Today (April 2nd) what would have been Motown legend Marvin Gaye’s 76th birthday. It was 31 years ago yesterday (April 1st), that Gaye was shot to death by his father at age 44. Marvin Gaye’s name and work has kept a high profile in the media these days due to his family winning a $7.3 million copyright infringement suit last month. The Gaye estate successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for appropriating the sound and feel of Gaye’s 1977 chart-topper, “Got To Give It Up, Pt 1” for Thicke’s 2013 blockbuster, “Blurred Lines.”
Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. (the “e” in his last name was added later) was born in Washington, D.C. in 1939. The son of a minister, he began singing in church at the age of three. After a stint in the armed forces, he returned to Washington and began singing in local doo-wop groups. In 1957 he formed his own group, the Marquees, whose recordings were produced by their friend and supporter Bo Diddley. The following year singer Harvey Fuqua recruited the group to be his backing vocalists in the then-current lineup of his group Harvey & the Moonglows, and they recorded for the legendary Chess Records label.
Gaye left the Moonglows in 1960 and signed to Gwen Gordy’s Anna label, a subsidiary of then fledgling Motown Records, which was owned by Gwen’s brother Berry Gordy Jr. Gaye played drums for the Miracles and sang backup for the Marvelettes. The following year, he signed to Motown as a solo artist and married Berry Gordy’s sister Anna.
Marvin’s first recordings made little impact on the charts. His fourth release, 1962’s “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” — featuring backing vocals by Martha & the Vandellas — was his first recording to chart. In 1963, “Pride and Joy” went to the Top 10. Although Gaye sang duets with numerous female vocalists, including Mary Wells, his best-known pairing was with Tammi Terrell. The collaboration began in 1967 and resulted in hits such as “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” That same year, 1967, Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms during a concert in Virginia and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The duo continued to record together until Terrell’s death in 1970.
In 1968, Gaye scored his biggest solo hit of the ’60s, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” which stayed at Number One for seven weeks. When Terrell died in 1970, a grief-stricken Gaye withdrew from the public eye, emerging the following year to sing the National Anthem at Super Bowl V.
Gaye’s writing became more socially conscious, and in 1971 he released the watershed album What’s Going On, which spawned the hits “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” In 1973 he scored the movie Trouble Man, and that same year his writing began to explore more erotic themes with the release of the classic album, Let’s Get It On.
At this point, Gaye’s marriage to Gordy was crumbling, and in 1977 they divorced with Gaye going on to marry Janis Hunter. Over the next few years, Gaye’s personal and financial life became rocky; he filed for bankruptcy and Hunter filed for divorce. The 1979 album Here My Dear documented Gaye and Gordy’s breakup.
Experiencing problems with drugs in addition to his financial troubles, Gaye moved to Europe in 1979 and lived in self-imposed exile. In 1981, he recorded In Our Lifetime, his last album of new material for Motown Records, and signed with Columbia Records.
In 1982, he released Sexual Healing, and the hit title track earned him his first Grammy Award. Old friend Diana Ross was with Gaye when he recorded “Sexual Healing,” and later recalled that was the last time she saw him alive: “I was in Brussels, Belgium, to do a concert. The fans and people there told me that Marvin was in Brussels, but I didn’t know how to reach him or to find him. And that night, we we’re filming the concert, and I heard that he was in the audience — he came to the show — and I called him up on the stage and I sang with him. I had him skipping across the stage with me.
Then backstage. . . we sat backstage and talked, and he had basically run away from America, and we went to his studio that night, where he was recording ‘Sexual Healing.’ That was the night he was doing that, and I stayed there at the studio with him most of that evening. And you could tell that he was going through a lot of pain, and I remember him telling me how much he loved me, and how much we loved each other, and that we needed to spend more time together. That was the last time I saw him.”
Photo Courtesy of Motown/UMe