Wednesday, April 1, 2009
MARVIN GAYE: HONORING A SOULFUL AND SEXY LEGEND
25 years ago, I called my surviing grandmother to see how she was doing, and she had informed me that singer Marvin Gaye had died. I was shocked.
"He died?" I asked.
"How did he died?"
"His father killed him."
Unlike many fans who thought that the news was part of an April fools day joke, I along with many didn't believe it was a joke; we were shocked. "How could a father kill his own son?"
It seemed to many that Marvin had it all; Fame, fortune, hit records, and fans who adored his music and suave and sexy looks, but little did we know, he had gone through many trials and tribulations, which he expressed in his music that continues to touches fans to this day, and this article is to honor a Motown legend, who was shy, yet talented and stubborn.
Marvin was born in Washington DC on April 1, 1939 to the late Alberta and Rev. Marvin Gay, Sr. as the thrird of fifth children (his late mother had a son who was sent to live with her aunt), who raised their children in church, where Marvin's father worked as a store-front teacher. It was where Marvin got into music, and while the women praised him, his father resented the attention he was getting, which caused the two men to have friction between each other as well as act abusive towards him and his siblings.
"I loved my father" he told biographer David Ritz. "I also resented him." Marvin was also teased about his last name. Kids would put the word is in front of his name that would ask "Is Marvin Gay?" (He added the letter "e" to his last name when he began to perform professionally). When he got to high school, he began to listen to other genres of music including Jazz, standards and do-wop, which would include in many of his recordings, and he formed a singing group with Sondra Lattisaw, whose daughter Stacy became a star in her own right, but he dropped out after his junior year and enlisted in the Air-force, but got an honorable discharge. He later linked up with Havery Fuqua and the Moonglows, who signed with Chess Records and performed at many venues. In 1960, the do-wop era had begun to fade, so Fuqua disbanded the group and took Gaye with him to Detroit Michiagan, where Fuqua got a gig producing and writing for Motown Records, whose founder Berry Gordy, Jr had heard Gaye playing a Jazzy version of "Mr. Sandman" and felt that he should change the chords. In response, Gaye told him that he felt that the chords should remain the same way. After going back and fourth, Gordy decided to let Gaye play it the way he did and signed him to the label where Marvin did session work as a drummer, and when it came time for him to record his debut album, he didn't want to do Rhythm and Blues; he wanted to be a crooner. His debut album "The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye" featured Broadway tunes and standards, but it didn't sell, so Marvin wanting a hit record, began to record Rhythm and Blues music, and scored with "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" which would be his claim to fame. He followed with "Pride and Joy," "Hitch Hike," "Can I Get A Witness," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" "I'll Be Doggone," and "Ain't That Peculiar" attracting a large female following with his smooth yet powerful tenor and sexy looks.
"Marvin was our Prince" former Supreme and labelmate Mary Wilson said in the liner notes of Gaye's boxed set "The Master 1961-1984." "He was sultry and soulful and beautiful to look at. He came on as the strong, silent type and everyone adored him."
"And he was so fine!" Aretha Franklin added on "Motown 40."
"Marvin Gaye was a big inspiration in my own sexual and romantic discovery process" Activist/radio podcaster BBOP said via text message. Gaye had also co-wrote "Beachwood 4-5789" for The Marvelettes and "Dancing In The Streets" for Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, which both became classics, with the latter being declared the consistently played dance records of all time by Billboard Magazine.
"When I heard Marvin's version, it was sung in a male register" Reeves wrote in her autobiography "Dancing In The Streets: Confessions of a Motown Diva." "I thought it was a good song, but not in my key. So they said 'OK Martha, give it your treatment.'"
Wanting to capitalize on his sexy symbol status, Motown had Marvin record duets with many of the label's female solo artists, and though he had hits with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and later Diana Ross, his collaborations with Tammi Terrell was a match made in heaven. They're singles "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," "Your Precious Love" and "You're All I Need To Get By" are still favorites among fans and peers including songwriters Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, penned songs for the talented singers. "I think of essence of love" Ashford said in Terrell's sister's Ludie Montgomery's autobiography "My Sister Tommie." "They kind of represent that in their feelings towards each other, and there was a spiritual thing going on as well." Ashford's wife Valerie added "Tammi's vivaciousness made this a fresher experience for Marvin, she knew this was a great opportunity for her, whereas he done duets with female singers in the past." They're chemistry was great, that people couldn't help to wonder if the two stars ever had shared an romance outside of the studio. Marvin was married to Gordy's sister Anna who was 17 years his senior, and adopted a son Marvin III, while Terrell was involved with David Ruffin of The Temptations. They began to perform many gigs together, but in 1967 during a performance in Virginia, Terrell had collapsed in Gaye's arms, and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The following year, Gaye released Motown's first platinum single "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" which topped both the Pop and R&B charts, and was dubbed as one of his best vocal performances to date, partly do in part to his collaboration with the late Norman Whitfield, who was known using aggressive tactics to get what he wanted from the artists he was working with.
"Norman and I came within a friction of an inch of fighting" Gaye told Ritz. "He made me sing in keys higher than than I was used too. He had me reaching for notes that caused my throat veins to bulge....but even though we fought like hell, I knew he was good for me." The success of the single inspired Marvin to become more involved in writing and producing for many of the labels artist including The Monitors and The Originals, whose single "Baby I'm For Real" topped the R&B charts, but his success was short lived, after he learned that Terrell had succummed to her brain tumor at the age of 27, which forced Gaye to fall into depression and seclusion.
During his seclusion, Marvin was deeply affected by the conditions that had occurred during that era and decided to voice his concerns. He returned to the studio to record his ground breaking album "What's Going On" which was the first concept album to be recorded by a solo artist.
"I think it was around 1969 or 1970, when I started to think about the war in Vietnam, with my brother who was telling me horrible stories about the war" Gaye said in a documentary in the 1970's. "I became quite affected by it. I sort of saw the country headed towards modern day civil war."
"When he made that change to being more political, it was so revolutionary, because while I had two sides to me that like Soul music and The Rolling Stones, and there's a part of me that likes protest music, so to have them come together, I though that was fantastic" Folk-Country-Blues singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt said on
"Motown 40." Whenever label-mate Smokey Robinson would visit Marvin, he would say 'Smoke. God is writing this album. I'm just being used.' His label-mates loved the album, but Motown's executives didn't. "That sucks." "It's weird." "Not commercial" were the responses that Marvin receivied when he played it for them. Gordy didn't want Marvin to record protest music, fearing that it would hurt his image as the label's sex-symbol, but Marvin didn't care about his image and he gave his brother-in-law an ultinatium; "You have no choice. Either you release it or I'll never record for you again." Sensing Gaye was serious, Gordy gave in, and the album became a instant hit and classic scoring three hits including the title track, "Mercy, Mercy Me" and "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)." In addition to singing about the Vietnam War, racism, sexisx, poverty, drug addiction and spirituality, Marvin broke ground as a producer by utilizing a techinuqe called multi-tracking, which enabled listeners to listen to him sing in different ranges at the same time as well as took the label from the era of producer to artist, where most of the artists began to write and produce their own material including Stevie Wonder.
Gaye had moved to California and recorded the soundtrack for the film "Trouble Man" and followed with the classic follow up "Let's Get It On" another concecptial album that focused on sex, sensuality and spirituality, and became another classic, that featured several hits including the top charting title track, "Come and Get This" and "Distant Lover" which would become concert favorites, followed by "I Want You" which took the singer thirteen months to record due to writer's block. While he was recording "Let's Get It On" he met and fell in love with Janis Hunter, who was 17 years his junior, and gave birth to his children Nona and Frankie and forcing Anna to file for divorce which wasn't finalize until 1977. During the late 1970's Disco was dominating the charts, and like many artists, Marvin wasn't too fond of the genre, but he decided to go with the flow and he scored with "Got To Give It Up" which topped both the Pop and Soul Charts, and became a huge hit over in the UK, where he toured after a ten year absence.
"I saw that the English People did understand me and I understood them" he told Ritz. "They're wilder than they let on."
By 1977, divorce proceedings between Marvin and Anna had gotten messy, and in order to smooth things out, Marvin's attorney Curtis Shaw suggested that his he give Anna proceeds from his next album, and though Marvin agreed to the settlement, he decided to do a lousy album to spite her, but once his creativity took over, he began to write about the joys and pains of their marriage, which resulted in "Hear My Dear" an album that was panned by critics, and sold poorly due to the Disco era. The album had classic tunes like the title track, "Anna's Song" and "You Can Leave, But It's Gonna Cost You" and would become a hit until after his death. Gaye had married Janis, but the marriage lasted only two years, and by that time, Marvin was battling the IRS, drug addiction and depression, forcing him to exile to Hawaii, then to Europe and Belgium, and adding insult to injury was when Motown released his album "In Our Lifetime" without his consent. Gaye decided to leave Motown, heal mentally, physically and spiritually, work on his autobiography and new material. While in Belgium, he signed with Columbia Records, and in 1982, Marvin released his double platinum comeback album "Midnight Love" which contained the classic gold single "Sexual Healing" which topped the R&B charts for 10 weeks and was the fastest raising Soul singer since Ray Charles hit with "Let's Get Stoned." The single also earned Marvin an American Music Award and two long overdue Grammy Awards for Best R&B Male Vocals and Best R&B Instrumental.
"I waited a long time to win" Gaye told the audience as he held his awards.
The success of the album and single made Marvin the toast of the entertainment world; he performed a moving version of the Star Spangle Banner at the Lakers game, joined Gladys Knight & The Pips on television to perform a "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" they had a fun, yet light-hearted argument about whose version to perform as well as his former label mates on the Motown 25 Special and embarked on the Midnight Love tour, which featured several sold out performances at New York City's Radio City Music Hall, shattering Barry Manilow's record, but self doubt and depression led Marvin to relapse. On April 1, 1984, Marvin was awaken to the sounds of his father verbally abusisng and scolding his mother. Marvin who had issues with his father mistreatment and not being around when his mother had major surgery, came to her defense by physically attacking him and ordering him to leave her alone. Gaye's father retaliated by shooting him twice in the chest, ending a collision course that was waiting to happen between the two strong head men. Gaye's father was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to probation and placed in a nursing home where he remained until his death 11 years ago.
Many were shocked and sadden by Marvin's death. Thousands had attended his funeral, while many recorded tributes to him including Diana Ross and The Commodores, who each scored # 1 R&B hits with "Missing You" (written by The Commodores former lead singer Lionel Richie) and "Night Shift" which earned the group a Grammy Award. Teena Marie recorded "My Dear Mr. Gaye" while Frankie Beverly and Maze scored with "Silky Soul" and Stevie Wonder recorded the song "Lighting Up The Candles" for the Jungle Fever soundtrack.
During the late 80's and 1990's, Marvin received many tributes and honors including being inducted into the Rock and Roll and Soul Train Hall of Fames, being award a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Grammy's Lifetime achievement and in 2001, Hip-Hop producer Jermaine Dupri gathered a list of R&B and Hip-Hop stars to record a new version of "What's Going On" with proceeds going to various AIDS charities and to the survivors of the terriost attacks. His music continues to be covered by many artists including Angela Winbush, Boyz II Men, Sarah Connor, Ne-Yo, El DeBarge and Chaka Khan, who teamed with Motown's legendary in studio musicians to record their rendition of "What's Going On" earning them a Grammy Award, while rapper Eric Sermon used Gaye's sample Gaye's vocals from Turn On Some Music for hit classic "Music." Dance-hall artist Shaggy had sampled "Let's Get It On" for his classic crossover hit "Boombastic" while Queen Latifah used "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" for her hit "Paper." Rappers Smilez & Southstar sampled the Gaye and Ross duet "Stop, Look And Listen" for their classic "Tell Me."
There are two films in the work about the singer's life with Roberta Flack producing the music score.
It has been over 25 since Marvin Gaye was taken away from us, and it leads to wonder how music would have been had he been alive to day. That's a question that music fans and critics ask whenever they hear his timeless classics, but it's a blessing to know that Mavin left an impressive legacy on Music history, and though he's in heaven giving crooning to the Angels, singing with Tammi Terrell, he will always be remembered as the Prince of Motown and the Prince of Soul.
This article is dedicated to the memories of Marvin Gaye, his mother Albertha, who showed him unconditional love, his brother Frankie, who admired him, his musical soul-mate Tammi Terrell, his ex-wives Anna and Janis, his children Marvin III, Nona and Frankie and grandson Nolan.