As Forever Motown (formerly the Magic Of Motown), the 12-piece show band of which I am a member, gears up for a late-September re-launch, I paused to reflect on the influences that were so central to my development as an artist.
Those who know me pretty well know that Stevie Wonder is my favorite vocalist, but the Motown artist that had the biggest impact on me for a number of reasons was the late Marvin Gaye.
I was living in Atlanta in early April 1984 when Marvin met his tragic demise at the hands of his father, the late Rev. Marvin Gay II. At that time, I was studying Marvin’s music intently, although I was always up on his work. When he died, the study intensified and gave me fuel for the musical fire burning within.
See, I was known primarily as a visual artist, which was why I was in Atlanta in the first place. I knew more about him than the casual fan, because this was the path I chose, but over next few years, I would learn so much more.
Not long after Gaye’s death, I bought “Divided Soul,” his autobiography with David Ritz. It was both a book you couldn’t put down and wanted to read more than once. In fact I just read it last week, during the storm, for the third time. This man was not just a great singer, songwriter, composer, and instrumentalist; he was a tortured genius who was the product of a difficult upbringing.
Born in Washington, D.C., Marvin Pentz Gay III was the son of a father who was bizarre, to say the least. The senior Gay was an unemployed minister in a sect-like religion who cross-dressed and brutally whipped his children. Talk about contradictions. He continually brought shame upon his children and his wife, Alberta, who was too afraid of him to leave him. Mrs. Gay was a hard-working woman who doted on young Marvin, who was clearly her favorite.
To Father, as they were forced to call him, Marvin was the flame that set him off. As a result, Marvin was severely sensitive and shy. To escape the troubles at home, he sought solace in singing, then the Air Force, which discharged him, finding him unable to adjust to authority. Back in D.C. he hooked up with Harvey Fuqua, who became his mentor, and then sold his interest to Berry Gordy and his new record company, Motown.
He may have been shy, but Marvin was a shrewd dude. He married Gordy’s older sister, Anna, 17 years older than he. Later, he would marry Janis Hunter, a woman 17 years younger. Competition was stiff at Motown, and in the process, Gaye was plagued with self-doubt. He was seen as the Prince of Motown, but had yet to find his regal bearing. After failed attempts to become a Sinatra-Perry Como-Nat Cole type of crooner, he gave in to the demands of the marketplace, and hit big with tunes like “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Hitchhike,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and of course the duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell.
In the late 1960s, Marvin started to flourish as an artist, taking the pain from his marital life and pouring it into “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” He was living what he sang, even if he didn’t write the tune. This, coupled with the Vietnam war and times of change through revolution, moved Marvin to challenge Berry Gordy’s assembly-line 2- to 3-minute-a-song philosophy. This resulted in “What’s Going On,” a social and musical masterpiece. This gem paved the way for artists like Stevie Wonder to get his freedom, and the Jackson 5, who left the company.
Marvin Gaye was a certified superstar, but as much as he soaked in the glory, the dark side was both his inspiration and downfall. These sides were evident in every album he recorded for Motown, from “Let’s Get It On,” an ode to sex, “I Want You,” another great love-man album, and “Here My Dear,” another masterpiece that he put out as a divorce settlement with his ex-wife Anna Gordy Gaye. At the same time, he was divorcing Janis as well.
In subsequent years, there were tax problems, which forced him to flee to Europe, the drug problems that were persistent in his life for most of his career, the cocaine use that fueled his paranoia. After living abroad for sometime, he was let out of his Motown contract, signed with CBS Records, returned to the States, and recorded “Midnight Love,” with the monster comeback hit, “Sexual Healing.” He won the Grammy he should have won back in the 1970s, and appeared on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special.
This should have been a triumphant return, but he returned to the same leeches and hangers-on. The long simmering feud between Father and Marvin hung in the air like smoke in a bar, and with Marvin drugging and his dad drinking, the resentments returned to the forefront. Father always said that if Gaye hit him, he would murder him.
April Fool’s Day 1984 in Los Angeles seemed like a normal day, until Marvin Gay II started beefing with his wife, Alberta, about a missing insurance letter. Fueled by liquor, Father screamed until the son couldn’t take it.
He told his father to stop yelling, and to speak to his wife. As the story goes, Marvin kicked and punched him, perhaps the pent-up rage of years of jealousy and abuse. Father then left the room and returned with a gun that Marvin had bought him, and shot him twice, the first shot to the heart, killing him instantly. The second shot was overkill.
There is a feeling that this is the way Marvin wanted to go. He got his Father away from his mother, sentenced him to an eternal damnation of sorts, and relieved himself of personal misery. It was suicide by proxy, so to speak. Gaye and his father were on a collision course.
I know some very sad family stories, but this was one of the saddest stories of all time.
I understand that because of who Marvin Gaye was, we are most aware of this tale. It makes me wonder how many more of them are out there.
The saying goes, “Pain is the mother of creativity.” Maybe now we know why Marvin was so great. As an artist myself, I truly concur with that saying.
People, research your favorite artists and entertainers, not for shock value, but for artistic value. Inspiration comes from many sources, but sometimes pain and suffering brings forth a man’s best work.