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 Marvin’s 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 them—father on piano and Marvin in the choir—would lead the church music sessions during Marvin’s 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 prostitute—an 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 Gordy’s 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 “Ain’t 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 Gordy’s Motown puppet on a string (Gulla, 2008; Posner, 2002).
In 1970, Gaye…
…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.
Gaye’s 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 “Let’s 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…
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, 1955–2003. Billboard Books.