Marvin Gaye: Biography, Albums & Songs

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the career, legacy, and death of Marvin Gaye. We will explore his numerous hits and most important albums. The events of his difficult personal life will also be considered.

Marvin Gaye: the Soul of Motown

Marvin Gaye, 1966
Gaye 66

Marvin Gaye was perhaps the most dynamic and multi-talented musician to emanate from the Motown record label. His rough, soulful voice articulated for many the sense of longing and frustration that characterized the 1960s and early 1970s. Troubled by depression, drug abuse, and financial woes throughout his career, Gaye's life ended tragically when he was shot to death by his own father during an argument.

Early Career

Marvin Gaye was born in 1939 in Washington, D.C. Like many influential soul singers of the era, his earliest musical influences came from the church. Gaye's family adhered to a strict version of Pentecostalism that, unlike most Protestant sects in America, emphasized the laws and restrictions found in the Old Testament in a way similar to Orthodox Judaism. Gaye's father was a minister and would sometimes accompany him on piano during early performances at church.

In addition to sacred music, Gaye was struck profoundly by the presence of doo-wop music being sung on the streets of Washington, D.C. The vocal harmonies and catchy melodies outside of the context of church made a lasting impression. As a young man, Gaye sang with the local doo-wop group The Rainbows before forming his own group, The Marquees.

By the late 1950s, the music industry was changing rapidly and Gaye would find a place for himself on the burgeoning Motown label. While touring as a backing musician for The Moonglows, Gaye caught the attention of Motown label founder, Barry Gordy. Through Gordy, Gaye would enjoy his first serious forays into recording and meet his first wife, Gordy's sister, Anna. Gaye's early work for Motown was mainly as a session musician, but he would soon become one of the label's most successful vocalists.

The 1960s

Marvin Gaye, 1968

Motown during the 1960s was most famous for producing polished, collaborative singles that utilized the label's impressive array of songwriters, producers, session musicians, and backing vocalists. Gaye would eventually break this mold and make his most serious impact through cohesive, quasi-concept albums. The first major hit that Gaye enjoyed through Motown was 'Stubborn King of Fellow' in 1962. The hits that would follow throughout the 1960s would demonstrate Gaye's ability to succeed in a wide array of styles, from sexy dance numbers, to soulful, gospel-tinged tracks, to light-hearted pop music.

Between 1963 and 1966 Gaye hit with numerous tracks including, 'Pride and Joy,' 'How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,' and, 'Ain't That Peculiar.' The popularity of these singles led to a fruitful collaboration between Marvin Gaye and vocalist Tammy Terrell. The duo released songs such as, 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough,' and 'Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing.' While performing together in 1967, Terrell suddenly collapsed. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died three years later. Although the two were not romantically involved, Terrell's death left a major impact on Gaye. In a strange twist of irony, Gaye's own father would be diagnosed with a brain tumor many years later. It is very plausible that Gaye's father's tumor contributed to his act of violence toward his son.

Although suffering from depression and drug dependency, Gaye experienced one of the biggest hits of his career in 1968 with his version of, 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine.' The late 1960s were a chaotic, polarizing time in American culture. Although Marvin Gaye came to prominence with the single-oriented, fun-loving Motown label, his work in the early 1970s would produce a more serious strain in his sound.

What's Going On

Marvin Gaye, 1974

In 1971, Marvin Gaye released one of the most significant albums of the 1970s: 'What's Going On.' Gaye wrote and produced all of the songs on 'What's Going On,' a tactic that was not common for Motown up to that point. Moody, political, and meditative, 'What's Going On,' was a huge hit when it was released and is remembered today as an undisputed classic. The sadness and uncertainty that Gaye expressed on 'What's Going On' expressed a depth and seriousness that Barry Gordy had not anticipated, but which resonated with audiences.

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