Marvin Pentz Gaye Jr. was a legendary singer and recording artist who came to be known as the “Prince of Soul”. Gaye was born on April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C. He was raised by his father “Reverend Marvin Gay Sr.” who was a very strict guardian. Gaye was musically inclined from an early age and found a means of escape from the violence prevalent in his neighborhood. He became an expert pianist and drummer at an early age and started singing at his local church. He had a very troubled relationship with his father, who often beat him and kicked him out of the house. At the age of 17, Gaye left his home, quit high school and enlisted in the United States Air Force with dreams of becoming a pilot.
He was soon disillusioned with the Air Force and quit. He joined a number of musical groups such as “The Marquees” which later became “The Moonglows” and were then renamed “Harvey and the Moonglows” named after the co-founder Harvey Fuqua. The group relocated to Chicago and began performing with established artists such as Chuck Berry. In 1960, they relocated to Detroit and signed up with Tri-Phi Records. During this time, he came to the notice of Motown Records’ president Berry Gordy who negotiated with Fuqua to sign Gaye with Motown’s subsidiary label Tamla. His first few records were unsuccessful and he mostly accompanied other artists as a drummer. His first success came in 1962 as co-writer of a hit song performed by the band “The Marvelettes”. His first solo hit was the single “Hitch Hike” released in 1962 which reached No. 30 on the Hot 100. He had a string of successes in the 1960s such as “Pride & Joy”, “Can I Get a Witness” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” which became Motown’s bestselling single of the 1960s.
He also performed romantic duets with other famous singers such as Diana Ross, Mary Wells and Tammi Terrell, with whom he recorded a series of hit songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Your Precious Love” and “You’re All I Need to Get By”. In 1967, Terrell collapsed during a live performance in Virginia. She was subsequently diagnosed with a tumor and died in March 1970 from brain cancer. Gaye was devastated at her death and went through a dark period of depression and drug addiction as well as financial issues with the IRS. He also wrote politically motivated songs such as “What’s Going On” which was inspired by an act of police brutality that he witnessed. Berry Gordy refused to release it because he felt it was too political and not appropriate for radio but Gaye went on strike and refused to record any more songs until the label agreed to release the song. Gordy gave in and the song was released in 1971. It reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and stayed there for 5 weeks, selling more than 2 million copies. The album also became Gaye’s bestselling work to date and had two more top 10 singles.
In 1973 Gaye released his album “Let’s Get It On” which sold over three million copies but created controversy due to its sexually explicit content. He also recorded a duet album with Diana Ross titled “Diana & Marvin” which received international acclaim and for which he also toured extensively throughout 1974 and 1975 for the first time in many years. He also performed at the UNESCO benefit concert for promoting literacy in Africa for which he was highly commended. By the end of the 1970s however, he became a hard core cocaine addict, especially after his marriage broke up. In 1982, he left Motown and signed with Columbia Records, where he released his last album “Midnight Love”. The album’s lead single was “Sexual Healing” which was a huge hit and earned Gaye two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award.
Marvin Gaye’s life was tragically cut short after he was shot by his father in a domestic struggle in 1984. Marvin Gay Sr. was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Despite Gaye’s troubled personal life, he will be remembered as one of the greatest musicians in his genre. His exceptional vocal range and heartfelt music led him to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.