Few figures in American music in the 20th century can compare to Marvin Gaye. As a singer, he was without peer, possessing a silky voice that could sound either angelic or seductive or, on his biggest hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” positively haunted. As a songwriter, he was equally skilled at writing with an eye for the charts and mining the depths of his heart, a combination that created many of the enduring classics of his era: “Hitch Hike,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Pride and Joy,” “What’s Going On,” “Let’s Get It On,” “Got to Give It Up,” and “Sexual Healing.” That list also shows how the entire history of postwar R&B can be seen through the career of Marvin Gaye. He harnessed gospel and cabaret to create the exuberant uptown sound of Motown in the early ’60s, but he changed with his turbulent times, pushing pop-R&B into the realms of soul by the end of the decade. As the 1970s dawned, Gaye grappled with social protest on What's Going On, the 1971 album that found the singer/songwriter charting his own idiosyncratic course. From that point, Gaye delved into funk, blaxploitation, and disco, eventually settling into the smooth environs of quiet storm. Throughout this period, Gaye battled personal demons, often creating powerful art through his struggles, but they caught up with him tragically in 1984, when he was murdered by his father. Gaye’s legacy resonated over the decades — he was a touchstone for soul and pop music that was either sensual or political — but his early death leaves hanging the question of what he could’ve achieved if he were alive. During his two decades as a recording artist, he already accomplished more than most artists do in a lifetime.
Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C., the second child of Reverend Marvin Gay and Alberta Gay. A minister in the House of God, Reverend Marvin Gay ran a strict household and his son — who would add an “e” to his surname when he signed to Motown/Tamla, partially in tribute to his idol Sam Cooke — sought refuge in music. Marvin Gaye sang in his father’s church at the age of three and quickly rose through its ranks as a soloist. Soon, he also learned piano and drums.
Following his high school graduation, Gaye enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Once his service concluded, he returned to Washington, immersing himself in the city’s doo wop scene. He became part of the Rainbows, who were taken under the wing of Bo Diddley, an association that led them to OKeh after he couldn’t convince his label Chess to sign the group. The Rainbows became the Marquees and they recorded “Hey Little School Girl”/“Wyatt Earp” with Diddley, but the 45 didn’t go anywhere. Not long afterward, R&B impresario Harvey Fuqua enlisted the Marquees as his backing group, changing their name to the New Moonglows. The group relocated to Fuqua’s hometown of Chicago and recorded a handful of sides for Chess, all billed as Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows. Notable among these was 1959′s “Mama Loocie,” the first song to feature Gaye singing lead.
The Moonglows split in 1960, and Gaye followed Fuqua to Detroit, working with Tri-Phi Records as a house musician. At the end of the year, Gaye caught the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who negotiated a deal with Fuqua for Gaye to sign to the Motown subsidiary Tamla.
Initially, Gaye planned to be a supper-club singer specializing in standards and jazz, but Gordy wanted him to aim toward a younger audience. The duo compromised. His 1961 debut single, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide,” satisfied Gordy’s needs, while the full-length The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye skewed toward the singer’s preferences. Over the next few years, there was tension between Gaye’s conception of himself as a singer and Motown/Tamla’s musical direction, and the vocalist slowly gravitated in Gordy’s direction. During this transition, Gaye earned money by playing sessions as a drummer, which led to him penning original songs. He scored his first hit as a songwriter when the Marvelettes took “Beechwood 4-5789” into the Billboard Top 20 — and the R&B Top Ten — in the summer of 1962.
Gaye struck gold himself not much later, when “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” went to eight on Billboard’s R&B charts. “Hitch Hike” gave him another R&B hit in 1962, but it was “Pride and Joy” that brought him into the pop charts, reaching ten in the summer of 1963. After “Can I Get a Witness” — which went to three R&B, but 22 pop — he placed four hits in the pop 20 during 1964 (“You’re a Wonderful One,” “Try It Baby,” plus the Mary Wells duets “What’s the Matter with You Baby” and “Once Upon a Time”), while also scoring a smash as songwriter via the Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” which he co-wrote with Ivy Jo Hunter and William "Mickey" Stevenson.
All of this was prelude to “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You.” Peaking at six in early 1965, “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You” kicked off a year that also found “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” reaching the pop Top Ten; both reached eight on the pop chart and number one R&B. In comparison, 1966 was relatively quiet for Gaye — while “One More Heartache” reached number four on the R&B chart, it was his only pop Top 40 hit that year — but 1967 began with the immortal Kim Weston duet “It Takes Two,” which peaked at 14 pop and four R&B.
Gaye’s partnership with Tammi Terrell was unveiled next via “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” An undisputed classic — it was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame — the song spent three weeks at three on the R&B charts, reaching number 19 pop. Teaming with Terrell was a boon to Gaye’s commercial success. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was the first of a series of smashes recorded by Gaye & Terrell which were written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. “Your Precious Love” went to two on R&B and five on pop, followed by “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” and the number ones “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” which both arrived in 1968.
During this flush of success, Terrell suffered from migraine headaches, culminating in an on-stage collapse at an October 14, 1967 concert with Gaye. The two managed to finish some recording sessions — “You’re All I Need to Get By” dates from these — before her death in 1970. Gaye took Terrell’s death hard, but he initially worked through the grief, scoring some of his greatest hits along the way. Released at the end of 1968, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” spent seven weeks at the top of the pop charts in early 1969, matching that streak on the R&B charts. It was one of his biggest hits, followed by two subsequent smashes: “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and “That’s the Way Love Is,” both arriving in 1969.
Gaye retreated from the spotlight in the 1970, the result of personal problems and professional disillusionment. He returned in 1971 with “What’s Going On,” a single where Gaye deliberately embraced progressive politics and expansive music. Motown head Berry Gordy wasn’t eager to embrace this change and refused to release “What’s Going On,” but after Gaye refused to record any other new material, Gordy relented. “What’s Going On” reached number one on the R&B charts and two on pop, leading Gaye to record the rest of the album that March. Two further hits followed: “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” both of which topped the R&B charts and went Top Ten pop.
What's Going On freed other Motown artists from the label’s tight creative restrictions, but Gaye himself wound up a bit adrift in 1972. He attempted to write further political material, but the resulting “You’re the Man (Part 1)” stiffed on the pop charts, failing to crack the Top 40 even though it went Top Ten R&B. An attempted album anchored on “You’re the Man” never materialized — it’d be assembled as an archival release in 2019 — but he did wind up scoring the blaxploitation film Trouble Man, scoring a Top Ten R&B and pop hit with its title track.
Gaye turned explicitly carnal on 1973′s Let's Get It On. The title track became a smash in the summer of 1973, reaching number one on Billboard’s pop chart — only his second single to reach the pole position on the Hot 100 — and spending six weeks on the top of the R&B charts. Diana & Marvin, a duet album with Diana Ross, followed, featuring the hit “You’re a Special Part of Me,” but Let's Get It On kept spinning out hits, with “Come Get to This” reaching three on the R&B charts and “You Sure Love to Ball” getting to 13 the next year. In 1974, he released Marvin Gaye Live! as he worked on his next album, I Want You.
Released in 1976, I Want You had an R&B number one in its title track (15 pop), followed by “After the Dance” (14 R&B). That same year, Gaye’s contentious divorce from Anna Gordy was finalized. As part of the settlement, Gaye agreed to record a new album whose royalties would cover missed alimony payments. As he worked on the record, Motown released Live at the London Palladium, which featured the single “Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1.” A massive smash, reaching number one on both pop and R&B charts, “Got to Give It Up” was Gaye’s biggest hit of the disco era.
Here, My Dear, Gaye’s promised album to his ex-wife Anna, appeared in December 1978. The album not only contained no hits, it seemed designed to do. “A Funky Space Reincarnation (Part 1)” went to 23 on the R&B charts, but didn’t make the Hot 100. Gaye began work on an album called Lover Man, but once its lead single, “Ego Tripping Out,” failed to chart, he scrapped the album and relocated to Maui. His stay in Hawaii wasn’t long. In 1981, he fled the United States for Europe, all with the hopes of ditching the IRS. While there, he finished In Our Lifetime, the album that ended his long-standing association with Motown.
Gaye reemerged on Columbia in 1982 with the gorgeous “Sexual Healing.” Spending ten weeks at the top of Billboard’s R&B charts, the single spent three weeks at three on the pop charts. His star newly ascendant, he patched up his relationship with Motown, appearing on their 25th anniversary special, and he also sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game.
Just when it seemed like a new chapter in Gaye’s life opened, it shut just as quickly. He returned home, deep in the throes of cocaine addiction, and wound up getting into a series of fights with his father. On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gay, Sr. shot and killed his son; Marvin Gaye would’ve turned 45 years old the following day.
A pair of posthumous collections quickly appeared in 1985: Romantically Yours unearthed old big band material, Dream of a Lifetime rounded up funkier outtakes from Columbia Records and Motown. Motown released Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye: Never Before Released Masters in 1986, but the bigger project was the 1990 four-disc box The Marvin Gaye Collection. Over the three decades, Motown often repackaged Gaye’s music, sometimes releasing splashy archival packages, such as 1997′s Vulnerable, which revived a ballads album Gaye abandoned in 1977, and 2019′s You're the Man, which collected the extant 1972 recordings from the singer. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine