Marvin Gaye broke down barriers singing about the body and the soul, social consciousness and sexual politics. One of music’s most expressive singers, a deeply talented producer and a superb songwriter of both the romantic and the revolutionary, his voice spoke for a generation. Now legendary, Marvin continues to speak across the decades.
Born April 2, 1939 and raised in Washington, D.C., Gaye sang in a few local vocal groups before joining the doo-wop group the Moonglows, where he was mentored by Harvey Fuqua. When Fuqua joined Motown he brought his young protégé with him. At Motown Marvin was a session drummer, waiting for his chance to sing standards and be the “black Sinatra”; he showed songwriting skills as co-writer of the Marvelettes’ 1962 hit “Beechwood 4-5789.”
Marvin made his own breakthrough that year not singing ballads but tough R&B, with the Top 10 R&B “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,” the first of his many autobiographical singles, followed by the massive hits “Hitch Hike,” “Pride And Joy” (his first pop Top 10, written about his new wife Anna Gordy), “Can I Get A Witness,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” and the No. 1 R&B smashes “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “I’ll Be Doggone.” Motown’s top solo male artist of the Sixties, he became known as ‘the “Prince of Motown,” reaching an apex with the No. 1 “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” At times haunting and funky, it become the company’s biggest-selling single of the decade. Other Marvin singles from the sixties include “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” “That’s The Way Love Is” and “The End Of Our Road.” He also co-wrote Martha & the Vandellas’ classic “Dancing In The Street,” and at the end of the decade co-wrote and produced the Originals’ hits “Baby I’m For Real” and “The Bells.”
And Marvin sang sublime duets. He joined forces with Mary Wells in 1964 for a single that produced a Top 20 on each side—“What’s The Matter With You Baby” and “Once Upon A Time”—and later teamed with Kim Weston for “It Takes Two.” But his collaboration with Tammi Terrell is the standard by which all male-female duos are measured. Their partnership was intensely melodic, spectacularly successful, and devastatingly tragic. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was their exciting debut in 1967; it was featured on the album, United, which also included the Top 10s “If I Could Build My World Around You” and “Your Precious Love.” You’re All I Need, the ’68 follow-up LP, included the R&B No. #1 hits “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.”
The hits hid Marvin and Tammi’s real pain: she was suffering from a brain tumor, discovered after she collapsed in his arms onstage during an October ’67 concert. Marvin was deeply shaken, refusing to perform for several years. In 1970, at age 24, Terrell passed away. Marvin would have other female singing partners, notably Diana Ross, but Marvin and Tammi truly was the real thing.
Around the time of Tammi’s death, Marvin was deeply affected by his brother Frankie’s stories from the Vietnam War, and turned to music to express his discomfort with a world in turmoil. Out poured the 1971 album What’s Going On, which explored issues from poverty and discrimination to the environment, drug abuse, political corruption and the war, forever changing the sound and substance of soul and pop music. Three singles from the LP were #1 R&B and Top 10 pop: “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Gaye’s first self-production, it was the last great Motown album recorded in Detroit before the label’s move to Los Angeles.
What’s Going On was social revolution. Let’s Get It On, two years later, was sexual revolution. Let’s Get It On remains one of the most passionate albums ever recorded; the title track, a no. 1 pop and R&B smash, is by every poll the no. 1 make-out song of all time - and one of the best-selling ringtones of the 21st century. The album, also no. 1 on both charts, featured several classic confessional slow jams, including “Distant Lover,” “Just To Keep You Satisfied” and the hit single “Come Get To This.”
Between those two albums Marvin released his duet album with Diana Ross, Diana and Marvin, which featured the hits “My Mistake (Was To Love You)” and “You’re A Special Part Of Me.” He also joined his contemporaries Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield and scored the soundtrack to a feature film, Trouble Man, which produced a largely instrumental LP that became a template for the acid-jazz movement in the nineties. The title track, the lone vocal from the album, was a Top 10 hit.
In 1974 Marvin was finally convinced to return to the road; one of his first concerts back, in Oakland, CA, resulted in the hit album Live!. He struggled with recording until Motown founder and president Berry Gordy suggested a collaboration with Leon Ware. They crafted the highly erotic I Want You, which Marvin turned into a love letter to Janis Hunter, a young woman with whom he had been involved since the recording of “Let’s Get it On.” Funky and sexy, the album featured the no. 1 title track, and such hot grooves as “Since I Had You,” “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” and the hit single “After The Dance.” The album’s influence ranges from Prince to R. Kelly, Madonna to Maxwell, and more.
Live At The London Palladium, a two-LP set released in 1977, documented Marvin’s first European tour. But the album’s highlight was a funky studio cut, “Got To Give It Up,” an across-the-board no. 1 pop/R&B/disco hit that, ironically, spoke to Marvin’s fear of dancing. But troubles mounted for him, from divorce to back taxes to substance abuse. In his usual idiosyncratic fashion, Marvin settled his divorce from Anna with an album about their relationship, Here, My Dear, a masterful song suite misunderstood at the time but is now considered one of Rolling Stone magazine’s Top Albums of All Time.
He dealt with the rest of his difficulties by moving to Hawaii, then London, where he worked on the album In Our Lifetime, his last for Motown. Marvin settled in Ostende, Belgium, a small seaside town that afforded a respite from the world at large. While there he developed the song “Sexual Healing,” signed to Columbia Records and returned to the U.S.
“Sexual Healing” became a worldwide smash in 1982-83, winning for Marvin his only two Grammy® Awards. The album Midnight Love, also featuring “Til Tomorrow,” was a hit as well, capping Marvin’s triumphant comeback. At the 1983 NBA All-Star Game Marvin provided a surprisingly emotional reading of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” accompanied only by a drum machine, that has become legendary. But his torments grew and he threatened suicide after bitter arguments with his father. A day before his 45th birthday in 1984, after another confrontation, his father shot and killed him.
In his career, Marvin Gaye earned 18 pop Top 10s, three of which peaked at no. 1, and 38 R&B Top 10s; 13 of those hit no. 1, tying him for first in that category with Michael Jackson. In 1987, he was among the second group of artists honored with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But his legacy goes beyond numbers and honors. He led the way for intensely personal artistic self-expression in the commercial world of modern pop music and elevated the impact of soul music as an agent for social change. Intimate, raw and brutally honest, his songs revealed a mixture of grit and sweetness, confidence and vulnerability, spirituality and sensuality.
On this day in 1981, Marvin’s final album for Classic Motown, In Our Lifetime, was released. What is your favorite track from the album?
"I think Marvin Gaye was one of the greatest music-makers of all-time. I loved 'What's Going On' – that was a great album." Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys
Marvin entered the charts with his album 'Here, My Dear" this week in 1979. Read more: http://www.udiscovermusic.com/under-the-radar
"I'd give anything to see
A little Christmas tree
And to hear, hear the laughter
Of children playing in the snow
To kiss my baby, under the mistletoe"
Listen to Marvin's song "I Want To Come Home For Christmas" and more on the Motown Christmas playlist. https://ClassicMotown.lnk.to/ChristmasPlaylist
Need a holiday gift idea for your favorite Marvin fan? Give the gift of music. Check out the Volume 3 Vinyl Box Set: https://ClassicMotown.lnk.to/MGVol3Az
50 years ago on this date, Marvin & Kim Weston released the song "It Takes Two," from their duet album 'Take Two.'
Lifted from Marvin’s 'In The Groove' LP, the track “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was released as a single today in 1968, and it became the biggest-selling hit of Classic Motown's first decade.
Revisit the full album: https://ClassicMotown.lnk.to/InTheGroove