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Musical success despite Marvin Gaye's many woes

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye

The late Motown recording superstar, Marvin Gaye, has very ominous connections with April-fools day. It was on that day back in 1984 that he died, following an altercation with his father, with whom he endured life-long turmoil, never grasping the genius of his own extraordinary talent.

Gaye's connection with the month of April is further cemented by way of his birth date, which occurred on none other than the day closest to All-fools day - April 2, in the year 1939. The phenomenon left many superstitious observers wondering if there was any connection between these dates and Gaye's foolish actions which led to his death.

He was perhaps at the highest point of his musical career, having just copped his first Grammy and made a triumphant return to the pop charts with the risque, Sexual Healing.

Its suggestiveness was sublime:

"Baby I can't hold it much longer

its getting stronger and stronger

And when I get this feeling

I want sexual healing

Sexual healing, oh baby makes me feel so fine".

But in the midst of his yearning for sexual healing and the accompanying success of the 1982 recording, Gaye was undergoing severe physical, psychological and financial stress. Struggling with depression, debt, cocaine abuse and a marriage breakup, he made the impolitic mistake of moving into his father's house in 1983. The move may have worked under different circumstances, but given their past history of confrontations, which at times became physical, it was nothing short of stupidity. Marvin Gaye had suffered at the hands of his abusive father during childhood, and in later years the hard-drinking Marvin Gay Snr., is said to have harboured envy over his son's tremendous success. In the meantime the younger Gaye seemed to think he had unresolved issues with his dad that he felt should be settled. The result was disastrous.

But those who knew Marvin Jnr., can attest that he wasn't made of the type of mettle that characterised fools. He composed and arranged several outstanding recordings and was an honorary member of the U.S., Air Force. His early life in Washington D.C., where he was born, saw him singing in his preacher-father's church choir at age three and becoming quite proficient on piano and drums by his early teens. His love for music led him into several Doo-wop vocal groups while still attending Cordozo high school, from which he dropped out to escape severe whippings by his father. His association with the Marquees and the group's absorption into the more established Moonglows led by Harvey Fuqua, brought Gaye to the attention of Motown Recording Company's boss Berry Gordy at a Motown Christmas party, where Gaye played the piano. Gordy soon learnt of Gaye's drumming expertise as well and hired him in 1961 as a session musician with Motown Records. While drumming his way into the hearts of music lovers on recordings by The Miracles, The Contours and The Marvelettes, Gaye did not lose sight of building a career as a singer. He earlier did background vocals on recordings by The Moonglows and sung lead on their recording - Mama Loocie.

Then came a dramatic turning point: Perhaps by some divine intervention or just a stroke of luck, Gaye found himself irresistibly attracted to Berry Gordy's older sister, 37 year-old Anna, who he married in 1963 - a move that ostensibly gave Gaye special privileges, being the boss' brother-in-law. Gradually climbing the ladder of success, Gaye began writing songs in earnest, both for himself and others.

His debut composition was, Beechwood 45789, by The Marvelettes, while his debut recording success was, Stubborn kind of Fellow, in 1962, which somehow appropriately defined his character and signalled his demise. In the meantime, Gaye continued to suffer from bouts of insecurity: Teased about his surname with its sexual connotations, Gay added an 'e' in the same way that Sam Cooke did to 'Cook'. On another occasion Smokey Robinson's autobiography quoted him as saying: "Women expect so much of me. They've made me into this sex symbol until sometimes it just messes with my head".


Sex symbol


Utilising this sex symbol image to great advantage, Gordy paired Gaye with Motown leading ladies to create some astounding hits like, Once upon a Time (with Mary Wells), It Takes Two (with Kim Weston), Ain't no mountain high Enough, Your Precious Love, Ain't nothing like the real Thing and You're all I need to get By (with Tammi Terrell).

Gaye's solo hits also rolled out of Motown Records in a way not dissimilar to how the motor cars rolled off the assembly lines in nearby Detroit, also known as Motor-town, and after which the recording company was named. They included, How sweet it Is, Ain't that Peculiar, I heard it through the Grapevines, and Too busy thinking about my Baby, between 1964 and 1969.

The death of his confidant Tammi Terrell, from brain tumor in 1970, dealt a devastating blow to Gaye, triggering bouts of depression and suicidal threats. It marked another turning point in his life when Gaye, seemingly touched by the calamity, re-emerged in 1971 with the album, What's Going On - an album of strong social comment on the breakdown in the social order. The opening stanza of the title track conveys the message:

"mother, mother, there's too many of you crying

brother, brother, there's too many of you dying.

You know we've got to find a way

to bring some loving here today

father, father, we don't need to escalate,

war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate".

Dubbed the 'Prince of soul' with his mellifluous tenor voice, Gaye was perhaps the epitome of the Motown sound that helped to shape the sound of modern R&B music. He didn't do much after his 1982 reggae-tinged classic, Sexual Healing, but nearly 10 years earlier he had the recording that was on the lips of everyone - the erotic, Let's get it On. The adrenalins seemed to be flowing as Gaye sang:

"I've been really tryin' baby

tryin' to hold back these feelings for so long

and if you feel, like I feel baby

then come on, oh come on

let's get it on".