Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., better known as Marvin Gaye, in my opinion is one of the most legendary musicians of all time. At first glance he may just seem to be a rebellious singer, but his life and music have far deeper layers. His life was a great battle of the spiritual and the secular world, which was poured into his music, creating music like no other.
Ever since I was younger, I was in love with classic soul music, specifically Motown (a classic soul label.) I went to see the Motown musical; I watched documentaries on Berry Gordy (the founder of Motown;) and soon sixty percent of my song library was all under the label of classic soul.
My love of Marvin Gaye, though, stemmed from the age twelve when I heard my neighbor listening to a gospel album by Gaye. He told me that this album represented humanity’s war between the demons and angels. At that age I did not understand what he meant. It wasn’t until two years later, when my neighbor died, that I gave Gaye a listen again. I was given a gospel song by Gaye, a cover of “His eye is on the Sparrow.” In this song I learned of how Gaye became one of the most musically creative artists of his time and also what lessons his life carries.
Gaye was very troubled inside. The pain began in his early childhood with the abuse of his father, who was a charismatic preacher on the outside, but a dark man inside. This is where Gaye’s toxic understanding of religion began. Throughout his childhood he longed for eternal love, finding it in his mother and in music. He began singing in his church, where he also learned to play the piano. In singing, Gaye found that his spirit could finally roam free, but his dad did everything to contain it.
This didn’t stop Gaye’s singing, but rather started his rebellious lifestyle. He sang in many gospel and doo wop groups. His father though, continued to haunt his conscious life, which led him to join the airforce at age 17. He got out quickly by faking a mental illness and then immediately began the journey in chasing his dreams of a music career. A few years later, he moved to Detroit where Motown Music was recently founded. Gaye signed to the label where he would stay for the rest of his music career.
Gaye seemed to have immediate promise in his vocals, and it did not hurt that people considered him to be one of the “finest men alive.” Still, though, he struggled in the beginning. He was stubborn, spoiled, and independent. He wanted to be with Motown, but not sing classic soul. Gaye yearned to reach a black and white audience. He aimed to be the next Frank Sinatra and, although he could sing any style, it was classic soul where he found his claim to fame.
Gaye’s competitive nature is what drove him to success. It took him quite some time, but finally he found his niche. After releasing a string of hits, the music industry, wanting to turn him into a sex symbol, had him do a string of duets. Reluctantly, Gaye joined forces with artists like Mary Wells and Diana Ross, but it was with Tammi Terrell where he began to make history. Terrell helped Gaye deal with his lack of confidence in performing and even helped him become a slightly better dancer.
At this time Gaye was married to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna, so Terrell’s relationship with Gaye was strictly a sibling-like friendship. Gaye was very protective over Terrell, and Terrell in return adored him. This chemistry between the two led them to record hits like “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough.” After becoming the greatest duo of their time, tragedy struck. At age 24 Terrell collapsed into Gaye’s arms and later died from what was discovered to be a brain tumor.
Gaye entered into a deep state of depression, guilt, jealousy, unsureness, and spiritual confusion. Gaye turned this pain into some of Motown’s greatest hits, including “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Gaye covered this unknown song with a sense of paranoia and grief, which is what made the song so magnificent. His vocals at an all-time high, made the song a smashing success.
Gaye was beginning to mature and see that the world was much bigger than just himself. He was heartbroken over the world’s universal conflict, which caused him to write an array of political songs. The spiritual side of himself seemed to be balanced out as he told a close friend that it was not him that wrote songs such as “What’s Going On,” but that it was God speaking through his soul. His political album was so revolutionary that many people thought that it would fail, but it was an unbelievable hit, touching and changing the hearts of listeners.
This album also changed the music industry, showing that African Americans were not only soulful, but intelligent. In Washington DC Marvin Gaye Day was even made to be on March 5 due to the newfound respect for him.
Harrowing pain never left Gaye’s heart though. He was so determined to make his father reciprocate his love, but he never did. In order to regain his lost childhood, Gaye began participating in sports, which he was not allowed to do at a younger age. He even dreamed of becoming a professional football player, but this dream was interrupted by personal drama. In the mid 1970s Gaye fell in love with 16-year-old Janis. Gaye was trying to fill the hole in his heart that his father had left and Janis, seemingly similar to Gaye’s mother, was the person to fill it.
This is when the secular part of his soul was literally beginning to split with the spiritual side. Gaye was still married to Anna, but a switch was now turned on in him. The rebellious, almost revengeful side of him began to arise. This is what birthed songs like “Let’s Get It On.” Gaye was once again changed, but this time for the worse. Drugs, alcohol, and sex began to haunt his life and music. When Anna finally divorced him, he did not have enough money to pay her. His lawyer suggested to Gaye to make an album and give Anna the proceeds from it.
Gaye tried to quickly put an album together, but his creative side would not let him completely make an album worse than an amateur’s. Although it sold barely any copies, “Here My Dear” is where listeners truly get to know Gaye as he explored the dangers of sex and other worldly things.
Gaye had two kids with Janis (and also he adopted a son with Anna). Gaye and Janis’s drug addictions, though, quickly destroyed their marriage and after two years they divorced. He escaped to Hawaii and divorced himself from everyone. He knew people loved him, but he never could love himself, which in a way would eventually kill him.
Owing the IRS millions and feeling hopeless, he sought refuge in England. Gaye was desperate for spiritual redemption, which he found in a fight promoter Freddy Cozar. In England, Gaye seemed to be back to his somewhat normal self. He was once again caring, musical, and spiritual.
Gaye began boxing his way up the charts. His vocals were once again at an all-time high, and he was doing things with his voice that no one knew were humanly possible. Friends of Gaye say that they wished he would have stayed in England. A few years later though, Gaye moved back to America, where his devout and secular desires once again collided. During shows he literally had on one side of the stage a cocaine dealer and on the other a preacher.
During this time the sensation of Gaye’s song “Sexual Healing” became Motown’s most successful single. Gaye though, fell nearly as fast as he rose. In his last public performance at Radio City Musical, Gaye was said to metaphorically “have died.” His vocals were shot. It was said to be the worst performance by the most talented artist. In Gaye’s last year of life, he was no longer sweet and loving, but paranoid and short tempered. On April 1st, one day before Gaye’s 45th birthday, he was shot.
He had bought his parents a house a while back in another attempt to satisfy his father. His father in return paid Gaye with bitter annoyance because Marvin’s fans would stalk his mother and father’s house at night. Despite Gaye’s resentment of his father, he loved him more than nearly anything, but the love would never be returned.
On April 1st Gaye’s father was verbally abusing Gaye’s mother. This is where Gaye snapped. He knew that by standing up to his father, he would have to fight for his life, but he no longer cared about life. When Gaye attempted to beat up his father, his mother pulled them apart after a long struggle. His father later shot him with the same gun that Gaye Jr had bought for him, and then his father shot him again, killing Marvin Gaye Jr. Heartbreakingly, the same person that Gaye wanted love from more than anyone else, was the same person that killed him. Marvin Jr’s father faced similar devastation. His father was also extremely abusive.
Friends of Gaye described him as an angel, but his life was driven by saints and Satan. This made his life a living hell, but his music a masterpiece. Many artists find their inspiration from their struggles, but none pour their entire soul into music like Gaye did.
Marvin Gaye’s version of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is one of the most powerful songs. In it you can hear the battle between Gaye’s inner demons and his angels. You can hear the voices of his head at war, but somehow they are harmonizing. In listening to this song I realize that we are all facing the same battle as Gaye faced. It may seem that Gaye’s demons won in the long run, but in his cover of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” I believe that his angels won.
TheGASMass. “Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (PBS Documentary).” YouTube, YouTube, 30 July 2014, m.youtube.com/watch?v=1UgAUlrdAxU.
“MARVIN GAYE IS SHOT AND KILLED; POP SINGER'S FATHER FACES CHARGE.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Apr. 1984, www.nytimes.com/1984/04/02/us/marvin-gaye-is-shot-and-killed-pop-singer-s-father-faces-charge.html.
Eames, Tom. “Marvin Gaye and The Moonglows: He Was a Member of a Vocal Group First.” Smooth, 29 Mar. 2018, www.smoothradio.com/features/marvin-gaye-facts/the-moonglows/.
Header Photo by hipwallpaper.com in Public Domain Images
Thumb Photo 1966 in Public Domain Images. Wikimedia.org.