Marvin Gaye was born in Washington, D.C. in 1939 to a philandering Pentecostal church minister, Marvin Gaye, Sr.the same man who would ultimately take Marvins life at the age of 44. Marvin was beaten often all throughout his childhood by his strict father, and without the support of his mother Marvin asserted he likely would have killed himself to escape the cruelty (Ritz, 1991). Yet it was also from his father that he learned to sing and the two of themfather on piano and Marvin in the choirwould lead the during Marvins youth (Turner, 1998). At 17, Marvin finally ran away from home and joined the Air Force. After a year of service, he faked a mental illness, received a general discharge, and lost his virginity to a prostitutean episode that opened up a whole world of lust and sensual pleasure to him (Ritz, 1991).
Marvin returned to D.C. but by 1960 had moved to Detroit to pursue musical opportunities in Motown there. He played drums and sang and performed at Motown President Barry Gordys home in 1960 and as a result Gaye was given a contract with Tamla, a Motown subsidiary (Ritz, 1991). At the time, Marvin was more interested in jazz than he was in R&B, but his first album failed to sell well and Marvin continued to work primarily as a drummer for other bands.
In 1962, Marvin began to have more success as an R&B artist with his album Stubborn Kind of Fool. Marvin continued to work for Motown and had a series of hits recording works like Aint No Mountain High Enough, and It Takes Two, and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). In 1968, his rendition of I Heard It through the Grapevine went to No. 1 on the Billboard 100. Though millions of copies were sold, Marvin felt he was little more than Barry Gordys Motown puppet on a string (Gulla, 2008; Posner, 2002).
In 1970, Gaye produced Whats Going On? but Gordy, feeling the song was too political as it had been inspired by an episode of police brutality at an anti-war demonstration, refused to release it until Gaye went on strike and refused to do anymore recordings, at which point Gordy released itand it went to No. 1 on the R&B charts where it stayed there for five weeks and No. 2 on the Billboard 100 (Vincent, 1996; Whitburn, 2004). The song sold millions. It was the first time Gaye had had a socio-political impact on the world through music.
Marvin then produced a concept album of the same name Whats Going On?, which introduced the concept album idea to the world of R&B. Following the albums successit sold millions and was nominated for two GrammysMarvin signed a million dollar deal with Motown, which at the time was the largest contract ever. Marvin continued to write political songs but Gordy often objected to them. This is not surprising as the 1960s were a troubled time of great upheaval: JFK had been assassinated in 1963. MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, and RFK had all been assassinated later that decade. The Vietnam War was still going on, people were protesting, and race was once more an issue with the Black Panthers gaining popularity. Gaye was reflecting in his art a sense of the chaos in the world around him. that would make people forget their troubles, not aggravate them.
So in 1973 Gaye released Lets Get It On, which was an exercise in sheer passion and sensuality. It stayed on the charts for years and sold millions of records. The content on the album was sexually explicit, however, and some songs released as singles did not do as well on their own. In 1981, Gaye left Motown after a dispute over release of a recording and went to Europe. Gaye went sensual again with Sexual Healing in 1982, which became the biggest hit of his career.
Gaye was known as the biggest purveyor of soul music thanks to his deep baritone voice and his songs about sex and love. He combined a kind of soulful gospel style with R&B and created something new that the world of R&B had never really seen before. For that reason, he was known as the Prince of Soul and the Prince of Motown: he had not started these genres but he had inherited them and made them his own by showing his complete mastery of them and a willingness to take them in new directionsboth politically and sexually. He could be soft and sweet and strong and sensual, depending on what he was feeling in a particular song, and his background as both a ministers son and a philanderer like his father gave him a rich field of experience to draw from that could make his songs feel authentic regardless of the subject matter, whether spiritual or sensual.
Gayes cultural impact has been immense. His songs have transcended borders and ethnic groups and have been used in commercials and films for decades. He is recognized as the maestro for romantic unions thanks to hits like Lets Get It On. Gaye started out with R&B and Motown but grew politically in his musical approach throughout the early 1970s, addressing the issues of violence and racism in his society. By the 80s, however, he wanted to get to a place of good feeling and thus focused more and more on the sensual side of life that gives pleasure.
Gaye helped to empower the African-American community by being a legend in his own right and serving as a successful representative of that community. Coming from the projects of Washington, D.C., Gaye became immensely wealthy and showed what a little talent, hard work, focus, passion and commitment could do.
Gulla, B. (2008). Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm. ABC-CLIO.
Posner, G. (2002). Motown : Music, Money, Sex, and Power. New York: Random House.
Ritz, D. (1991). Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo Press.
Turner, S. (1998). Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye. London: Michael Joseph.
Vincent, R. (1996). Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. Macmillan.
Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits: Complete Chart Information About America’s Most Popular Songs and Artists, 19552003. Billboard Books.