Today (April 1st) is the 36th anniversary of the death of Marvin Gaye, with Thursday (April 2nd) marking what would have been the singer's 81st birthday.
Last year, in celebration of the Gaye's 80th, Motown/UMe released his never-issued 1972 album You’re The Man in a double-album gatefold vinyl and digital editions. You’re The Man features all of Gaye’s solo and non-soundtrack recordings from 1972, with most of the album’s tracks making their vinyl release debuts.
According to the album's press release, following the massive success of the previous year's What's Going On album, “His new single, 'You’re The Man' — a percolating, sarcastic riff on political non-action issued as the U.S. presidential campaign was kicking off — reached Number Seven on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart. He saw Motown schedule a You’re The Man album (for release) but when the lead single didn’t cross over (to the pop charts), stalling at Number 50, Marvin retreated. Ambivalent about recording, stubborn about moving to Los Angeles with Berry Gordy and Motown, Marvin by his actions proclaimed no more new Marvin Gaye music. Or so it seemed. In this singular and transitional year for the late music legend, Gaye recorded more than an album’s worth of music in Detroit and L.A. (that) he produced himself. None of these tracks or any other on the LP, except the single, were issued at the time.”
In 2016, Marvin Gaye was finally inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame at a gala induction ceremony at New York City's Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Marvin Gaye’s name and work has kept a high profile in the media these days due to his family recently winning a $7.3 million copyright infringement suit. 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.” Last year, a panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that they would uphold the original decision in the 2015 verdict in the case, which will award the estate with 50 percent of all royalties from the record forever.
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.”
In 1983, he performed on Motown's 25th anniversary TV special and he also performed an a capella version of “The Star Spangled Banner” before the NBA All-Star Game.
Still using drugs and suffering from depression, Gaye moved into his parents' home in 1984. Gaye's relationship with his father had always been stormy, and on April 1st, 1984 his father shot him to death at point-blank range after a violent argument; Gaye would have turned 45 the following day.
In 1987, Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990.
Gaye's music has influenced countless singers and musicians. Former Commodores frontman Lionel Richie was one of Gaye's good friends when both artists were signed to Motown Records. According to Richie, Gaye was a major influence on him as a songwriter and recording artist: “Every time we met, it was always he gave me one more new suggestion on how to play the mic, and his writing, and how he wrote. I would go by his studio a lot of times and just sit there and watch him record. It's funny — he never really used pad and pencil, pen, nothing. He just would go in the microphone and, 'Roll it back. Let me try it again,' and he sings off the top of his head in most cases. And it was just amazing how he would weave these records together, and I think back how fortunate I was as a songwriter, as a young kid, to be able to be able to stand in that room with him and watch him do that.”
Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey was also a friend of Gaye. He remembers another side of the man — the playful side: “I didn't work with him musically — I worked with him on the basketball court (laughs), 'cause he was a big basketball fan and, at that time, we were both playing basketball. We had a celebrity basketball challenge at the Forum and he played, and he was notorious for giving elbows (laughs), God rest his soul. Very kind man — everyone knows of his talent and of his giving spirit and stuff, but he had a pretty good jump shot, too.”
The Supremes' Mary Wilson still has a soft spot in her heart for Gaye: “He was just a beautiful guy. Y'know, a human being — like an angel. (Laughs) I'm not saying anything bad, but his soul was very warm. But like a lot of us at Motown, y'know, he went through various things. He wasn't as tragic as a lot of people made him out to be.”
Wilson went on to reveal that, unbeknownst to the public at large — while at the peak of his '60s career at Motown — Gaye was willing to leave his singing career behind to become an professional athlete: “He also wanted to play football. And so he bulked himself up, I forgot what year, it's maybe 1967, 1968 something like (that). Bulked himself up like a football player. I think he actually did try out for the Lions, I think they were. So he had this other side of him that the public didn't know about.” .
A former neighbor of Gaye's in Detroit told us that the singer loved the game so much that he'd often join in if he saw the neighborhood kids throwing a football around outside. Gaye played golf with Detroit Lions football stars Lem Barney and Mel Farr, who appear as background singers on “What's Going On.”
Stevie Wonder ranks the loss of Marvin Gaye as among the biggest in modern times: “No different than John Lennon, I mean, his life was too short. There was so more I feel that he had to say. But he left us an incredible statement with the ecology, the What's Going On album, and it still sounds like it was done yesterday.”