Friday, August 30, 2013

Felony Friday: The tragic end of Marvin Gaye

One of my favorite Motown songs is "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the version by Marvin Gaye. This song gives me chills, it's so soulful and heart-rending. I'm sure everyone has heard it, but check it out again:

Even more heart-rending than this song is the tragic way Gaye's life ended: at the hands of his own father, who shot Gaye with a gun that Gaye himself had given his dad. However, before I tell the story of Gaye's death, let me share some information about his life.

Marvin Gaye was born in Washington, D.C. in 1939, the son of Marvin Gay, Sr. (the younger Gaye eventually added an "e" to the end of his last name) and Alberta Gay. Signs of trouble between father and son began early in Gaye's life. Though Marvin Sr. was a minister, he was abusive, and administered regular beatings to his son. Salvation came in the form of Gaye's mother, who encouraged his interest in music. Gaye began singing in church at the age of four, and as a teen performed in various doo-wop groups. After an unsuccessful stint in the United States Air Force, Gaye helped form a group called The Marquees, which performed around the D.C. area. Later, the group became "Harvey and the New Moonglows" and worked out of Chicago, where the band recorded a few of its own songs and also performed as session singers for musicians like Chuck Berry.

Marvin Gaye, early in his career
The "New Moonglows" disbanded in 1960, and Gaye moved to Detroit, where he signed on with Tamla, a subsidary of the Motown record company. His initial recordings didn't go anywhere, but he eventually gained fame with songs like "Hitch Hike" and "Pride and Joy." Gaye also became known for his duets with female Motown stars, in particular, Tammi Terrell, with whom he recorded songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." Gaye's real breakthough came with his recording of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which was released in 1968 and was the first of Gaye's song to hit number one on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.

Despite his professional success, Gaye's life was taking a downward spiral. Terrell, his duet partner, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, and the news plunged Gaye into a depression that worsened when Terrell died in 1970. Gaye was also disillusioned with what he perceived was a lack of power over his own career. He considered himself a "puppet" of Motown found Berry Gordy, Jr., as well as of Gordy's sister, Anna, whom Gaye had married in 1964 and would ultimately divorce in 1977. After Terrell's death, Gaye took a break from Motown, but returned a few months later to record "What's Going On." Gordy deemed the song "too political" and refused to release it, but after Gaye went on strike, Gordy gave in. Almost immediately, the song reached the top spot on the R&B charts.

"What's Going On" album cover

During the 1970s, Gaye's work, which included the songs "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Let's Get It On," garnered him critical acclaim and commercial success. On the surface, life was going well, but inside, Gaye was crumbling again. He had developed an addiction to cocaine, and also owed several million dollars in taxes. In an effort to evade the IRS, Gaye moved to Europe, and left Motown soon after because, he alleged, the company had released one of his recordings without his consent.

Life in Europe was good to Gaye; he cleaned up his addiction and signed on with CBS Records. Gaye also embarked on a comeback effort that included the 1982 release, "Sexual Healing," which hit number one on the R&B charts, made it into the top ten on the pop charts, and won two Grammy awards. However, while on tour to promote his album Midnight Love, Gaye reverted to old habits, using cocaine again, and, according to friends, becoming increasingly paranoid and suicidal.

Gaye's troubles came to a head at his parents' Los Angeles home on April 1, 1984. For days, the family had been arguing about a misplaced business document. That morning, Marvin Sr. brought up the issue again. Around 11:30 a.m., Gaye was sitting in his bedroom, talking to his mother, when the elder Marvin, shouting, tried to enter the room. According to Alberta, Gaye shoved his father, then hit him. These actions were, essentially, a death sentence, as Marvin Sr. had often told his children that if they laid a hand on him, he would kill them. Marvin Sr. returned to the room with a gun--a gift that Marvin Jr. had given him--and shot his son in the chest. Marvin Sr. then fired a second shot at point-blank range. Though Gaye survived for a few minutes, the first shot proved fatal, and he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital an hour and a half later. Gaye had died the day before his 45th birthday.

Marvin Sr. was arrested, and insisted that he had fired at his son in self defense, and that he didn't know the gun was loaded. (Editor's note: This argument seems suspect to me, because if Marvin Sr. wasn't expecting the gun to contain bullets, why did he shoot his son a second time?) Perhaps most telling is the way Marvin Sr. answered the question, "Did you love your son?" His response? "Let's say I didn't dislike him."

Marvin Gay, Sr. being escorted by police

Ultimately, Marvin Sr. pleaded "no contest" to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to probation. Gaye's ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean. The man himself become the subject of scores of tributes from his musician friends, and was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Almost thirty years after his death, Gaye's work still receives accolades and awards from music critics and organizations across the world. The "Prince of Motown" may be gone, his legacy lives on.

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