Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. (inspired by Sam Cooke, he added the “e” to his surname when he began his musical career) was born in Washington DC on 2 April 1939, the third of five children of Marvin and Alberta Gay.
His father was a Pentecostal minister and a righteous and conservative disciplinarian, and the family lived at 1716 1st Street, S.W. in Washington DC, in a ghetto Marvin and his friends called Simple City.
Young Marvin began singing in the church choir at the age of three, later learning to play the organ, piano and drums before joining The Rainbows, a popular local doo-wop group in DC.
In 1956, at age seventeen, Marvin enlisted in the Air Force. “It was one of the real horrors of my life,” he would later say.
He lasted about a year, finally accepting a general discharge that, while honourable, proclaimed, “Gaye cannot adjust to regimentation and authority”.
Back in civilian life, Gaye formed a group called The Marquees, which – under the unlikely aegis of admirer Bo Diddley – cut a record for Chicago’s Okeh label called Wyatt Earp. It was not a hit.
The Marquees, however, were taken under the wing of Harvey Fuqua, leader of The Moonglows, a classic close-harmony R&B group. The Moonglows line-up was frequently in flux, and when the group’s first tenor slot became vacant, Marvin Gaye was recruited for the job.
Marvin sang lead on only one song per show, but when the group played at a private party in a Detroit nightclub in 1961, that one song was enough to attract the attention of Berry Gordy Jr, who had recently started his own record company, Motown Records.
Although he was signed as a singer, Marvin initially played a role at Motown as a multi-purpose musician, even touring as a drummer with The Miracles.
Eventually, he started making records of his own, though his first three singles – Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, Sandman and Soldier’s Plea went nowhere.
In 1962 his fourth Motown single, Stubborn Kind Of Fellow, (featuring Martha & The Vandellas on backing vocals) became a big R&B hit. Hitch Hike, Pride and Joy and Can I Get A Witness? followed in 1963, and You’re A Wonderful One became his fourth Top 40 success the following year.
Gaye scored two more Top 40 hits in 1964: Baby Don’t You Do It and How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You. He also married Berry Gordy‘s sister, Anna, that year. She was 42 and he was 25.
The following year, I’ll Be Doggone and Ain’t That Peculiar both reached the Top 10, but Marvin felt unhappy with Motown‘s tight control over his material.
The latter combination was an instant success, scoring Top 20 hits the following year with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Your Precious Love.
Marvin and Tammi (pictured) toured together for two years, until the summer of 1967, when, at a college concert in Virginia – midway through Your Precious Love – Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms.
She survived six operations in 18 months, but died of a brain tumour on 16 March 1970, at the age of 24. Marvin wept openly at her funeral.
Gaye had already scored his first #1 pop hit with I Heard It Through the Grapevine in 1968 (it became the all-time best-selling single for Motown) but following Terrell’s death, he became reclusive. By that stage, his marriage was crumbling and he felt irrelevant, singing about love while popular music underwent a political revolution.
As a result, he released What’s Going On? in 1971, one of the most memorable soul albums of the time, including unprecedented radical political and social statements. Gordy at first refused to release the album but eventually gave in. The album produced three Top Ten singles and became an instant classic.
Wary of being branded as a pop social commentator, Gaye kept a low profile after What’s Going On? and released a jazzy film soundtrack (Trouble Man) whose title track went Top 10 in 1972.
In the summer of 1973, he returned to the subject of love with Let’s Get It On – a sexually and romantically charged album that was very successful in the charts.
By this time, Gaye was separated from Anna Gordy and had met and fallen in love with Janis Hunter, a woman seventeen years his junior. They lived together for four years, had two children together and married in 1977.
But then came the fall. Even before his first divorce was settled, Janis, too, filed for divorce. Marvin was crestfallen.
With a child-custody battle on his hands and the IRS hounding him for $2 million in back taxes, Gaye moved to Hawaii – where he tried to kill himself by ingesting more than an ounce of pure cocaine in an hour – and then to Europe in 1980, eventually settling in Ostend, Belgium with a Dutch girlfriend named Eugenie Vis.
In Europe, Gaye signed to CBS (via a $2 million buy-out of his Motown contract) and released the Midnight Love LP while battling cocaine addiction. This album included Sexual Healing, one of Gaye’s most famous songs and his first Top Ten record in six years.
At the end of 1982, Gaye decided to return to Los Angeles – not to reap the benefits of his newly regained fame but to tend to his mother, who was seriously ill with kidney problems. He moved into a house in the Hollywood Hills, but his old pals – moochers and hangers-on – showed up uninvited.
To escape, Gaye moved to Palm Springs. But they followed him there too – and his drug habit escalated.
His finances were in weak shape. He owed about $300,000 in back alimony to his ex-wives, Anna Gordy and Janis Hunter. He was also facing a six-figure suit that an ex-girlfriend, Carole Pinon Cummings, filed early in 1984, alleging that Gaye had beaten her several times.
But no problem seemed to weigh heavier on Marvin Gaye than his family troubles. Bad enough that his mother was shuttling in and out of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in LA. Worse that her illness had meant the return of Marvin Gay Sr, the 70-year-old family patriarch who had spent the last year preaching in Washington DC.
Marvin Gaye was shot dead on 1 April 1984 (the day before his 45th birthday) during an argument in his parent’s home in the black middle-class Crenshaw district of Los Angeles.
His father was arrested and charged with murder.
He had used an unregistered .38 calibre Smith & Wesson handgun that he had been given by his son as a present the previous Christmas.
Father and son had argued briefly with Marvin’s mother, Alberta, intervening. Gay Sr. returned to his bedroom, picked up his revolver and re-entered his son’s bedroom, and from a distance of four to six feet shot his son in the chest.
The bullet tore through Marvin’s heart. A few seconds passed. The father moved closer to his dying son, and as his mother looked on, shot him once more, point-blank, in the left shoulder.
Then Marvin Gay Sr. walked downstairs, left the house, tossed the gun onto the lawn, took a seat on the porch and waited for the police to arrive. Upon his arrest (pictured at right) he expressed no emotion whatsoever.
Marvin Gaye was pronounced dead at the California Hospital Medical Center at 1:01 PM.
Gaye was cremated the next day and his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean by his ex-wife Anna Gordy and their three children.