The word ‘Motown’ conjures images of some of the most prolific and creative musicians, singers and recording artists of the past fifty years, and the people who made Motown the iconic institution that it’s become today.
There’s the fuzzy-haired, green-eyed Smokey Robinson who was instrumental in the early development of the company, as it was he who initially suggested to Berry Gordy Jnr. that he should start a record label, and would later be appointed as the vice-president of Motown. The ever – smiling and charismatic Stevie Wonder, who came to Motown as a child prodigy and would go on to be one of the highest selling artists of all time. There’s also Diana Ross, who was instantly captivating with her beauty, stage presence and tender yet commanding voice.
Yet the one artist who truly personifies the sound and soul of Motown is, of course, the legendary Marvin Gaye. He’s been described as ‘the rock star’ of Motown and ‘the number one purveyor of Soul music’. However, his onstage demeanour didn’t always reflect his personality off-stage and many describe him as having two completely different personalities. There was the shy, soft-spoken and sensitive Marvin, and there was the aggressive, hot-tempered and unpredictable Marvin.
Born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. in Washington D.C to church minister Marvin Gay Sr. and domestic worker Alberta Gay, a young Marvin began singing for his local church choir at age four while his father accompanied on piano. To say that Gaye had a turbulent relationship with his father is putting it mildly. From his early childhood, Gaye and his sibling were subjected to beatings and physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their father. During his teenage years, Gaye would engage in verbal arguments with his father, often leading to him being kicked out of the house. He once stated that if it wasn’t for the intervention of his mother, he would have very likely killed himself as a child.
At seventeen, after refusing to take orders and faking a mental illness, Gaye was discharged from military service. A short time afterward, he joined a jazz doo-wop group by the name of Harvey and The New Moonglows, fronted by Harvey Fuqua who would eventually become the director of development at Motown. The story of Gaye’s early years at Motown and how he came to be involved with the label differs vastly to the stories of other famous Motown acts. After the band went their separate ways, Gaye was desperate for work and became a session drummer for Motown after Berry heard him play at a house party. In fact, he is the drummer that plays on the early Motown hit ‘Please, Mr. Postman’.
While Gaye achieved moderate success in the early 60s, he was being overshadowed by far more prosperous and popular bands and artists within the label. This would often lead to disagreements with Gordy Jnr. over his artistic direction, and given Gaye’s disdain for authority, it’s not surprising that these discussions would sometimes result in heated exchanges. If it weren’t for Gaye being Gordy’s brother in law, he may have been dropped from the label very early on.
Following a string of successful duets with Mary Wells, he began working with fellow Motown singer, Tammi Terrell, collaborating with the song writing team Ashford & Simpson. It was with this partnership that Gaye struck gold as the group produced hits such as ‘Your Precious Love’, ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’, ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’, and perhaps the most famous song to ever encapsulate the signature Motown sound, ‘Aint No Mountain High Enough’.
However at the height of their fame, disaster struck. While performing in October 1967 during a show in Farmville, Virginia, Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms. Terrell was subsequently rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered she had a malignant brain tumour. This put an abrupt end to her career as a live performer; although she continued to record music for the next couple of years until her death in 1970, aged only twenty-four. Gaye shared a very unique and special relationship with Tammi Terrell. While he and others at Motown always maintained that their relationship was platonic, they obviously shared a love and closeness akin to best friends or a brother and sister. Gaye was also seen as a protective brotherly figure as she suffered domestic abuse from her former partner James Brown and her lover, David Ruffin, of The Temptations.
The death of Tammi Terrell had a profound impact on Gaye as well as the sight of her being bound to a wheelchair, bald, blind and weighing only 42 kilograms in her final days. This led to Gaye retreating and secluding himself from the music industry, not performing live for a number of years while also falling into a period of deep depression and drug abuse. It was during this time that he also tried out for the NFL Detroit Lions.
After some time away from music, he returned with what could be considered the greatest comeback album of all time, and quite possibly one of the most badass album covers in music history. A little concept album by the name of What’s Going On.
It’s important to understand how the inspiration behind Gaye’s magnum opus came about. Gaye was in a dark place, both mentally, and musically. His marriage with Anna Gordy was falling apart, he was doing mountains of cocaine big enough to make Carrie Fisher blush and despite achieving international stardom with his hit ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’, he still felt like ‘Anna and Berry’s puppet.’
He was growing tired of singing love songs and wanted to write music that was more socially and politically conscious, especially after seeing how his brother was being treated after returning from the Vietnam War. It was around this time that Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson of The Four Tops, approached Gaye with a song he had written, inspired by an act of police brutality he witnessed on anti-war protestors. As Benson put it – “I saw this and started wondering ‘what was going on, what is happening here?’ One question led to another. Why are they sending kids far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own kids in the street?”What was originally meant to be a stand-alone track eventually became a full album, after Gordy Jnr. saw how much of a success the single had become. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gaye returned to touring and performing live a few years later, and continued to triumph both musically and financially with the release of his 1973 album Let’s Get It On. While his fame and popularity grew exponentially during the 1970s, he continued suffering from bouts of deep depression, drug addiction, and on numerous occasions, attempted to take his own life.
Gaye finally left Motown in 1978, soon after divorcing Anna Gordy. It was shortly after this that Gaye exiled himself to England, as he feared imprisonment for unpaid taxes. He continued to record and tour throughout Europe, and it was during this time that he released the most successful single of his career, ‘Sexual Healing.’ In 1983, Gaye returned to the United States to tour and promote his new album Midnight Love. The tour was very well received and praised, however, Gaye was plagued by cocaine-triggered paranoia and illness.
In 1984, following a physical altercation with his father at his parents’ house, Gaye was shot by his father, twice, killing him almost instantly.
While Gaye was only forty-four at the time of his death, he left a remarkable musical legacy. No other artist in history has been able to transcend rhythm and blues and soul music as effortlessly as Marvin Gaye did. His voice could range from a smooth, sweet tenor to a growling rasp and occasionally, an impressive falsetto. He was the epitome of cool, exuded sex appeal and his name still carries an air of mystery to this day.
Marvin, you were the man.
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