It is difficult to overstate the importance of Marvin Gaye on the popular music of the last 40 years. A brilliant yet troubled artist who rarely found consistent joy during his lifetime, he has become an iconic figure in the history of Soul music.
Born in Washington D.C., the son of a disturbed, violent minister, Gaye (then Marvin Gay) grew up with a hard-wired attraction to and gift for music, which he nurtured from childhood on. After a stint in the armed forces, he was discovered by legendary Soul figure Harvey Fuqua and recruited to join a latter day version of Harvey and the Moonglows, principally as a drummer. He came to the attention of the fledgling Motown label and its founder, Berry Gordy, and was signed by the label in 1960 as session musician and solo artist. Gaye went on to marry Gordy's sister, Anna -- a marriage that would end in bitter divorce in the mid-70s.
Gaye had the longing at Motown to be a jazz singer, and much of his early work was modeled after Nat "King" Cole and Billy Eckstine. The best of his jazz discs was When I'm Alone I Cry, an album of standards such as "I'll Be Around" and "I Was Telling Her About You" that showed Gaye to be an understated (and somewhat uninspiring) jazz stylist, but which was nonetheless an extremely enjoyable album with great song selection and production.
While Gaye was dreaming of Jazz credibility, Gordy saw in him the potential to be a dynamic, romantic popular Soul singer. Consequently, Gaye was provided some of Motown's best material over the period 1962-68, including the smash hits "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," "Pride and Joy," "Ain't that Peculiar," and "I'll Be Doggone." The highlight of this period was his haunting version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," his first #1 on the pop charts.
During the latter half of the 60s, Gaye also became a much-touted duet partner, scoring hits with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and, most importantly, Tammi Terrell, with whom he cut a series of outstanding cuts, including "If This World Were Mine," "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Your Precious Love." Terrell's tragic illness in 1967 and her subsequent death jarred Motown to its foundation and ended one of the most legendary pairings in Soul music history.
Seemingly always dissatisfied with his current situation, Gaye wandered through many personal stages in the late 60s, including an attempt to play professional football for the Detroit Lions and the beginning of experimentation with drugs. He also chafed at the regimented Motown songwriting and production machine, and broke out in 1970 by writing and performing a personal opus that addressed many of the issues of the day, including the Vietnam War, race relations, ecology and religion. The resulting disc, What's Going On, became perhaps the most important album of the decade, a masterpiece that sounds as brilliant today as it did nearly 35 years ago. It also spelled a change for Motown. Released against Berry Gordy's will, the disc became one of Gaye's biggest, and opened the doors for other artists (most notably Stevie Wonder) to flex their creative muscles.
Emboldened by the success of the disc, and after cutting an enjoyable, more predictable 1973 album of duets with Diana Ross, in 1974 Gaye released Let's Get It On. It was another creative musical masterpiece, though the conscientiousness of What's Going On was replaced on Let's Get In On by a carnal focus that was liberating to some and troubling to others. The combination of the two albums, along with Gaye's other albums of this era (Trouble Man and I Want You) clearly showed the wild breadth of ideas and conflicting thoughts in Gaye's head.
After his #1 1979 album, Live at the Palladium (featuring the magnificent dance tune, "Got To Give It Up"), Gaye's divorce from Anna Gordy led to the somewhat bitter, erratic Here My Dear (a sarcastic title referencing the alimony payments that the proceeds of the album would be used to pay). He followed it in 1981 with In Our Lifetime, his least successful album in almost two decades and a seeming signal that drug and personal problems had led Gaye to the end of his commercial appeal.
So it came as a clear surprise when Gaye, by then based in Europe, signed with Columbia Records and released 1982's Midnight Love, an across the board smash. The disc was based on the foundation of "Sexual Healing," a cut that followed the lyrical direction of Let's Get It On, but with a infectiously unique, electronic island beat. Unfortunately, the personal demons he was battling continued, and the following year he performed both a magnificent version of the Star Spangled Banner at the NBA All-Star Game and a bizarre set on the Motown 25 special. Continued drug use appeared to be taking its toll, and he returned to the U.S. in 1984 to try and get his life together. Unfortunately, the return included time with his increasingly erratic father, who shot and killed Gaye in April of that year after an argument.
The mourning of Gaye's death was swift and long-lasting. Several tributes to his life and career have been recorded over the last 20 years, and his legend -- particularly for his two definitive albums, What's Going On and Let's Get It On -- continues to grow to this day, as his influence is omnipresent in male soul singers from lovermen such as Keith Sweat and Usher to serious soul singers like Kenny Lattimore and Tommy Sims. His legacy will likely continue to be relevant and revered for years to come.
By Chris Rizik