Before joining Motown, Marvin Gaye performed in the Moonglows and his father’s church. Before working as his own producer on the protest album What’s Going On, he recorded songs by Smokey Robinson (1971). Gaye produced multiple singles, including “Let’s Get It On,” “Sexual Healing,” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” on his later albums, which helped him refine his production approach. In 1984, Gaye was fatally injured while fighting with his father at home.
The “Prince of Soul,” a singer by the name of Marvin Pentz Gaye Jr., was born in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1939. Marvin Gaye Jr. added the “e” to his name later in life. Gaye was nurtured under the tight supervision of his father, Reverend Marvin Gay Sr., the minister of a nearby church, amid the grim backdrop of pervasive crime in his area.
Gaye often found solace in music throughout his childhood and learned to play the piano and drums at an early age. His only singing experience up until high school was in church revivals, but he soon discovered a love for R&B and doo-wop that would lay the groundwork for his career. Gaye joined The New Moonglows, a vocal ensemble, in the late 1950s.
The gifted vocalist quickly won Harvey Fuqua over with his incredible vocal range, which covered three vocal timbres. Gaye and Fuqua were both quickly noticed by Detroit music mogul Berry Gordy Jr. and signed to Gordy’s illustrious Motown Records.
Although Gaye wouldn’t have his first chart-topping single under his own name until 1962, his early years at Motown were full with success in the background. For Motown superstars like Little Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, and Martha and the Vandellas, he served as a session drummer. With his solo single “Hitch Hike,” Gaye established himself as Motown’s Renaissance Man and entered the Top 40 for the first time.
Gaye displayed his wide variety throughout the 1960s, producing solo dance songs as well as passionate duets with hitmakers like Diana Ross and Mary Wells. Some of Gaye’s biggest singles during this time included “Can I Get a Witness” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” with the latter becoming Motown’s best-selling record of the 1960s.
Gaye and Tammi Terrell dazzled the nation for three soaring years with their soaring duet performances of songs like “If I Could Built My Entire World Around You” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Regrettably, Terrell’s death from a brain tumor in 1970 put an end to their time as the Royal Couple of R&B. The loss of his beloved vocal partner marked the beginning of a difficult time for the artist, who vowed never to collaborate with another female voice and threatened to permanently quit performing.
When political turmoil and violence over the Vietnam War grew, Gaye was inspired to write the iconic song “What’s Going On,” which became a cultural landmark. Despite disagreements with Motown regarding the creative direction of the song, the record was released in 1971 and immediately became a hit. Gaye increased his artistic and political risks as a result of its success. The What’s Going On album helped Gaye reach new audiences and keep his Motown fan base when it was released in the spring of 1971.
Gaye broke away from the tried-and-true Motown formula and pursued his own personal vision, opening the door for further musical diversification by other Motown performers like Wonder and Michael Jackson. Beyond having an impact on his contemporaries, the record received a great deal of favorable press and was named the Rolling Stone Album of the Year.
After relocating to Los Angeles in 1972, Marvin Gaye quickly met Janis Hunter, who would eventually become his second wife. Gaye wrote “Let’s Get It On,” which is regarded as one of the greatest love songs of all time, in part as a result of his newfound independence. His second No. 1 Billboard hit, the song definitively established his crossover appeal. Soon after, Motown forced Gaye to go on tour in order to capitalize on his most recent success; the singer-songwriter returned to the stage against his will.
Gaye was on the road, working with others, or producing during the most of the mid-1970s. He didn’t put out another solo record until 1976 while collaborating with Diana Ross and The Miracles. With the release of I Want You in 1976, he continued to tour, and in 1978, he released his final album for Motown Records (Here, My Dear), which included the dance track “Had to Give It Up,” which became a No. 1 success in 1977.
(Had to Give It Up would spark a significant dispute decades later. Gaye’s estate claimed in 2013 that Pharrell Williams, a producer/songwriter, and singer/songwriter Robin Thicke had violated his copyright by stealing significant musical components from the disco track for the smash hit “Blurred Lines.” The jury decided in favor of Gaye’s family, awarding them $7.3 million in damages and profit shares following a case in which Thicke claimed that he had minimal involvement in the song’s composition. Additionally, the jury found that neither Williams nor Thicke had deliberately infringed.)
In 1982, Gaye signed with CBS’s Columbia Records after spending 20 years with Motown, and he started production on his final album, Midnight Love. The R&B star’s comeback smash lead song from that album, “Sexual Healing,” helped him win his first two Grammy Awards as well as the American Music Award for Favorite Soul Single.
Gaye wed Hunter two years after his divorce from his wife Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy’s sister, who had by then given birth to their children Nona (born September 4, 1974) and Frankie (born November 16, 1975). From his previous marriage, Gaye also has an adopted son named Marvin Pentz Gaye III. The singer and Hunter’s marriage was turbulent and short-lived; it ended in divorce in 1981.
Death and Legacy
Gaye struggled greatly with the substance usage and bouts of depression that had dogged him for the majority of his life, despite making a successful comeback in the early 1980s. He relocated to his parents’ home following his most recent tour. There, he and his father developed a routine of aggressive arguments and battles that brought to mind tensions that had dogged the family for years. After a physical dispute on April 1, 1984, Marvin Gaye Sr. shot and killed his son; the father claimed he did it in self-defense but was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Gaye received his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction three years after his passing. Gaye repeatedly took his vision, skill, and breadth to the global stage while creating beautiful art from a difficult existence. At the conclusion of his career, he acknowledged that he no longer created music for enjoyment “I take notes so that I may give people what they want and need. I record in the hopes of assisting someone in getting through a difficult period.”