Yes, he was strikingly handsome and his sex appeal was palpable. But more importantly, he was talented. So talented that friend and Motown label mate Smokey Robinson said in a 2010 Rolling Stone essay, “Marvin was much more than just a great singer. He was a great record maker, a gifted songwriter, a deep thinker — a real artist in the true sense.” We couldn’t agree more. Marvin Gaye was an exceptional artist who wowed audiences with his plentiful, luminous catalog of R&B songs and with a voice that can be described as magical.
Before he gave us timeless classics like I Heard it Through the Grapevine, What’s Going On, Let’s Get it On and Sexual Healing, Marvin Pentz Gaye Jr., born in 1939 in Washington, D.C., spent his early years singing and playing the drums at Hope of God church, where his father was a minister. Abuse from his father, Reverend Marvin Gay, Sr. (his son added an “e” at the end of Gay before becoming a star), left Gaye with emotional scars that he was not able to shake, even after adulthood. Fortunately, he was able to find solace and escapism in music.
In the late 1950s, Gaye began singing in different doo-wop groups and relocated to Detroit. His remarkable voice and brilliant range caught the ear of Motown Record’s president Berry Gordy in 1960, and Gaye was eventually signed to Motown. After joining the label, Gaye served as a drummer for Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. In 1962, Gaye released Hitch Hike, which made it into the Top 40. He would go on to release several hit songs throughout the mid ‘60s including How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You), Can I Get a Witness and Ain’t That Peculiar.
After Marvin teamed up with fellow Motown singer Tammi Terrell in the late 1960s, the two proved to be a musical match made in heaven when they released a bevy of hits such as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Your Precious Love, You’re All I Need to Get By and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing. Gaye was devastated when Terrell died of a brain tumor in 1970.
The Vietnam War and political unrest inspired Gaye to write the classic and controversial hit What’s Going On in 1971. Gordy was apprehensive about the direction of the song, but What’s Going On became a hit for Motown, along with the album that followed with the same title.
The following year, Gaye’s sensual love jam Let’s Get It On reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Gaye released his album Midnight Love in 1982 on Columbia Records. Sexual Healing, the provocative lead track on the album, was an enormous hit for Marvin and helped him take home his first two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award.
On April 1, 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, Gaye was fatally shot by his father during a physical altercation. The music industry deeply mourned the loss of an R&B legend who dazzled so many— from those fortunate to attend one of his often sold-out concerts, to those who breathlessly danced to one of his many hits.
His life was not an easy one, but making great music was easy for the Prince of Soul and we are lucky that he left us with so many amazing songs for us to explore and get lost in.
Happy birthday Marvin! We miss you!