he attempted to start his own label. They ended up in the same circles with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.'s sister, Anna. She and Marvin hit it off instantly, and she plugged him to Berry. Marvin eventually married Anna.
At a Motown Christmas party, Marvin doodled on the piano, singing "Mr. Sandman." Berry Gordy came over and offered some constructive criticism. Marvin didn't take it too well, and the two clashed a bit. That was only the beginning of a father-son type of relationship where Marvin's stubbornness wouldn't allow him to listen to advice.
Berry signed Marvin to Motown, but once again, they clashed about what type of music Marvin would sing. Marvin wanted to sing ballads like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. Berry gave in and released, "The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye." Marvin added an 'e' to his last name right before the release. The album sold very few copies. Berry, then, brought his good friend and Motown writer Smokey Robinson in to write for Marvin. Smokey wrote a song that he thought best fit him, "Stubborn Kinda Fella." It was Marvin's first hit.
From there, Smokey and other writers wrote hit after hit for Marvin as he became the king of the label. Hits included, "Ain't that Peculiar," "How Sweet It Is," "Pride and Joy," and "Hitch hike." In the late 60's, Marvin remade producer Norman Whitfield's, "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." This had been a number one hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. Marvin Gaye outsold them although their version had been out only two years prior.
From there, Motown began to pair Marvin with females for duets. Marvin sang with Kim Weston, Mary Wells, Diana Ross, and finally with Tammie Terrell with whom he shared a common bond. He and Tammie released classics, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Precious Love," and "If this World Were Mine," among others. During a performance together, Terrell collapsed in Marvin's arms and eventually died from a brain tumor. Marvin became depressed to the point that he stopped recording and performing for four years.
The world was changing during those four years. Civil Rights leaders were being killed left and right, his brother was fighting in the Vietnam War. Marvin no longer wanted to sing about love. He wanted to sing about what was going on in the world. He began to write everyday about how he felt about the world around him. When finished he brought it to Motown, and it was ridiculed. Berry Gordy said no one would ever buy it. Again they clashed. For months and months, Marvin begged to have his album released. Eventually, Berry said he would make him a deal. If he released the album; after it failed, Marvin would have to go back, and let Smokey and Norman write up some hits. Marvin agreed. The album was released. Its title was "What's Going On." It became the biggest seller in Motown history at the time. Marvin never had anyone produce or write for him again. In fact, he broke the chains for artists like Stevie Wonder as well. Listening to the album as you hear Marvin crooning his vocals, you can also hear his Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin like adlibs as well.
Over the next decade, Marvin wrote several more hit albums including, "Let's Get it On" and "I Want You." After he and wife Anna had bitterly feuded for years, the courts ordered that in order for the divorce to take place, Marvin would have to pay Anna all the monies made off of his next album. He entitled his next album, "Here, My Dear," and dedicated it to Anna. It barely sold. He would, then, marry Jan, a young woman that he had started dating when she was only 17 and he was in his 30's.
By now, Marvin owed everyone, including the IRS with whom he owed over a million dollars alone. He also had bad drug habits which ate up a lot of his money. On top of it all, he and Jan's marriage was on the rocks. Over the next few years, he went from living in a bread van in Hawaii to living in England with a promoter to finally moving in with a boxing trainer in Belgium. Everyone he stayed with tried to cleanse him of drugs.
Finally, after CBS records bought him out of his Motown contract, Marvin moved back to California into the house that he had bought for his parents. He had come up with another hit with biographer, David Ritz. That hit was "Sexual Healing." It put Marvin back on top and earned him his first Grammy. He toured off the strength of that album.
After the tour, he came back home with his parents and sank into deeper depression and drugs. He and his father still had a love/hate relationship. Marvin had bought his father a gun earlier. Many of his family members say that he was setting himself up for suicide. His brother Frankie Gaye wrote in, Marvin Gaye, My Brother, that Marvin wanted to die and wanted his father to kill him and suffer for it. In his mind, it would be poetic justice. Frankie also said that Marvin provoked his father. No one knows exactly what happened that evening of April 1, 1984. One day before Marvin's 46th birthday, his father shot and killed him.
Marvin Gaye's music has been digitally remastered and released time and time again. He has over 20 years of smash hits. Regardless of the way he lived and the way he died, Marvin's music is timeless, and he was a genius in the words he wrote and the way that he sang and got his messages across. Over 25 years after his death, many of his political songs like "What's Going On," "Make Me Wanna Holler," and "Mercy, Mercy Me," have as much meaning today as they did when he released them. Marvin Gaye is still one of the top male vocalists of all time.
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