Biography of Marvin Gaye

Music and performing came naturally to Marvin Gaye. By the age of three, he was wowing church members with gospel songs sung in his high, pure voice. He also picked up the drums and by the age of 10 had learned to play piano by ear.

Marvin Gaye CollageMarvin Pentz Gaye, Jr., was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C. (He added the e to his last name "Gay" in 1961.) His mother, Alberta, worked as a maid and was the family’s main breadwinner. His father, Marvin, Sr., served as a minister in the House of God, a small Pentecostal church. The family of six—Marvin had two sisters and a brother—lived in public housing and constantly struggled with money.

Marvin’s relationship with his father proved an ordeal throughout both their lives. Marvin, Sr., was a strict man who seemed to resent his son’s talent. He beat the boy frequently, even for the smallest mischief. “Living with Father was something like living with a king,” Marvin would later recount, “a very changeable, cruel, and all-powerful king.” Throughout their lives, the two clashed, with Marvin, Jr., seeking approval that his father refused to give.

Marvin Gaye and the MoonglowsMarvin sang in his first group, the D.C. Tones, in high school, but he left school as a junior in 1955 to join the Air Force. When he returned, he began singing with doo wop, or vocal harmony, groups, including the Moonglows. As talented and charming as he was, Marvin was painfully shy and suffered severe bouts of stage fright throughout his career.

In 1961, Marvin, through Moonglows founder Harvey Fuqua, met Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown Records, and was signed to a recording contract. That first year, Marvin released The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. On it, he tried to capture the style of crooners Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, but the album did not do well. Afterward, Motown pushed him toward rhythm and blues, jazz, and soul music styles. He quickly hit his stride.

That Stubborn Kinda FellowGaye was determined to be a star, and in 1962, he had his first hit single, “A Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” From that point on, he reeled off multiple hits for Motown and Gordy including "Can I Get A Witness," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," and "Ain't That Peculiar." He also married Gordy’s sister, Anna, in 1964. In 1968, he released “I Heard It Through the Grapevine," a recording Motown Records had first rejected. It was a runaway chart topper and gave him the cash and leverage to take control of his career.

Tragedy, though, weighed on Gaye’s swelling success. He and singer Tammi Terrell had developed a fantastic chemistry as a duo. Their performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” captures their beautiful blend of voices and their joy of performing together. But Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms on stage during a 1967 concert. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor that led to her death in 1970, just weeks before her 25th birthday. 

Marvin G and Tammi TThe loss of his friend and singing partner devastated Gaye. He shrank from performing and recording, even toying with the idea of trying to play pro football with the Detroit Lions. Finally, he reemerged with the single “What’s Going On” followed by the groundbreaking album of the same name, both in 1971.

While Marvin would go on to produce some timeless music, including the No. 1 hits "Let's Get It On, "I Want You," and "Got To Give It Up," the remainder of the 1970s proved a troubled time for Gaye, however. Drugs, depression, and money problems plagued Gaye. In late 1983, in an effort to retreat and recover, he moved in with his parents in Los Angeles. On April 1, 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, Gaye got into a violent fight with his father. Marvin, Sr., shot and killed Gaye. 

In 1987, Marvin Gaye, Jr., was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone, the premier magazine of popular music, lists him as #6 on the list of “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” 

Where did it all happen? In Hitsville, USA. Read on about Motown Records.

 

 

 

The Music of the Era

The 60s produced a hybrid of musical genre, instrumenation, and culture. Many styles of popular music cross-pollinated during that time. 

 

 

 

Issues & songs

Learn the issues and listen to the songs on the What’s Going On album.