Marvin Gaye

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Marvin Gaye on the cover of his classic 1971 album What's Going On
Marvin Gaye on the cover of his classic 1971 album What's Going On

Marvin Gaye (born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr.) (April 2, 1939April 1, 1984) was an African American pop, soul, and R&B singer, arranger, musician, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and record producer who gained international fame during the 1960s and 1970s as an artist on the Motown label. His best records are still extremely high regarded, and he is often cited as one of the finest singers of his era. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and posthumously received the Grammy Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. His What's Going On album is widely considered the greatest album in black music history.

Gaye began his career in Motown in 1960. He was Motown's No. 1 male artist scoring numerous hits during the 1960s, among them "Stubborn Kind of Fellow", "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)", "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", and several hit duets with Tammi Terrell, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "You're All I Need to Get By", before moving on to his own form of musical self-expression.

Along with Stevie Wonder, Gaye is notable for fighting the hit-making—but creatively restrictive—Motown record-making process, in which performers and songwriters and record producers were generally kept in separate camps.[1] Gaye forced Motown to release his 1971 album What's Going On, which is today hailed as one of the best albums of all time. Subsequent releases proved that Gaye, who had been a part-time songwriter for Motown artists during his early years with the label, could write and produce his own singles without having to rely on the Motown system. This achievement would pave the way for the successes of later self-sufficient singer-songwriter-producers in African American music, such as Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, and Babyface.

During the 1970s, Gaye would release several other notable albums, including Let's Get It On and I Want You, and had hits with soul singles such as "Let's Get It On", "Got to Give It Up", and "Sexual Healing". By the time of his death in 1984, at the hands of his clergyman father, Gaye had become one of the most influential artists of the soul music era.



Marvin Gaye's 1966 LP Moods of Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye's 1966 LP Moods of Marvin Gaye

Early life and career

Gaye was born in Washington, D.C. Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr.; he later added the "e" to imitate Sam Cooke. His father, Reverend Marvin Gay, Sr., was an ordained minister in the House of God, a small, conservative sect spun off from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church, borrowing some elements of Pentecostalism and Orthodox Judaism, has very strict codes of conduct and does not celebrate any holidays. Gaye got his start singing in the church choir and later learned to play the piano and drums to escape from his physically abusive father.

After high school, Gaye joined the United States Air Force and then, after being discharged, joined several doo wop groups, settling on The Marquees, a popular D.C. group. With Bo Diddley, The Marquees released a single, "Wyatt Earp", in 1958 on Okeh Records and were then recruited by Harvey Fuqua to become The Moonglows. "Mama Loocie", released in 1959 on Chess Records, was Gaye's first single with the Moonglows. After a concert in Detroit, Michigan, Gaye was recruited for a solo career by Berry Gordy, Jr. of Motown Records.

Joining the Motown and Gordy families

As a session drummer and part-time songwriter, Gaye worked with The Miracles, The Contours, Martha & the Vandellas, and other Motown acts. Most notably, he is the drummer on The Marvelettes' 1961 number one hit "Please, Mr. Postman" and Little Stevie Wonder's 1963 number one hit "Fingertips—Pt. 2" and co-wrote Martha & the Vandellas' 1964 hit "Dancing In The Street" and The Marvelettes' 1962 hit "Beechwood 4-5789". Popular and well-liked around Motown, Gaye already carried himself in a sophisticated, gentlemanly manner and had little need of training from Motown's in-house Artist Development director Miss Maxine Powell. Not only part of the Motown family, he also became part of the Gordy family when he married Berry Gordy's sister Anna in 1964 after a three-year courtship.

Marvin Gaye's first three Motown singles were all unsuccessful; he finally scored a minor hit in 1962 with his fourth attempt, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow", with Martha & The Vandellas on background vocals. The single was co-written by Gaye and William "Mickey" Stevenson, who created the title as a sly reference to the sometimes moody Gaye. 1963's "Hitch Hike" and "Can I Get a Witness" were also minor hits. These earlier records featured a "churchiness…that was pushed by that urgent Detroit rhythm section".[2] "Pride & Joy" (1963) became a smash hit, but Gaye was discontented with the role he felt Motown Records kept him locked in: a romantic balladeer and crooner, aiming always for chart success in the singles market. He wanted instead to be a pop singer in the vein of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra but settled for a blend of the styles of those artists with the passionate soul singing of performers such as Jackie Wilson and his role model Sam Cooke.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell on the cover of their second duets LP, You're All I Need
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell on the cover of their second duets LP, You're All I Need

A number of Gaye's hit singles for Motown were duets with female artists such as Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell; the first Gaye/Wells album, 1964's Together, was Gaye's first charting album. Terrell and Gaye in particular had a good rapport, and their first album together, 1967's United, birthed the massive hits "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Your Precious Love". Real life couple Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson provided the writing and production for the Gaye/Terrell records; while Gaye and Terrell themselves were not lovers, they convincingly portrayed lovers on record.

On October 14, 1967, Terrell collapsed into Gaye's arms onstage while they were performing at the Hampton University homecoming in Virginia (contrary to popular belief, it was not Hampden-Sydney College, also in Virginia). She was later diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her health continued to deteriorate.

Motown decided to try and carry on with the Gaye/Terrell recordings, issuing the You're All I Need album in 1968, which featured the hits "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By". Most of the songs on You're All I Need were actual Gaye/Terrell duets, but two were archived Terrell solo songs with Gaye's vocals overdubbed onto them. By the time on the final Gaye/Terrell album, Easy, in 1969, Terrell's vocals were performed mostly by Valerie Simpson.

Terrell's illness began a depression in Gaye; when his Norman Whitfield-produced "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" became his first #1 hit and the biggest selling single in Motown history to that point, he refused to acknowledge his success, feeling that it was undeserved. Meanwhile, Gaye's marriage was crumbling and he continued to feel irrelevant, singing endlessly about love while popular music underwent a revolution and began addressing social and political issues.

Marvin Gaye (left) and James Jamerson perform "What's Goin' On" live.
Marvin Gaye (left) and James Jamerson perform "What's Goin' On" live.

What's Going On

Tammi Terrell died of brain cancer on March 17, 1970. Gaye subsequently went into self-seclusion, and did not perform in concert for nearly two years. He tried various spirit-lifting diversions, including a short-lived attempt at a football career with the Detroit Lions, but continued to feel pain with no form of self-expression. As a result, he entered the studio on June 1, 1970 and recorded the songs "What's Going On" and "God is Love".

Gaye had recorded the single "What's Going On" in June 1970, and wanted to release it. Motown head Berry Gordy had refused, however, calling the single "uncommercial". Gaye refused to record any more until Gordy gave in, and the song became a surprise hit in January of 1971. Gordy subsequently requested an entire album of similar tracks from Gaye.

The What's Going On album became one of the highlights of Gaye's career, and is today his best known work. Two more of its singles, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)", became Top 10 pop hits and #1 R&B hits. The album became one of the most memorable soul albums of all time, and, based upon its themes, the concept album became the next new frontier for soul music. It has been called "the most important and passionate record to come out of soul music, delivered by one of its finest voices."[3]

1973's Let's Get It On LP is among Marvin Gaye's most noted works.
1973's Let's Get It On LP is among Marvin Gaye's most noted works.

Let's Get It On and follow-ups

1973's Let's Get It On was a sexually and romantically charged album that was very successful on the charts and remains "a record unparallelled in its sheer sensuality and carnal energy."[4]

Gaye teamed up with Diana Ross for Diana & Marvin, an album of duets that began recording in 1971, while Ross was pregnant with her first child, Rhonda. Gaye, a longtime marijuana user, refused to put his joints out for the pregnant Ross, who immediately complained to Berry Gordy about the issue. Gaye refused to sing if he couldn't smoke in the studio, and the duets album was recorded by overdubbing Ross and Gaye at separate studio session dates.

Gaye released "I Want You" and the album of the same name by himself as his marriage finally ended in 1975. In between the controversy surrounding him, Gaye released the seminal funk/disco single, "Got to Give It Up", which went to No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1977. As part of a divorce settlement with Anna, Gaye agreed to record a new album and remit a portion of the royalties to Anna as alimony. The result was 1978's Here, My Dear, a deeply personal album that so clearly detailed the sour points of Gaye's former marriage that Anna Gordy considered suing him for invading her privacy. After a failed single and a rapidly failing new marriage to a teenage girl, Gaye moved to Hawaii. Tax problems and drug addictions haunted him, and after failing to get Motown labelmate Smokey Robinson to loan him money to take care of the tax issues, Gaye was forced to move to Ostend, Belgium in 1981.

Later career and death

In Europe, Gaye began working on In Our Lifetime?, a complex and deeply personal record. When Motown issued the album in 1981, Gaye was livid: he accused Motown of editing and remixing the album without his consent, altering the album art he requested, and removing the question mark from the title (rendering the intended irony imperceptible). He negotiated a release from the label and signed with Columbia Records in 1982 and released Midnight Love the same year. Midnight Love included "Sexual Healing", one of Gaye's most famous songs, and his final big hit. The hit finally gave Gaye the respect he deserve as he won two Grammy Awards for the song (Best R&B Male Vocal Performance and Best R&B Instrumental) in February 1983. Around the same time Gaye gave an emotional performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at the NBA All-Star telecast. A month later, he gave his final performance in front of his old mentor and label for "Motown 25" performing "What's Going On" before going out on a U.S. tour to support his album, which was plagued by health problems before ending in August 1983.

Gaye's refound fame pushed him even deeper into drug addiction and paranoia as he had had a premonition that someone was going to kill him, throughout his tour, he had a bevy of bodyguards surrounding him to keep him safe and often wore a bullet-proof vest. By the time the tour ended, he attempted to isolate himself by moving into his parents' house. He threatened to commit suicide several times after numerous bitter arguments with his father, Marvin, Sr. On April 1, 1984, one day before his forty-fifth birthday, Gaye was shot and killed by his father in an argument, becoming a famous victim of paternal filicide. Gaye's relatives claimed that he had purposely pushed his father to the edge so that he could have Marvin, Sr. kill him instead of having to commit suicide.

After some posthumous releases cemented his memory in the popular consciousness, Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Marvin Gay, Sr. died of pneumonia in 1998.

Legacy and tributes

Marvin Gaye on the cover of his 1969 LP I Heard It Through the Grapevine, originally released in 1968 as In the Groove.
Marvin Gaye on the cover of his 1969 LP I Heard It Through the Grapevine, originally released in 1968 as In the Groove.

Even before Gaye died, there had already been tributes to the singer. In 1983, the British group Spandau Ballet recorded the single "True" as a partial tribute to both Gaye and the Motown sound he helped establish. A year after his death, The Commodores made reference to Gaye's death in their 1985 song "Night Shift" as did the Violent Femmes in their 1988 song "See My Ships". Former Motown alum Diana Ross also paid tribute with her Top 10 pop single "Missing You" (1985) while the soul band Maze featuring Frankie Beverly recorded the tribute song, "Silky Soul" (1989), in honor of their late mentor. Marvin Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame three years later in 1990.

In 1999, the R&B world paid its respects to Gaye in a tribute album, Marvin Is 60. In October 2001, an all-star cover of "What's Going On", produced by Jermaine Dupri, was issued as a benefit single, credited to "Artists Against AIDS Worldwide". The single, which was a reaction to the September 11, 2001 tragedy as well as to the AIDS crisis, featured contributions from a plethora of stars, including Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, Bono, Mariah Carey, Destiny's Child, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, Nelly Furtado, Alicia Keys, Aaron Lewis of the rock group StainD, Nas, *NSYNC, P. Diddy, ?uestlove of The Roots, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani [5]. The "What's Going On" cover also featured Marvin Gaye's only daughter, Nona Gaye, a successful singer and actress in her own right.

As noted, Gaye helped give rise to the "singer-songwriter" in African American and encompassing black music. In addition, Gaye's music was often used as one of the reference point for what became known as neo soul in the late-1990s: a nostalgic-based sound that seeks to duplicate a 1970s soul music feel, while adding hip hop and contemporary R&B elements to the mix. Though his work is widely influential, it eventually became a neo-soul cliche to cite Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or Donny Hathaway as an influence, regardless of whether or not the citing artists' music actually reflected the qualities and creativity inherent in Gaye's work.

Gaye can also be seen as a groundbreaker to many self-made black singers and musicians, who took his examples that he brought out in his music, including multitracked vocals and personal self-expression through music. These examples led to the diverse careers of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie and Babyface, to name a few. To this day, modern pop and R&B stars name Gaye as a huge influence, including 2000s R&B superstars Usher and Alicia Keys. Gaye's music played a very important part in the career of R. Kelly, who has currently produced records for The Isley Brothers in a similar Gaye sound to note his influence. Kelly has also used a "divided soul" tactic, similar to that of Gaye, to express himself musically.

As a hitmaker, Gaye scored an impressive total of 41 Top 40 hit singles on Billboard's Pop Singles chart from 1963 to 2001, 60 Top 40 R&B singles chart hits from 1962 to 2001, 18 Top 10 singles on the pop chart, 38 Top 10 singles on the R&B chart (according to latest figures from Joel Whitburns Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-2004, 2004), 3 #1 Pop hits and 13 #1 R&B hits (the fourth biggest male artist to have the most #1 hits on the R&B chart only behind fellow soul pioneers Michael Jackson, James Brown and Stevie Wonder) in total as well as the fourth biggest artist of all-time to spend the most weeks at the #1 spot on the R&B singles chart (52 weeks). In all, Gaye has had a total of 67 singles on the Billboard charts in total spanning five decades.

In 2001, rapper/producer Erick Sermon, took an outtake from a 1982 Gaye song and remixed it so he could collaborate with Gaye in spirit. The result, "Music", became one of the top singles of the year peaking in the Top 5 on both the Billboard R&B and rap charts and hitting #21 on the pop charts making it his forty-first entry into the pop Top 40. Four years later, in 2005, a duo of modern R&B producers re-tooled Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and remixed the song to make it more danceable. Released to radio under the name, "Let's Get It On (The MPG Groove Mix)", the song hit the charts all over again, proving that Gaye was still remembered years after his death. That same year, "Let's Get It On" was certified gold by the RIAA for sales in excess of 500,000 units, making it the best-selling single of all time on Motown in the United States. Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" holds the title of the best-selling international Motown single of all time, with high sales explained by a re-release in Europe following a Levi´s 501 Jeans commercial in 1986. In 2005, rock group A Perfect Circle released "What's Going On" as part of an anti-war CD titled eMOTIVe.


For a detailed listing of albums and singles, see: Marvin Gaye discography.

US and UK Top Ten Singles

The following singles reached the Top Ten of either the United States pop singles chart or the United Kingdom pop singles chart. Also included are the singles that hit #1 on the US R&B charts.

Year Song title US Top 10 chart UK Top 10 chart R&B No. 1
1963: "Pride & Joy" 10 - -
1964: "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" 6 - -
1965: "I'll Be Doggone" 8 - 1
1965: "Ain't That Peculiar" 8 - 1
1967: "Your Precious Love" (w/Tammi Terrell) 5 - -
1967 "If I Could Build My Whole World Around You" (w/Tammi Terrell) 10 - -
1968 "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing (w/Tammi Terrell) 8 - 1
1968 "You're All I Need to Get By" (w/Tammi Terrell) 7 - 1
1968 "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" 1 1 1
1969 "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby" 4 5 1
1969 "Abraham, Martin & John" - 9 -
1969 "That's The Way Love Is" 7 - -
1969 "The Onion Song" (w/Tammi Terrell) - 9 -
1971 "What's Going On" 2 - 1
1971 "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" 4 - 1
1971 "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" 9 - 1
1972 "Trouble Man" 7 - -
1973 "Let's Get It On" 1 - 1
1974 "You Are Everything" (w/Diana Ross) - 5
1976 "I Want You" - - 1
1977 "Got to Give It Up" 1 7 1
1982 "Sexual Healing" 3 4 1

Top Ten Albums

The following albums reached the Top Ten on either the United States pop albums chart or the United Kingdom pop albums chart.



  1. ^  Garofalo, pgs. 261-262
  2. ^  Rolling Stone, pg. 235
  3. ^  John Bush, review of What's Going On, by Marvin Gaye, (accessed June 10, 2005).
  4. ^  Jason Ankeny, review of Let's Get It On, by Marvin Gaye, (accessed June 10, 2005).


  • Garofalo, Reebee (1997) Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA, Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205137032
  • Gaye, Frankie with Basten, Fred E. (2003). Marvin Gaye: My Brother. Backbeat Books, ISBN 0-879-30742-0
  • Heron, W. Kim (April 8, 1984). Marvin Gaye: a life marked by complexity. Detroit Free Press.
  • Posner, Gerald (2002). Motown : Music, Money, Sex, and Power. New York: Random House. ISBN 037-550062-6.
  • Ritz, David (1986). Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo Press. ISBN 030681191X
  • Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker (1986) Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, Rolling Stone Press. ISBN 0671544381
  • Gambaccini, Paul (1987). The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time. New York: Harmony Books.

Further reading

  • Dyson, Michael Eric (2004). Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye. New York/Philadelphia: Basic Civitas. ISBN 0-465-01769-X.

See also

External links

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