Biography - Marvin Gaye

As one of the pioneers of Motown, singer-songwriter and producer Marvin Gaye helped shape the sound of R & B music and is considered one of the greatest artists of all time.

Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939 in Washington D.C. to Marvin Gay, Sr., a preacher, and Alberta Gay, a housewife and schoolteacher. The middle child of three children, Marvin Gaye’s childhood can be characterized by developing an early love of music in the face of an abusive relationship with his father. Marvin Gaye’s introduction to music began by singing in his father’s church choir when he was only three years old. He expanded his musical abilities by learning how to play the piano and drums. To escape the repeated beatings he endured at the hands of his father, Marvin Gaye dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Air Force.

Never losing his love of music, he began singing in doo-wop groups when he was honorably discharged from the Air Force. He joined a local Washington D.C. band, and their song, “Wyatt Earp”, recorded with Okeh Records, led to an invitation to join Harvey Fuqua’s group, The Moonglows, in 1958. The group moved to Chicago and began recording for Chess Records. Marvin Gaye then caught the attention of Barry Gordy Jr. during a Motown Christmas party where Gaye played the piano. Gordy signed him to Motown Records in 1961.

Gaye’s career began slowly with Motown, working as a session drummer while trying to build a solo career. He played drums with such artists as The Miracles, The Contours, and Martha and the Vandellas. In 1961, Gaye released his first single, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” followed by the album The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. Both found no success on the national level, although they maintained moderate acclaim regionally.

Even though Marvin Gaye struggled with creative differences with Motown Records, he steadily churned out chart topping hits. In 1962, he released “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”, which reached the top 50 of the Billboard charts. The following year, “Hitch Hike” and “Can I Get a Witness” both reached the top 30. “Pride and Joy” became his first top 10 hit.

While his solo career was taking shape, Marvin Gaye collaborated in several duets. In 1964 he did a successful duet album with Mary Wells titled Together. The songs “Once Upon A Time” and “What’s The Matter with You Baby?” were also hit singles with Mary Wells.

His biggest duet hits, however, were with Tammi Terrell. Together they performed 1967’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love” followed by 1968’s “Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By”. Tragically, Terrell collapsed onstage while performing with Gaye. It was later discovered that she was suffering from a brain tumor. Her illness and subsequent death on March 16, 1970 ended Gaye’s desire to collaborate on any more duets. The loss also triggered bouts of depression and suicide threats. During this difficult period, Marvin Gaye had his biggest hit yet in 1968 with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. He refused to acknowledge its success, even though it sold over four million copies.

With the release of 1969’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and “That’s the Way Love Is”, Gaye became increasingly frustrated with the type of music he was making with Motown, even though his songs kept making the charts. He wanted to make more socially relevant music, so in 1971 What’s Going On was released; the first song Marvin Gaye produced himself. The album explored topics such as poverty, discrimination, politics, drug abuse and the environment. Barry Gordy was reluctant to release the album because he doubted its potential commercial success. Despite the reservations, What’s Going On was an instant hit and groundbreaking work in the soul music genre.

In 1973 Marvin Gaye changed his focus from social and political issues to more personal topics. His personal life was falling apart. His more than ten year marriage to Barry Gordy’s sister, Anna, was coming to an end. After their separation, the album Let’s Get It On surprised fans and critics with its sensual and erotic messages. The title track was a number one hit. The eventual divorce of Marvin and Anna delayed release of his next album, I Want You, also with sexually charged subjects, in 1975. After battling in divorce court, he was ordered in 1976 to pay a large percentage of the royalties of his next album to his ex-wife to cover alimony payments. That album, 1978’s Here, My Dear, chronicled his failed marriage in such detail that it nearly led to a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.

The turmoil surrounding Marvin Gaye’s life continued from the late 1970’s into the 1980’s. He moved to Hawaii when his second marriage failed, and continued his battle with drug addiction. He then relocated to Europe to escape tax problems with the IRS. While in Europe, Gaye wrote Our Lifetime, which was the catalyst that ended his nearly twenty year relationship with Motown Records. He contended that changes were made to the album without his consent. Much of the content was remixed and edited, and the title was changed to exclude a question mark that Gaye intended for irony.

The last two years of Marvin Gaye’s life were filled with a combination of successful music and increasing drug problems. He signed with Columbia Records in 1982 and released Midnight Love. It included the hit “Sexual Healing” which earned him his only Grammy Award and topped the charts in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Then in 1983 he reconciled with Barry Gordy on a televised appearance celebrating Motown’s 50th anniversary. His last public appearance was in 1983 when he sang his memorable rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star game.

Cocaine addiction forced Marvin Gaye to move in with his parents to try to straighten out his life. His strained relationship with his father, though, led him to sink even deeper into depression and thoughts of suicide. During an intense argument on April 1, 1984, Marvin Gaye was shot in the head by his father, only hours before his 45th birthday. Claiming self-defense, Marvin Gay Sr. plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered across the Pacific Ocean.

The magnitude of Marvin Gaye’s influence on R&B and soul music was recognized when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His music continues to influence and inspire singers and songwriters today.

Let's Get It On was released on June 15, 1973 on the album with the same name. Written by Marvin Gaye and Ed Townsend, this classic Motown hit received positive reviews from critics. With seductive lyrics and fluid sounds, it is considered one of the top romance songs of all time.

Ain't No Mountain High Enough was written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson in 1966. It became a hit in 1967 when it was recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. The song was later re-recorded by Diana Ross in 1970.

Sexual Healing was recorded in 1982 on Columbia Records. It reached #3 on the Billboard singles pop charts, spent a staggering ten weeks at number one on the R & B charts, and won two Grammy Awards in 1982 for Best R & B Vocal Performance and Best R & B Instrumental.

Got to Give It Up is a disco song written by Marvin Gaye in 1977. Originally titled “Dancing Lady”, it began as an almost twelve minute song for a live double album. Even though Marvin Gaye was pressured by Motown to record a disco song, it hit number one on the Billboard charts. He sang both lead and background vocals.

What's Going On is a song written by Marvin Gaye, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Al Cleveland. Written in 1971 and a song from the first album Marvin Gaye produced, Rolling Stone Magazine listed it as the fourth greatest song of all time in 2004. The inspiration for the song came from Gaye’s brother Frankie, who told him stories of his service during the Vietnam War.