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This lesson will detail the career, legacy, and death of Marvin Gaye. We will explore his numerous hits and most important albums. The events of his difficult personal life will also be considered.

Marvin Gaye: the Soul of Motown

Marvin Gaye, 1966

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Marvin Gaye was perhaps the most dynamic and multi-talented musician to emanate from the Motown record label. His rough, soulful voice articulated for many the sense of longing and frustration that characterized the 1960s and early 1970s. Troubled by depression, drug abuse, and financial woes throughout his career, Gaye’s life ended tragically when he was shot to death by his own father during an argument.

Early Career

Marvin Gaye was born in 1939 in Washington, D.C. Like many influential soul singers of the era, his earliest musical influences came from the church. Gaye’s family adhered to a strict version of Pentecostalism that, unlike most Protestant sects in America, emphasized the laws and restrictions found in the Old Testament in a way similar to Orthodox Judaism. Gaye’s father was a minister and would sometimes accompany him on piano during early performances at church.In addition to sacred music, Gaye was struck profoundly by the presence of doo-wop music being sung on the streets of Washington, D.C.

The vocal harmonies and catchy melodies outside of the context of church made a lasting impression. As a young man, Gaye sang with the local doo-wop group The Rainbows before forming his own group, The Marquees.By the late 1950s, the music industry was changing rapidly and Gaye would find a place for himself on the burgeoning Motown label. While touring as a backing musician for The Moonglows, Gaye caught the attention of Motown label founder, Barry Gordy. Through Gordy, Gaye would enjoy his first serious forays into recording and meet his first wife, Gordy’s sister, Anna. Gaye’s early work for Motown was mainly as a session musician, but he would soon become one of the label’s most successful vocalists.

The 1960s

Marvin Gaye, 1968
Marvin Gaye, 1974
1974

In 1971, Marvin Gaye released one of the most significant albums of the 1970s: ‘What’s Going On.’ Gaye wrote and produced all of the songs on ‘What’s Going On,’ a tactic that was not common for Motown up to that point.

Moody, political, and meditative, ‘What’s Going On,’ was a huge hit when it was released and is remembered today as an undisputed classic. The sadness and uncertainty that Gaye expressed on ‘What’s Going On’ expressed a depth and seriousness that Barry Gordy had not anticipated, but which resonated with audiences.The 1970s were a creative time for Gaye professionally, although his personal life was in turmoil.

Cocaine became a major problem in his life and relationships. Depression, exacerbated by his drug use, also made Gaye’s personal life a struggle. In 1973, Gaye released the amorous classic ‘Let’s Get It On.’ His marriage to his wife Anna was falling apart and he chronicled this debacle on the album ‘Here, My Dear.’Gaye’s personal life continued to deteriorate. He moved to Hawaii, and then to Europe, but his drug use continued to escalate. After leaving Motown for Colombia, Gaye released the album ‘Midnight Love’ which included one of his most well-loved singles, ‘Sexual Healing.

Death and Legacy

After trying and failing several times to get sober, Gaye decided to move in with his parents in the hopes that his father’s stern religiosity would help him straighten out. Deeply depressed and occasionally suicidal, Gaye’s decision to move in with his family would have tragic consequences. His relationship with his father had always been fraught, but by the 1980s, their relationship had become deeply confrontational. On the day before his 45th birthday, Gaye became embroiled in an argument with his father. This argument ended with Gaye’s father shooting him in the chest, killing him.Marvin Gaye is remembered as one of the most creative and versatile soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s.

He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and his albums continue to find new generations of fans.

Lesson Summary

Marvin Gaye was one of the most important soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s. His troubled personality was reflected in his stirring, emotional music. His album ‘What’s Going On’ is considered a timeless classic by many and his hits throughout the 1960s can still be heard on the radio today.

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