The life of Marvin Gaye
Throughout the 60’s and til the 70’s, Berry Gordy’s Motown record company gained significant traction in the world of music, producing hit after hit with a combination of talented artists and strategic production. Behind the scenes, Motown was known for it’s tight grip on the artists within its label where everything from artist development to the full range of production was micro managed for commercial success. One of their most promising artists was a man named Marvin Gaye. Gaye was a partial product of the Motown music mold but also the eventual force needed to break that very same mold. While his launch to success can be credited to the Motown label, his musicianship, charisma, and talent were fruits grown from the entirety of his life.
Marvin Gaye was actually born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., the son of church minister Marvin Gay Sr. and Alberta Gay. The later addition of the extra “e” in his name was actually for two reasons: to eliminate all of the circulating rumors concerning his sexuality and to create distance between him and his father. The added “e” often brought on comparisons to singer Sam Cooke who also added the letter, albeit for different reasons. Like many African-American artists in the 1900’s, Gaye was introduced to the world of music by his early involvement in his church’s music. The fact that his father was a minister of their church only further pushed him in this direction. This is where he started singing and also developing his love for singing. Gaye’s life at home was infamously tumultuous and violent because of his father’s constant abuse growing up. Gaye was quoted as saying that his love of singing and love for music was what kept him alive and going for the early years of his life and that he found peace in music.
Many people know Marvin Gaye for his soulful and smooth singing yet they are unaware of his equally impressive skills as an instrumentalist and producer. Gaye actually mastered the piano and drums at an early age with his singing skills limited to church and school performances. Unbeknownst to many, Gaye was actually a skilled session drummer for Motown as well as a singer and artist. In fact, his earlier career in Motown was playing drums for legends like Stevie Wonder and The Supremes. While this might seem like a small detail, I could see how his role as an instrumentalist influenced his work to come. Drummers are often the glue that holds a band together; if the drummer is not solid then the band won’t sound very solid either. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person but I believe that with this background, Gaye learned to carry the weight of a song in whichever role he was in, especially as a singer. As he grew as a singer in the 50’s, Gaye joined the vocal group The New Moonglows where he met group leader, Harvey Fuqua. Both he hand Fuqua would grow in popularity for their talent and soon catch the attention of Berry Gordy, who subsequently signed them to his famous Motown record label.
When I think of Marvin Gaye and his musical career, I see two different sides of the same coin. One side is his time as a star in Motown, and his time afterwards where he was an independent artist. Neither is necessarily better than the other but they are definitely each unique and served a purpose in the larger picture of Gaye’s career. During his career in Motown, Gaye didn’t have his first hit single until 1962 with his song “Hitch Hike.” From then on, the 60’s would be a defining time for him as he showed off his range and talent to fans everywhere. During this time he released duet and dance hits with fellow Motowners Diana Ross and Mary Wells, catapulting him to the top of musical charts. While impressive, this success paled in comparison to his famous duets with singer Tammi Terrel. The song they are most well known for, “Ain’t No Mountain high Enough” soared to the top of charts and was a hit all around the country. They were often called the “Royal Couple of R&B” at the time and for three years they were leading the world of music and Motown. Unfortunately, their run would end when Terrell passed away from a brain tumor in 1970. This time was especially hard for Gaye as this plunged him into a dark period of his life. To many, this signified an end to his formulaic Motown career and the start of a new beginning in music for him. While this loss hit him hard, it also propelled him into new creative directions. The formula of Motown served Gaye well in his earlier career and offered a platform for him to advance into new musical territory.
This part of Gaye’s career would be the other different side of the coin. This is where Gaye went from not only being a sweet soulful Motown singer but a sex symbol and musical icon of his generation. Inspired and responding to the violence of the Vietnam War, Gaye wrote his first song that would clash with direction of Motown’s music, “What’s Going On.” Unlike Gaye’s Motown hits, this new song sounds markedly different from the “usual.” The form is looser and the content itself is far from anything that Motown had ever done before. Gaye would continue this trend of branching out in his next famous hit “Lets Get It On,” which was a simple love anthem that capitalized on his crossover appeal and growing fame.
Motown would continue to use Gaye despite clashes in creative direction and Gaye continued to work, collaborate, and tour with other Motown artists and the label itself. His last album for Motown would be in 1978 with “Here, My Dear.” After Motown, Gaye signed with Columbia Records and began work on the last pieces of music in his decorated career. In 1982, Gaye released his album “Midnight Love” that had his famous single “Sexual Healing.” This was a comeback for him that only further cemented his persona as a talented producer and cultural sex symbol.
Unfortunately, like many of music’s greats, Gaye passed away far too early at the age of 44 after an altercation with his father turned fatal. It’s funny how while people relate Gaye to Sam Cooke for the added “e,” there are many comparisons that can be drawn between them. Both died much too early and the potential for their musical careers had they lived was seemingly limitless. Long past his death, Gaye continues to be just as influential as he was in his life. From inspiring other Motown artists like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to break the mold of formula to even now inspiring today’s artists to break the status quo of whatever music is supposed to sound like, Gaye’s reach is vast and large. Gaye was a rare talent who’s voice and legacy continue to live on and won’t soon be forgotten.
1st Clip- A scene I always remember from the movie “Remember the Titans.” During the locker room scene past all the momma jokes, someone turns on the radio and plays “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” This is actually when I was first exposed to the song and I loved it from the start! Just shows how iconic the song was.
2nd Clip- Not my favorite song but I’ll admit it’s catchy. Marvin Gaye by Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor. A subtle dedication to songs like Sexual Healing and Let’s Get It On. The music video shows a bunch of people “getting it on.”