Marvin Pentz Gaye, Jr.


Born April 2, 1939 in Washington, DC, Died April 1, 1984 in Los Angeles, California


            He was a man pursued by demons.

            You’d never have known that to see him in the 1960s, when he established himself as one of Motown Records’ most consistent hit makers, churning out a series of upbeat, radio-friendly solo hits and glossy duets with such Motown leading ladies as Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell.   He cut such a sleek figure then, movie star handsome and devastatingly sexy without ever appearing to try.   But most of all, he was a singer of uncommon dexterity, gifted with a voice that shifted effortlessly from saw-toothed growl to smooth tenor to ethereal falsetto. 

            Armed with those gifts, Gaye became, as Rolling Stone once dubbed him, the prince of Motown.  Then he went on to become more: Motown’s visionary mystic and carnal pioneer in a pair of groundbreaking albums that would go down as among the most important ever recorded.

            But through it all, the demons never went away.  They chased him till the very end

            Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. – he later added the “e” to his family name – was the second child of Alberta Gay and the Rev. Marvin Gay, Sr.  Theirs was a joyless home.  The father was an authoritarian Old Testament Pentecostal preacher so strict that lipstick, dancing and television were outlawed for his family and his wife and daughters were forbidden to wear sleeveless dresses or even open-toed shoes.

The Gay patriarch required them all to keep the Sabbath in the manner of Orthodox Jews, meaning that after sundown on Friday, the children – Marvin and his older sister Jeanne were soon joined by two others, Frankie and Zeola – were cut off from the world, forbidden to play, ride the bus, watch television or do anything, really, except pray and endure their father’s Biblical instruction.   

The elder Marvin Gay had little use for his firstborn son.   “My husband never wanted Marvin,” Alberta Gay told biographer David Ritz.  “And he never liked him.  He used to say that he didn’t think he was really his child.  I told him that was nonsense.  He knew Marvin was his.  But for some reason, he didn’t love Marvin and, what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either.  Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.”

            The father subjected all of his children to horrific beatings.  Gaye told Ritz that by the time he was 12, “there wasn’t an inch of my body that hadn’t been bruised and beaten by him.”  Aware that he could never win his father’s affection, the boy resolved to win his attention instead, often by misbehaving in brazen ways that he knew would draw the man’s wrath.  His sister Jeanne remembered him using their father’s hairbrush, not bothering to clean it, and leaving it in a place where the older man would be sure to see it.

            As if that were not enough emotional dysfunction for one child to navigate, there was also the issue of the father’s ambiguous sexual identity.  Rev. Gay may have been a closeted gay man – “I don’t know,” his son told Ritz.  “I don’t want to know.” – but he was, at minimum, a man of flagrantly effeminate mannerisms who favored flowery, lacy clothing and who, at home, enjoyed wearing his wife’s panties, shoes, nightgowns and hose.  It was not uncommon for Marvin Jr. to see his father thus attired.  Or for him to have to bear the taunts and snickers of neighborhood boys about his “sissy” of an old man.

            It was not, to put it mildly, an easy childhood.

            But there was always the music.  Gaye, a self-taught musician, began performing at church meetings with his father by the time he was five.   He found that his voice moved people, women especially, to a state of religious ecstasy.  The father was jealous of the power wielded by the son.

            Things never did get better between them.  A break between the elder Gay and his church left the father spiritually – and professionally – at sea.  He didn’t work, preferring to spend his days lounging around the house while his wife provided for the family.  But the strict rules and harsh punishments never abated.

            Marvin, though, was growing older, moving deeper into the world beyond his father’s house.  He was also discovering a music beyond his father’s church, thrilling to do-wop, blues, R&B, and jazz.  He idolized Sonny Till and the Orioles, Little Willie John, Clyde McPhatter, Billie Holliday, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles.

            In the 11th grade, Gaye dropped out of high school and impulsively joined the Air Force, hoping to learn to fly.  Instead, he was assigned menial tasks.  Worse, he could not adjust to military regimentation and to the idea of taking orders.  Gaye would hate authority figures his entire life.  His career in the armed forces lasted nine months.

            Though he had washed out of the military, Gaye refused to return to his father’s house, choosing homelessness instead.  It was during this period, when he was sleeping on friend’s couches, that Gaye began singing in earnest, joining a do-wop group called the Marquees.   They played sock hops.  They cut a record.  Nothing happened.

            Then Gaye met Harvey Fuqua, a singer, songwriter and producer, who recruited the Marquees to form a new version of his group, the Moonglows.  Fuqua relocated the group to Chicago and Gaye, all of 19, went with him.  The newly reconstituted Moonglows spent the next few years recording and touring without a great deal of success. 

            That would change, at least for Gaye, in 1961 when a Detroit impresario named Berry Gordy, Jr. happened to catch the group in action.  Though he had no interest in the Moonglows, Gordy was impressed by Gaye.  He bought the singer’s contract from Fuqua and installed him at his new record label, Motown.

            It took Motown a couple of years to figure out what to do with Gaye.  He worked as a session drummer for awhile, appearing on tracks by the likes of Smokey Robinson and Mary Wells, and recorded an ill-fated album of supper club jazz in an effort to make himself the new-era Nat King Cole he had always dreamt of being.  During this period, he also met and began a courtship with the boss’ daughter.  Anna Gordy was 17 years older than her husband.

            They would marry in 1963.  By that time, the puzzle of Gaye’s musical identity had been solved in a big way.  Three big R&B hits – Stubborn Kind of Fellow, Hitch Hike and Pride and Joy ­­– blasted Gaye permanently out of obscurity and established him as one of the hottest properties at what was quickly becoming the hottest record label in the country.

            Co-writing much of his own material and working with a Who’s Who of Motown producers – Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson – Gaye became a regular fixture in the R&B Top 10, a safer bet than death, taxes and sunrise.  His hits included Can I Get A Witness, Try It Baby, Ain’t That Peculiar, I’ll Be Doggone, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Too Busy Thinking About My Baby and I Heard It Through The Grapevine.   

            Gaye also racked up an impressive series of duet hits with Motown chanteuses Mary Wells (What’s The Matter With You, Baby) and Kim Weston (It Takes Two).   But Gaye’s most enduring and successful pairing would be with a glamorous young singer from Philadelphia.  Born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, she took the stage name Tammi Terrell.

            In the late ‘60s, the duo of Marvin and Tammi could simply do no wrong, turning out hit after hit – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing, If This World Were Mine, You’re All I Need To Get By – all of them expressive of a frothy and carefree young love.  Though never romantically involved, Gaye and Terrell offered a convincing and enchanting portrait of two attractive people with eyes only for one another.

            But that lighthearted image was increasingly at odds with Gaye’s life.  His marriage to Anna was imploding.  Gaye was unfaithful to her and said she returned the favor.  Their fights and public arguments soon became the stuff of legend.  The tension was not helped by the adoption of an infant son, Marvin Pentz Gaye III, whom Marvin soon began to regard as a rival for his wife’s affections, much as his own father had done with him.

            His drug use was also becoming an issue.  Gaye was spending a lot of money on cocaine during those years.  He didn’t spend nearly enough on his taxes and soon found himself deeply in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. 

            A great depression overcame Marvin Gaye in those years, in stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky face he presented to the world.  It was so bad that he contemplated suicide on more than one occasion, once holing up with a gun and threatening to kill himself, until Gordy’s father, Berry “Pops” Gordy, Sr., talked him out of it.

In part, Gaye would later say, the depression stemmed from his own self-loathing and feelings of unworthiness.  But it was also a response to the turbulent times in which he was living.  Malcolm X was killed in 1965.  Martin Luther King was killed in 1968.  Bobby Kennedy was also killed in 1968.  And a senseless war in southeast Asian war continued to grind up the lives of young American men by the thousands.  His own brother Frankie was over there.

Then the specter of death touched home.  In 1967, Tammi Terrell collapsed onstage in Gaye’s arms.  In 1970, she died of brain cancer.  She was 24 years old.

For Gaye, it was all simply…too much.

As the new decade dawned, he was a broken man.  He rarely performed, didn’t want to record, lived in seclusion.  For awhile, Gaye toyed with filling the emptiness he felt with a quixotic career change from music to sports.  Gaye, a good athlete but not a great one, hatched a plan to try out for the Detroit Lions.  He gave up cigarettes and drugs and committed himself to a grueling training regimen, convinced he could make this happen.  He couldn’t.

When he finally did find something to fill the yawning emptiness he felt, it was not sports.  It was, unsurprisingly, music.  Specifically, it was a game-changing suite of songs called What’s Going On.

Written and produced by Gaye, What’s Going On was an album unlike any that had ever come before.  While most other Motown acts gave glancing attention to the social upheavals of the era, Gaye placed them front and center, bemoaning the war in Vietnam (the title song), the befouling of the planet (Mercy, Mercy Me), urban decay (Inner City Blues) and the betrayal of the next generation (Save The Children).  Revolutionarily for that time, the songs on What’s Going On did not end, so much as they flowed into one another, cascading together like waves on a ceaseless sea.  Shifting from his smooth midrange to his celestial falsetto, Gaye sang with and against himself, his voice overdubbed into a choir of Marvin Gayes singing hymns of the deepest human longings.

What’s Going On was that rarity: something truly new.  And Motown hated it.  For months, Gaye and Gordy were at a standoff, the label refusing to release it and Gaye refusing to record anything else.  Finally, Motown relented.  What’s Going On was released in the spring of 1971 and was an immediate phenomenon, producing three major hit singles: the title song, Mercy, Mercy Me, and Inner City Blues.  More importantly, What’s Going On changed the game, rewriting the nation’s understanding of what R&B – and popular music in general – could be and achieve.

But What’s Going On was just the opening salvo of a remarkable period of creative accomplishment for Gaye.  He followed it up with the hit soundtrack to the movie Trouble Man and then, in 1973, issued Let’s Get It On, an album that approached sex with a new frankness that had seldom been heard before in popular music.

Sex had, of course, never been absent from pop, but it was usually presented as subtext, a lyric that made the grown folks wink and nod while preserving their deniability.  As when Elvis Presley sang, “Have you heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight.”  Or, when Big Joe Turner crooned about a “one eyed cat peepin’ in the seafood store.”

But from the moment the opening guitar of the title song spiraled down into Gaye’s growl of sexual frustration – “I’ve been really trying, baby, trying to hold back this feeling for so long” – that sort of coyness became obsolete.   The title song was another hit for Gaye, as were the follow-ups, Come Get To This, You Sure Love To Ball and Distant Lover.

As his professional winning streak was pushing to new heights, Gaye’s personal life was in its usual state of tumult.  His marriage was over in all but name.  And then one day, during the Let’s Get It On Sessions, a young girl named Janis Hunter walked into the studio and for Gaye, it was as if lightning had struck him right between the eyes.  She was 16 years old – 17 years younger than Gaye, but the age gap did not matter to him.  Gaye was possessed by her, obsessed with her.  Soon enough, they were inseparable.

By 1975, Anna had had enough.  She filed for divorce. 

There followed a protracted fight that lasted for two years.  When Gaye, cash-strapped as usual, was unable to meet Anna’s $600,000 alimony demands, they struck an unusual bargain.  Gaye would surrender the $307,000 advance for his next album and all future royalties to a maximum of $293,000.  But Anna could scarcely have known what she was getting herself into.

Released in 1978, Here, My Dear was a double-album suite that eviscerated her and autopsied the marriage with brutal candor.  In confessional whispers and that searing falsetto, Gaye laid bare the fights, the jealousy, the power plays, the good sex, and the souring of love in a double album that one listened to with a horrified and voyeuristic fascination.   The record was so wrenching and unsparing that Anna is said to have contemplated suing her former husband for invasion of privacy.   In the end, and probably wisely, she decided against it.

Perhaps the only satisfaction for the former Mrs. Gaye was the fact that album bombed.  Not that Gaye was at a loss for commercial success.  The year before, he had notched a major hit with Got To Give It Up, a studio track from a live album recorded in London.  Got To Give It Up was a 12-minute opus, an airy, percussion-punctuated paean to the power of dance and the promise of sex to get a wallflower off his wall.  It dominated the charts in the spring of 1977.

That same year, he married Janis, with whom he’d had two children.  Just a year later, things were so bad between them that she filed for divorce, although he was able to talk her out of it. 

But things were never really good between them again. For a time, Jan left him for a fling with singer Teddy Pendergrass. 

Nor was Gaye’s professional life in better shape.  After signing a lucrative new contract with Motown, he was never able to buckle down and deliver an album.  In 1979, the IRS seized his home and studio. 

Gaye retreated to Hawaii with Jan, but they did nothing except fight, including one brawl in which he found himself with a knife to her chest.  Jan returned to the mainland and Gaye attempted suicide, snorting an ounce of cocaine in an hour.  He survived.

It was, however, a difficult time.  Gaye wound up living in a bread truck on a Hawaiian beach.  Destitute, he pawned diamonds he had given his mother for a small infusion of cash.

Finally, Gaye, always a reluctant performer, agreed to a European tour.  The reviews were mixed and he made international headlines when he impulsively snubbed Britain’s Princess Margaret, with whom he had agreed to dine at a charity event.

Gaye stayed in London after the tour, where he lived a life of purposeful debauchery, renting a flat where he spent hazy days and nights in the company of drug dealers and prostitutes, freebasing endless amounts of cocaine.   A divorce from Jan was finalized.  A professional divorce would soon follow.

When Motown, still desperate for new product, finally packaged some unfinished odds and ends and put them out as an album called In Our Lifetime, the singer was furious and vowed that he would never again record for Berry Gordy’s company.

But Gaye had one last resurrection left in him. 

He agreed to go to Belgium with Freddy Cousaert, a businessman and promoter.   There, in Ostend, a quiet coastal city, the singer began to heal himself, both physically (he cut down on the drug use) and professionally.  Frightened of being arrested for tax evasion should he return to the United States, he toured in Europe to earn money.  His representatives were able to negotiate a release from Motown Records.  Eventually, they were able to secure him a contract with a new label, CBS.

When Gaye returned home in November of 1982 after almost three years abroad, it was in triumph.  Sexual Healing, the first single from his CBS debut, Midnight Love, was scaling the charts in leaps and bounds.   With the money from the CBS deal, he had settled his tax bill..

He sang a loose and funky rendition of the national anthem the NBA All-Star Game.  Resplendent in a white jacket, he gave a stellar performance of What’s Going On for the Motown 25 television special.  And he won two Grammy Awards – his first – for Sexual Healing.

But redemption was not to be.

That same year, Gaye went on a U.S. tour.  It was a messy affair, the performance uneven and often uninspired.  Worse, Gaye’s mental state had begun a precipitous decline.  He was paranoid, convinced Jan was out to do him in, convinced he was being stalked, convinced he would be shot while performing.  He took to placing bodyguards onstage.  Men with guns were ever present around him.

When the tour ended, Gaye retreated to his bedroom in the Los Angeles home he had bought for his parents.  Fatefully, his father lived in a bedroom down the hall. 

Gaye withdrew from friends and even from music, preferring to spend his days freebasing cocaine and watching pornographic videos.  He was capable of violent rages, particularly against women who sought him out.  And he remained convinced someone was out to get him.

As in the beginning, it came down in the end to the father versus the son.  On April 1, 1984, Marvin, Sr., angry over some insurance papers he was unable to find, stormed into Marvin Jr.’s bedroom and started berating his wife, who was at their son’s bedside.

Gaye ordered his father out.  When his father tried to stand his ground, Gaye shoved him into the hallway, punctuating it with a series of punches four decades in the making.  Then he returned to his bed.

A few minutes later, the father reappeared at the doorway, holding a .38 caliber revolver, that had been a gift from his son.  The older Gaye fired once, striking his son in the chest.  He walked over, stood point blank, and fired again.

Then he went out the front door, threw the gun on the lawn and sat on the porch to wait for the police.

One of the great voices of the 20th century was stilled.  And Marvin Gaye’s race with his demons was over at last.  

Sources: Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye  by David Ritz,,, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll

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