Thursday, May 3, 2012

FOCUS ON: MARVIN GAYE




I was very surprised to learn that one of the greatest soul vocalists of our time, Marvin Gaye had originally wanted to be a pop singer in the vein of Nat "King" Cole.  Now, I don't doubt that he would have been brilliant but it would have been such a tragic loss. R&B was where his powerful talent was best served. The strikingly handsome Gaye brought his unique sense of style, class and sensuality to music that was exhilarating and impassioned. Marvin Gaye was an exceptionally gifted musician and entertainer that we lost much too soon

He was born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. in 1939 in the Washington D.C. area. He was the eldest child of four born to Marvin Gay Sr., a minister at the House Of God, a Hebrew-Pentecostal sect and Alberta Gay, a schoolteacher. Marvin's father was very strict, physically abusive and did not allow his children to listen to anything but gospel music.

This didn't stop Marvin Jr.'s love of music and he began playing drums and piano as a young child. By the time he reached high school, Marvin would run off regularly so he could attend r&b and doo-wop concerts. During this time, Marvin also joined several singing groups in the D.C. area. Finally fed up with his father's rules, Marvin enlisted in the U.S. Air Force with the hope of becoming a pilot. However, this was not a great environment for him either as he was tired of dealing with authority figures and Gaye wound up faking mental illness to get discharged.

In 1958, Marvin and his childhood friend, Reese Palmer formed their own vocal group, The Marquees with Chester Simmons and James Knowland. After being discovered by Bo Diddley, The Marquees were signed to Okeh Records. Their single was not a great success but it did capture the attention of Harvey Fuqua, the founder and co-lead vocalist of The Moonglows. They were a top act with several hit singles but broke-up due to friction between Fuqua and the other members of the group. Fuqua brought in The Marquees to become "The New Moonglows" and recorded several singles including "Mama Loocie" which featured the first lead vocal by Marvin Gaye. By 1960, Fuqua decided to disband The New Moonglows but kept Gaye by his side. Fuqua had begun a relationship with Gwen Gordy, a sister of Berry who had founded Motown Records. The couple soon married and formed two record labels, Harvey Records and Tri-Phi Records with Gaye being signed to this label.

There have been several stories on how Berry Gordy actually met Marvin Gaye but however it happened, it's clear that he saw the potential in Gaye and wanted him at Motown. Gordy eventually absorbed Fuqua's record companies and Gaye was assigned to Motown's Tamla label. Marvin Gaye immediately clashed with his new label over material as Motown wanted him to record the music that made them famous while Gaye wanted to do jazz and standards. During this time, he added and "e" to the end of his last name as he claimed it looked more professional but he later revealed that it was actually a way to quell rumors about his sexuality and to further distance himself from his father.

Gaye released two singles, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide" and "Mr. Sandman" in 1961 before his debut solo album, "The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye". The collection was made up of mostly jazz with a couple of r&b songs but the album failed to generate any interest in the new artist. Despite this setback, Gaye kept busy playing drums on many of the recordings for other Motown artists as well as co-writing some songs including the hits,  "Beechwood 4-5789" and "Dancing In The Streets".

Inspired by an argument with his then girlfriend, Anna Gordy (another sister of Berry) who he would later wed, Marvin wrote the song, "A Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and it became his first hit reaching number eight on the r&b chart and forty-six on the pop in 1963. The follow-up, "Hitch-Hike" was also a success and Gaye was on his way to becoming a major artist at Motown. He had a long string of hits including "Pride & Joy", "Can I Get a Witness", "Ain't That Peculiar", "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and his first number one song, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine". However, Gaye struggled with his fame as he still wanted a career more like Frank Sinatra or Nat "King" Cole and he had difficulty performing in front of an audience as he suffered from bouts of stage fright.

Marvin Gaye would be teamed up to record with several female vocalists on the label such as Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Diana Ross but it was with Tammi Terrell where he had the greatest success and felt she was the perfect musical partner. The duo had many top hits together including "Your Precious Love", "You're All I Need To Get By" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" but the partnership came to a tragic end when Terrell, who had been complaining of headaches for weeks, collapsed  in to Gaye's arms during a concert in 1967. She was later diagnosed with a brain tumor and died in 1970. Marvin never fully recovered from the loss and sank in to a deep depression with him canceling performances.

Marvin managed to later come out of the darkness to co-write the song, "What's Going On" which was inspired by the Vietnam War and the police brutality against the anti-war protesters. The problem was that Berry Gordy had no interest in releasing such a controversial song on Motown and felt it would harm Gaye's image. The song was eventually released in 1971 with little fanfare but it became a huge hit anyway with it topping the r&b chart for five weeks. An album was put together that dealt with the themes of drug abuse, poverty and pollution with "What's Going On" becoming one of the first concept albums in soul music and crossed over to rock fans. What the album also gave Gaye was creative control of his music which most artists at Motown did not have. He took advantage of his newly earned power and recorded a jazz album, an instrumental album and the soundtrack for the film, "Trouble Man" before recording the album, "Let's Get it On" in 1973. This album included some unused tracks from the "What's Going On" sessions with the title track, which started off as a religious song but evolved in to a song about sex, that went to number one on the pop and r&b charts.

The subsequent years found many difficulties in Marvin Gaye's life as he saw his fifteen year marriage to Anna Gordy end which was followed by a bitter divorce, his facing jail time for his failure to pay back taxes and alimony payments and an emerging drug problem but he still managed to create some memorable music such as the hits, "I Want You" and "Got To Give it Up, Pt. 1". After Motown released "In Our Lifetime" in 1981, Gaye claimed the album was unfinished and was remixed without his permission. He refused to ever record on the label again and signed with Columbia Records with "Midnight Love" being the first album released in 1982. The first single, "Sexual Healing" became a world-wide smash, bringing Gaye back to the top of the charts and won him a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

After touring to support the album, Marvin went to live with his parents to try and escape some of the pressures of the business. However, his behaviour had become more erratic due to his continued drug use and depression. On April 1, 1984, after Marvin tried to intervene an argument between his parents, Marvin Sr. fatally shot his son to death. Marvin Sr.was sentenced to five years probation after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter with the charges of first-degree murder dropped after it was revealed that Marvin had beaten his father prior to the shooting.

Marvin Gaye was married twice; First, to Anna Gordy, who was eighteen years older when they married in 1964. The marriage ended due to Gaye's affair with Janis Hunter, the seventeen year-old daughter of jazz artist, Slim Gaillard. They married in 1976 and had two children, Frankie and Nona but the couple split by 1979. Gaye also had a son, Marvin Pentz Gaye III by Denise Gordy, the niece of Anna who secretly had a child for the couple in 1965.

Here are some classic tracks by Marvin Gaye:

"I'll Be Doggone" - Marvin Gaye (1965)

"Ain't That Peculiar" - Marvin Gaye (1965)

"I Heard It Through The Grapevine" - Marvin Gaye (1968)

"Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" - Marvin Gaye (1971)

"Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)" - Marvin Gaye (1971)

This is an early live performance by Marvin of "Can I Get A Witness" from the film, "The T.A.M.I. Show":



A cute promo clip of Marvin and Tammi performing the classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough":

 

Here is Marvin performing his comeback song, "Sexual Healing" live at the 1983 Grammy Awards:



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