Soul singer and songwriter Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, to a church minister father, Marvin Gay Sr., and a doting mother, Alberta Gay, at Freedman’s Hospital Washington, D.C.
Although born into abject poverty, he became one of the biggest Motown, blues, and soul singers in the 60s. To many adoring fans, he was the Prince of Soul and Motown. Women and his fans alike adored him. In later life, he changed his surname to Gaye, and by adding the ‘e,’ he could separate himself from his father carrying the same name.
His relationship with his father had always been troubled and abusive, and this small detail became more important later.
How He Died
Gaye died a day before his 45th birthday by a gunshot wound to the heart and shoulder. His father had shot him; this fateful clash was the culmination of a build-up of tension and apparent jealousy. But to understand this, we need to explain the picture and what was going on.
You see, everything was not as good as you would have perhaps thought for an individual who was one of the biggest music stars of the time.
Gaye, although enjoying his fame as the sultry voice of R&B with his good looks and charisma, was suffering an addiction to cocaine, which was making him delusional and afraid. Unwittingly, he had handed the gun to his father a few months before the event as he was feeling paranoid that someone was going to kill him.
At this time, he had asked his parents if he could stay with them in their home due to delusions from cocaine and other substances and deep depression. This was an image kept from the public eye.
On that fateful day, as he sat with his mother, enjoying a laugh despite feeling unwell, his father became more agitated by Gaye as the doorbell kept ringing. It was either a friend coming over for a chat or dealers dropping off drugs for him. His sister had mentioned that, at his age, Gay Sr. wanted a quiet life. He felt enraged that he was unable to get that thanks to the various issues and problems arising from the musician being there at home with them.
His Relationship with His Father
His father, a preacher, had raised his children to be obedient and respectful despite his many shortcomings. These shortcomings included a fetish for cross-dressing and drinking too much at times.
In the late 50s and early 60s, this was something people did not speak about, and certainly not publicly. During this particular afternoon, Gay Sr. became enraged by what he perceived as his son’s complete disrespect for him as his father. He was also jealous of the singer’s relationship with his mother, which was much more easygoing and relaxed than his relationship with his son.
Gay Sr. was also suffering a bruised ego. His son had purchased the house he and his mother and father now called home. On top of this, he was afraid that his son was whittling money away on drugs and his ex-wife and was worried that his home and future were on the line.
The tension of nearly 45 years was at a boiling point that day, and before anyone realized it, Gaye had been shot dead by his father. The family agreed the tensions of a lifetime came together that day and caused havoc in the home, and the singer was pronounced dead one day before his birthday on April 1, 1984.
Gaye began singing at the age of four at his father’s church. Gay Sr. was the preacher, and his son was the esteemed choir boy with a deeply soulful voice. No one knew at this point that this enchanting voice and musical talent would change the musician’s life forever.
To the outside world, they seemed like the perfect family—a doting mother, a god-fearing father, and a couple of happy children, including siblings, Zeola, Jeanne, and Frankie.
Although they appeared to be a happy and traditional family, Gaye’s father was unconventional, especially for the times. Gay Sr. would dress in women’s clothing in front of the children and his wife and walk around the home dressed this way.
By day, he was a church minister, and by night, he was a cross-dresser. Gaye found this confusing, coupled with his father’s brutal method of parenting, which wove a disconnected and angry thread throughout his life. He also had two half-siblings resulting from his mother’s previous relationship and his father’s extramarital affairs.
When the singer became more famous, people often teased him that he was ‘gay’ because of his father’s behavior; as word got around and his name, which was sometimes linked to homosexuality, so he changed his name to Gaye, adding the ‘e.’ He was undoubtedly a ladies’ man and had many women chasing after him his entire life.
Motown and Becoming Famous
His career began in earnest in 1961 when he signed up with a well-known label Tamla Records. It was owned by Motown, which mainly focused on up-and-coming new Black talent.
His first release was an album, The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye, and a duet followed this with fellow up-and-coming star Mary Wells titled, Together. The song peaked at 42 on the Billboard Pop Album Charts. He had talent, and this was getting noticed very quickly.
Throughout the 60s, he became a household name, releasing more than 30 hits over eight years. He was establishing his career and marking his territory on the Motown scene. In 1968, he topped the charts with the hit I Heard It Through The Grapevine, a popular and well-known song today.
In the 70s, he didn’t slow down. Inspired by the pain of the Vietnam war and his brother joining the American army, he wrote an album called What’s Going On. It was a studio concept album where he put a lot of thought into the hatred he witnessed toward soldiers returning from war, his brother’s pain, and world issues at large. Included in the album were the songs What’s Happening Brother and Save The Children. He was an empathetic person, and things hung heavily on his shoulders.
This album topped the Billboard LP Charts for a year, and the lead title track hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts. Two more tracks on the album hit the charts, with Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) and Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) reaching the Top 10 of the Top 100, placing him in the remarkable position of having three Top 10 tracks on the Hot 100 at one time from one album.
Although Gaye was achieving recognition and critical acclaim, he suffered from depression which plagued his life. At this point, his depression deepened as his singing partner and good friend Tammi Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his marriage to Anna Gordy began falling apart. The family said that Gordy’s father, Berry Gordy saved Gaye from taking his own life while attempting suicide with a handgun.
Even though chaos was forming a backdrop to life, the musician’s success was still growing with hits such as I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Too Busy Thinking About My Baby.
After Terrell died, Gaye’s depression amplified, and even though he wrote a hit in the 70s, That’s The Way Love Is, he wasn’t interested in promoting it or getting involved with promoting the single. This led to arguments with his record label, which increased his depression and destructive relationship with cocaine.
He became more paranoid and reclusive as he got older, eventually leading him to live with his parents. His primary motivation was to be near his mother, who was his biggest fan and loved him unconditionally. Still, his tumultuous past with this disciplinary father never left him, and their relationship was never easy, and sadly, it ended in tragedy.
His brother Frankie, who held Gaye when he was dying, said his last words were, “I got what I wanted. I couldn’t do it myself. So I got him to do it.”
His father did no jail time for killing his son. He said he didn’t mean to do it, but he had felt threatened by his son’s agitated behavior and demeanor. Instead, he got a suspended sentence of six years.
It’s amazing how someone who appeared to have everything together in their life actually had the opposite. His personal life was a mess, and his addiction was ruining everything. The problems with his father would also cause so many issues throughout his life. There’s no doubt he felt confused by everything going on, and it was a problem that would never be successfully resolved.
The world was denied even more music from the soulful voice of Gaye, and that in itself is a major tragedy. Many would argue that it was the cocaine addiction that managed to drive everything. Cocaine forced him back to the family home. It led to the depression and paranoia that resulted in him giving the handgun to his father. It even resulted in people coming to the door driving his father insane.
Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t fallen into addiction? That is something we will never know.
Barry has worked as a freelance writer for over a decade and has developed an eye for detail when it comes to unearthing cool and interesting facts.
His love of music stems from his student days checking out up and coming bands playing in the darkest corners of bars and clubs in Edinburgh.
The love of uncovering something new also remains with him. With an appreciation for music that’s best described as eclectic, his musical tastes range from Eric Clapton to Eminem through to Snow Patrol and Incubus. The memories that music can bring back to the fore is something he tries to portray in his writing.
For him, the voyage of discovery and unearthing something new is what makes this task of writing for MusicGrotto.com so interesting.