Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Marvin Gaye

Motown Records was known as "a hit factory"...this was probably as accurate a reference as any for the legendary organization. It's formula was basically speaking, to take acts with potential and provide them with in-house teams of some of the best writers in the business, choreographers, wardrobe experts and of course, the inimitable Funk Brothers, and from the ground up, build one sensational act after another. It was this method that made The Supremes, The Temptations, Martha And The Vandellas, The Four Tops and many others into the legends they became. There were however, some individuals who quite frankly were already so blessed with talent that they didn't really need the formula. They were destined for stardom Motown or no Motown, and whether Berry Gordy liked it or not, time proved that they were best left to their own devices. (This of course did not pertain to The Funk Brothers...they were indispensable.)
Stevie Wonder was one such act. Another was Marvin Gaye.
Born Marvin Pentz Gay in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 1939, he early on had to deal with his biggest obstacle in the form of his father Marvin Gay,Sr., a minister at a local House Of God church. The elder Marvin prohibited all sports and all music except gospel, and enforced those rules and any others with frequent beatings for the slightest infraction. He allowed his son one outlet which was singing in church from the age of four.
Despite his father's short leash, Gaye managed to learn to play several instruments including piano and drums and as his high school years began, developed a love for doo-wop and RnB music. He  would often defy his father by sneaking off to parties and concerts and joined several groups in the area. Despite support from his mother for his musical interests, his contentious relationship with his father caused him to enlist into The Air Force with hopes of becoming an aviator. He found that he hated taking orders and this caused him to be discharged. Upon returning home he formed a vocal group with his friend Reese Palmer called The Marquees. The Marquees attracted the attention of Bo Diddley who signed them to Okeh Records releasing a song "Wyatt Earp" in 1958 to modest success. Later that year, Harvey Fuqua, founder of the Moonglows recruited the group to become The New Moonglows after the breakup of the original group. They began recording for Chess Records and did background vocals for Etta James and Chuck Berry. In late 1959 the group released "Mama Loochie" which was Gaye's first recorded lead vocal and a regional hit.

It came to pass that Berry Gordy, who's sister Gwen was in a relationship with Fuqua, took Fuqua and Gaye on as Motown employees. For Gaye's part, his first work for the label was as a janitor and later as a session drummer for many Motown acts including The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and The Marvelettes. It was in 1962 that he broke into the top 40 with his solo Motown single release "Hitch Hike". It was also at this time that the singer added the "e" to his last name. Some have said it was to emulate Sam Cooke who did the same when starting to sing secular music. Others have said it was to distance himself from his father.

Almost immediately Gordy and Gaye clashed over material. one such conflict was when Gordy wanted to change a chord on Gaye's composition "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow". Gaye won out in the end, but despite consistent evidence that Gaye knew what he was doing, Gordy constantly felt the need to micro-manage. "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow", released written as Gaye wanted it, became another hit. His career skyrocketed from there, getting rave reviews from his performances with The Motortown Revue as well as becoming a fixture on television shows such as Shindig and Hullabaloo. In the U.K. his influence and popularity was strongly felt, with his songs being covered by artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Rod Stewart, Dusty Springfield and many others. The late legendary producer Phil Spector admitted to almost having an auto accident trying to pull over upon hearing "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow" for the first time. One of my own personal early Marvin Gaye favorites is "Take This Heart Of Mine".
While the hits kept coming, Gaye still felt frustrated at not being able to record more of the jazz material he loved. Due to his overall success, Gordy did allow him to record When I'm Alone I Cry, Hello Broadway and tribute album to Nat King Cole. Unfortunately all three albums flopped and when Gaye attempted to perform such material in his shows, the audience was not receptive. In addition to his solo successes he did very well with duets, scoring his first international hit with "It Takes Two", a duet with Kim Weston. But his greatest singing partner turned out to be the late great Tammi Terrell. The duo had hit after hit with songs mostly composed by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a husband-and-wife team who were among Motown's elite composers."Ain't Nothin' Like The Real Thing", "Your Precious Love", "You're All I Need To Get By" and others consistently hit high on the charts. No exception was the hitmaking team's signature song "Ain't No Mountain High Enough".

On January 17,1971 a song by Marvin Gaye was released that Berry Gordy told Gaye and anyone who would listen that it was the worst song he ever heard and that it would destroy the singer's image. Gordy allowed it to be released but refused to promote or support it in any way. It was a song Gaye wrote with Ed Townsend about his feelings concerning the Vietnam War. Despite all the resistance and lack of promotion this song  almost immediately became a million seller and crossed over to new audiences while maintaining his present fan base. This song was titled "What's Going On".

In May of that year the album, also titled What's Going On was released. With its combination of funk, Latin, jazz and classical influences as well as the way one song would segue into the next and the lyrical content, the album was a total departure from the famed "Motown Sound". The fact that no in-house writers or producers were used made this one of the first autonomously-produced works to come from the label. Gaye did however, stick with The Funk Brothers. The man wasn't crazy.
Two other singles were released from the album, "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)", and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)". Both went to the top ten as well as "What's Going On" making Marvin Gaye the first male solo artist to have three hits in the top ten at the same time. Gaye's accomplishment inspired Stevie Wonder to record a similarly-themed album Where I'm Coming From and to successfully negotiate for total creative control over his future works. Others, like Michael Jackson and Prince followed suit, albeit with different record companies. What's Going On has been acknowledged worldwide as a landmark achievement in popular music.

In 1973 Marvin Gaye brought the love songs back to stay with the release of  Let's Get It On which along with the title track single release earned commercial and critical acclaim. His final duet project was with Diana Ross and was followed in 1976 by I Want You. The single "After The Dance" and its follow-up "Got To Give It Up"were perfect for the then peaking disco era, and the sales proved it. "Got To Give It Up" became Gaye's third number one hit. After the release of his final Motown LP, Here,My Dear in 1978 Gaye signed with Columbia Records and his first album with that company was Midnight Love. the song from that album, "Sexual Healing" earned Gaye two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award.

Despite his impressive early 80s comeback Gaye,struggled as he had for most of his life, with substance abuse and depression. After his last tour he moved back in with his parents, where the pattern of violent conflict with his father resumed. On April ,1984 Marvin Gay,Sr. shot and killed his son after a physical altercation. The father would be convicted of involuntary manslaughter though he claimed it was self defense.
Marvin Gaye was inducted posthumously into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987 and was given a star on Hollywood's Walk Of Fame. He had scored forty one top 40 pop singles and sixty top 40 RnB singles. He is a recipient of The NAACP Image Hall Of Fame Award and his release of the single "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" remains Motown's biggest-selling international release.


  1. Marvin Gaye was one of the best singers of soul. He wrote so many great classics, and he also had one of the most tragic stories of music. Great article.

  2. Glad you liked the post,Ryan...Marvin was another great all-around talent who was taken away from us too soon.

  3. Yes that is very true. Like many others, but his story had to have been one of the saddest.