Marvin Gaye personified the changing landscape of R&B in a career that spanned not just the tumultuous 1960s, but 26 years that saw the art form go from innocent street corner doo-wop to the sexually charged soul music of the 1980s. No mere dabbler or genre-hopper, with each reinvention Gaye broke new ground and created classic records still in heavy rotation around the world. He scored 41 Billboard Top 40 hits in all—including reworked material released nearly two decades after his death. According to Forbes, in 2008 he ranked 13th in posthumous performer earnings, pulling in $3.5 million in royalties, a tribute to how much his music remains with us.
Born in Washington D.C. and brought up in a strict religious home, like many Black artists of his generation his first exposure to music was through church, where he learned to sing and play the organ. His father, a Pentecostal minister, was abusive and frequently clashed with young Marvin over his secular musical activities, while his mother encouraged his singing. As his career progressed and all the usual troubles of fame came with it—relationship problems, drugs, money disputes—he would see his music as an extension of the battle going on in his soul between the sacred and the profane, a conflict he was never fully able to reconcile.
In high school, Gaye played drums in a local doo-wop group before serving a short stint in the Air Force—which he joined mostly to get away from his father. Upon being discharged after faking mental illness, he formed The Marquees, who were discovered and signed by Bo Diddley. When that band broke up, he moved to Detroit and joined Harvey Fuqua’s The Moonglows who were signed with the influential blues label Chess Records, where Gaye would sing back-up and record with Etta James and Chuck Berry. So close were Fuqua and Gaye at this time that Gaye later told a biographer that Fuqua was like a surrogate father.
And then along came the Gordy family.
Gwen, Berry and Anna, specifically. Gwen Gordy, who married Harvey Fuqua in 1961, would sign Gaye to her record label, before brother Berry Gordy Jr. bought her out and established his own outfit, a little venture you may have heard of called Motown Records. Their sister Anna Gordy would marry Gaye and remain his wife for 13 years, a turbulent marriage that ended with a bitter split. (Upon being told by a judge that proceeds from his next record would go to paying for the divorce settlement, Gaye mockingly titled the 1978 album Here, My Dear.)
Still undervalued as a singer, Gaye first recorded on Motown as a session drummer, playing on songs by The Miracles and Martha and the Vandellas. Eventually Anna convinced her skeptical brother Berry to let Gaye sing, and the The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye became Motown’s first full-length album release. It consisted mostly of jazz standard covers and was a dud.
At Berry Gordy’s urging, Gaye returned to the “Motown Sound.” His next effort, That Stubborn Kind of Fellow, featured background vocals by Martha and the Vandellas, the Temptations and the Supremes, as well as instrumentation by the Funk Brothers (who would boast of playing on “more hit records than the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.”) The record gave Gaye his first hit singles.
Gaye also benefitted from Gordy’s genius for pairing artists in his roster, performing duets with several female singers. Tammi Terrell proved Gaye’s most successful foil, and the two enjoyed a run of hit singles until Terrell collapsed in his arms onstage and later died of a brain tumor. Gaye was traumatized and would not perform live for another four years.
Motown, meanwhile, continued to rack up record sales. Producing an astounding 110 Top 10 hits from 1961 to 1971, they were hugely instrumental in breaking down the walls of musical segregation. But crossover success often came at the price of stifling artistic self-expression. Every aspect of an artist’s act was scrutinized and regimented—from the songs they performed, to their choreography, to their wardrobe. All material had to be written by Motown songwriters, played by Motown musicians, recorded and mixed by Motown producers, and no records would be released until they were vetted by Berry Gordy personally during his infamous weekly quality control meetings.
Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1971 album What’s Going On changed all that forever.
A little background—in 1967 Berry Gordy had resisted releasing Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” as a single, arguing that it lacked commercial appeal. Producer Norman Whitfield badgered him for over a year until Gordy partially relented, agreeing to include the track on Gaye’s 1968 album In the Groove. When “…Grapevine” became the most requested song on the album, Gordy was forced to release it as a single. It sold four million copies and became Motown’s best-selling record of the ’60s (and was recently named in an online poll as the greatest Motown song of all time).
What’s Going On would once again pit Gaye against his brother-in-law and boss. The album was an ambitious song cycle written from the point of view of a Vietnam vet returning from the war only to find unemployment, police brutality, urban decay and poverty awaiting him. It was a personal, socially and politically conscious concept album that lacked the musical hallmarks of the Motown sound, had no obvious singles and wasn’t even properly formatted for radio play. Gordy thought the material was too politically charged and the funk and jazz inspired music too sophisticated, even going so far as to call its title track “the worst record I ever heard.” When he refused to release it, Gaye relentlessly lobbied other Motown executives until CEO Gordy eventually relented.
The first Motown album to wholly credit a single artist for its production, What’s Going On was an instant critical and commercial success, receiving universal praise and yielding three hit singles. More to the point, it lent the R&B genre credibility as an art form in a time when it was losing relevance, expanding its territory beyond catchy love songs sung by glamorous girl groups with tambourines. Today What’s Going On is hailed as one of the all-time greats, with Rolling Stone naming it in 2004 as the 6th best album ever recorded.
In ways, its success brought down the house that Gordy built, inspiring musicians like Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers to demand more artistic freedom and control over their work. There would be more successes for Motown, but the days of Hitsville, USA’s factory-style assembly line of musical production were gone. Eventually Gaye would leave Motown Records after they released what he deemed unfinished material. Many other artists followed suit over the years. On the occasion of Motown’s 50th anniversary, Stevie Wonder was the only artist from the ’60s who remained signed to Motown Records—a label that has undergone various changes in corporate ownership since Gordy sold what had become a money-losing venture by the mid ’80s.
Gaye would score even greater commercial success with his next album, 1973’s about-face Let’s Get It On, launching a third phase of his career and turning him from social commentator into carnal, crooning lothario. Gaye recorded some hit singles even into the early 1980s, but the later years of his life and career were plagued by cocaine abuse and the financial, marital and mental problems that came with it.
Gaye reunited with Harvey Fuqua late in his career, as Fuqua took the producing reins on 1982’s Midnight Love. After touring in support of the record, an exhausted, addicted and increasingly paranoid Gaye moved back into his parents’ house. Never on good terms even in the best of times, he and his alcoholic father quarreled. On April 1, 1984, his father shot and killed him when Gaye tried to forcefully intervene in a dispute between his parents. The sentencing judge ruled that Gaye had provoked the shooting.
His death was met with shock and sadness across the world, but also a dazed sense of déjà vu, coming as it did just four years after the killing of John Lennon. Decades later, we’re still trying to understand what’s going on.