Marvin Gaye was one of the most consistent and enigmatic of the Motown hitmakers, with a career that exemplified the maturation of black pop into a sophisticated form spanning social and sexual politics. Blessed with a mellifluous tenor and a three-octave vocal range, Gaye was among the most gifted composers and singers of his era.
Gaye's moodiness contributed to his legend: He regularly avoided TV, rarely performing live, and sometimes not showing up for the few concerts he did schedule. But from "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" to "Heard It Through the Grapevine," "What's Going On" to "Sexual Healing," Gaye sang some of the most memorable pop of all time. He was nominated for eight Grammys before winning one in 1983.
His life ended tragically one year later—and one day before his 45th birthday—when he was shot to death by his father, an Apostolic preacher, after a violent argument. In many respects, Gaye was, as his friend, the cowriter of "Sexual Healing," and author David Ritz titled his biography of him, a divided soul.
Gaye started singing at age three in church and was soon playing the organ as well. After a stint in the Air Force, he returned to DC and started singing in street-corner doo-wop groups, including a top local group, the Rainbows. He formed his own group, the Marquees, in 1957. Under the auspices of supporter Bo Diddley, they cut "Wyatt Earp" for the Okeh label. In 1958, Harvey Fuqua heard the group and enlisted them to become the latest version of his ever-changing backing ensemble, the Moonglows. As such, Gaye was heard on "Mama Loocie" and other songs for the Chess label in 1959.
By 1961, the group was touring widely. Detroit impresario Berry Gordy Jr. heard the group and quickly signed Gaye to his fledgling Motown organization later that year. Soon after, Gaye married Gordy's sister Anna. Gaye's first duties with the label were as a session drummer (he played on all the early hits by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles).
Gaye got his first hit with his fourth release, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," in 1962. Over the next 10 years, working with nearly every producer at Motown (including Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team), he enjoyed over 20 big hits. He had dance hits: "Hitch Hike" (Number 30, 1963), the 12-bar blues "Can I Get a Witness" (Number 22, 1963), which became a virtual anthem among the British mods, and "Baby Don't You Do It" (Number 27, 1964). But by and large he favored romantic, sometimes sensual ballads. He felt that his desire to move into a more mainstream, sophisticated style was hindered by Motown's emphasis on hits. For a performer as unenthusiastic about some of his material as Gaye later claimed to be, he gave almost every song he ever recorded an inspired reading. His Top Ten hits included "Pride and Joy" (Number 10, 1963), "I'll Be Doggone" (Number Eight, 1965), "Ain't That Peculiar" (Number Eight, 1965), and "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You" (Number Six, 1965). Among his 39 Top Forty singles were also such unlikely hits as "Try It Baby" (Number 15, 1964, with background vocals by the Temptations), "You're a Wonderful One" (Number 15, 1964, with backing vocals by the Supremes), "One More Heartache" (Number 29, 1966), "Chained" (Number 32, 1968), and "You" (Number 34, 1968).
Beginning in 1964 Gaye was teamed with Mary Wells for "Once Upon a Time" (Number 19, 1964) and "What's the Matter With You" (Number 17, 1964), and with Kim Weston for "It Takes Two" (Number 17, 1967). But his greatest duets were with Tammi Terrell: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (Number 19, 1967), "Your Precious Love" (Number Five, 1967), "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" (Number Eight, 1968), and "You're All I Need to Get By" (Number Seven, 1968), all penned and produced by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
During a 1967 concert, Terrell collapsed into Gaye's arms onstage, the first sign of the brain tumor that killed her three years later. Although, contrary to popular belief, Gaye and Terrell were not romantically involved (she was involved with Temptation David Ruffin), he was deeply affected by her illness and death. Shortly thereafter Gaye had his biggest solo hit of the Sixties with a dejected, paranoid reading of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (Number One, 1968), a song that had already been given a fiery treatment by another Motown act, Gladys Knight and the Pips.
The second, quite distinct phase of Gaye's career—and black popular music—began in 1971 with What's Going On. Along with Stevie Wonder, Gaye was one of the first Motown artists to gain complete artistic control of his records. What's Going On was a self-composed and produced concept album. Berry Gordy Jr., who still maintains that he didn't understand the record, was reluctant to release it. Gaye was vindicated when the album hit Number Six and spun off three Top 10 singles: "What's Going On" (Number Two, 1971), "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" (Number Nine, 1971), and "Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)" (Number Four, 1971) were impassioned, timeless statements on Vietnam, civil rights, and the state of the world. "What's Going On" has been covered many times in the ensuing years, including a Top 20 version by Cyndi Lauper in 1986.
In 1972 Gaye scored the 20th Century–Fox film Trouble Man, and the dark, minimalist title track gave him yet another Top 10 hit (Number Seven, 1973). By 1973, he had shifted his attention to pure eroticism with Let's Get It On, with a title track that went to Number One. His late-1973 album with Diana Ross, Diana and Marvin, produced three fairly successful singles: "You're a Special Part of Me" (Number 12, 1973), "Don't Knock My Love" (Number 46, 1974), and "My Mistake (Was to Love You)" (Number 19, 1974), but this project was one of many things Gaye did with Motown that he felt were forced upon him.
Gaye's rocky marriage of 14 years to Anna Gordy Gaye was the subject of Here, My Dear. Gaye was left reeling from the divorce settlement; he filed for bankruptcy, and his ex-wife later considered suing him for invasion of privacy over the content of Here, My Dear. (The album had been precipitated by court hearings in 1976, when a judge instructed Gaye to make good on overdue alimony payments by recording an album and giving his wife $600,000 in royalties.) With Gordy he fathered a son, Marvin Gaye III. He married his second wife, Janice, in 1977 and that year had a Number One hit, "Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1." They had two children: Nona, who has since become a recording artist in her own right, and Frankie. Janice was Gaye's muse, but he became obsessed with her, and the relationship was tumultuous.
Under pressure from the Internal Revenue Service, Gaye moved to Europe to record his 1981 release, In Our Lifetime, which concentrated on his philosophies of love, art, and death. The next year, he left Motown for Columbia. His first album for the label, Midnight Love, sold 2 million copies and included the hit "Sexual Healing," which won a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. He sang live on the Grammy broadcast and, in 1983, in concert at Radio City Music Hall. During his Sexual Healing Tour, Gaye closed the show singing his hit in a silk robe, often stripping down to bikini underwear. Fan reaction was mixed. Also in 1983, he appeared in one of the more memorable segments of Motown's 25th-anniversary television special, obviously disoriented but riveting nonetheless. His a cappella version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," performed before the 1983 NBA All-Star game, became an instant classic and is included on The Marvin Gaye Collection.
Gaye's comeback was one for the record books. But even with the recognition he longed for, Gaye was depressed, and his cocaine abuse was escalating, despite several attempts to clean up. He returned to the U.S. and moved into his parents' home—where he often quarreled with his father, with whom he'd been at odds since his teenage years. As Gaye later confessed to David Ritz, his internal life was marked by what Gaye viewed as an irreconcilable conflict between good (as represented by his strict religious upbringing) and evil (sex and drugs). In early 1984 Gaye reportedly threatened suicide several times and had become paranoid and irrational. Following a Sunday morning shouting match in his parents' home, Gaye's father shot him to death at point-blank range, he later claimed, in self-defense. Gaye's father was charged with and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He was found to have a brain tumor, and was given a six-year suspended prison sentence.
After Gaye's death Motown and Columbia collaborated to produce Dream of a Lifetime and Romantically Yours, both based on unfinished recordings from the Sexual Healing sessions. Among the tracks on the first album were the ribald, "Savage in the Sack" and "Masochistic Beauty," and some questioned whether Gaye had intended to release them at all. Since then, Gaye's work has been repackaged in a steady stream of new compilations. In addition, his work has been the subject of several tribute projects. In 1987, Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.