Monday, January 25, 2010

Marvin Gaye: An Appreciation

Music, not sex, got me aroused.
In the quarter century since Marvin Gaye's way premature death in 1984, a cottage industry has sprung up trying to explain the meaning of this extraordinary singer-songwriter's troubled, violent and ultimately enigmatic life.

I'm not even going to try, and if you can find clues while reading between the following lines, good for you.

Long before Gaye was shot dead by his maniacal minister father, he had attained an iconic status. This is because he didn't merely define soul music during a 26-year career but took it into uncharted territory through powerful songs about social, political and sexual issues that have influenced many recording artists in genres as diverse as doo-wop, rhythm and blues and jazz.

To my ears, one of the best albums ever is Gaye's self-produced What's Going On (1971), a song cycle presented from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to the country he had fought for who is confronted by injustice and suffering.

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Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was born on April 2, 1939 to Alberta Cooper, a domestic and school teacher, and Marvin Gay Sr., a minister at the House of God church in Washington, D.C. (Marvin Jr. later changed the spelling of his last name to Gaye because he felt that it sounded more professional, although some people have said that he was sensitive to the original spelling's homosexual connotation.)

Gaye spent much of his childhood in a public housing project in Southeast Washington and sang and played instruments in his father's church choir. He dropped out of high school in 11th grade and joined the Air Force in the hopes of becoming a pilot but was discharged after faking mental illness.

Returning to Washington, he joined a childhood friend who had formed a group called The Marquees. Bo Diddley signed them to Okeh Records, where they had moderate success. Gaye then joined the R&B and doo-wop group The Moonglows with whom he sang backup on records by Chuck Berry and Etta James.

After the Moonglows disbanded in 1960, Gaye moved to Detroit where he signed with the Tamla label, a subsidiary of Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown Records. He initially worked as a session drummer for The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas and Little Stevie Wonder, among others.

Gaye clashed almost immediately with the all-powerful Gordy as he began charting a solo career. They disagreed over the music that Gaye wanted to record and the tight leash and miserly payments Motown artists had to abide, and that contentious relationship was to eventually liberate the independent-minded Gaye from the Gordy's Motown plantation if not the label itself.

In 1961, Gaye released his first solo recording, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. It featured Broadway standards and jazzy show tunes and was a commercial flop. Three singles followed that also failed, and he was to attain his first commercial success not as signer but as co-writer of "Beachwood 4-5789," the 1962 Marvelettes hit.

Gaye finally cracked the charts in September 1962 with the hit single "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," a reference to his moody behavior. He broke into the Top 40 in 1963 with three hit singles -- "Hitch Hike," "Pride and Joy" and "Can I Get a Witnesses" -- and then had four more hits in 1964 -- "You Are a Wonderful One," "Try It Baby," "Baby Don't You Do It" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)", which became his first signature song.

From then on the hits came fast and furious. They included another personal fave of mine, the 1967 album United, which he recorded with Tammi Terrell and included the hit singles "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Your Precious Love."

Gaye's moodiness lapsed into depression when Terrell was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He refused to acknowledge the success of his first number one hit, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which he wrote and had been an earlier hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips, became bored with music and tired of fighting for artistic control. Meanwhile, his first marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy's sister, was collapsing. (His second marriage in 1977 to Janis Hunter, the teenage daughter of Slim Gaillard, lasted a year.)

He went into seclusion when Terrell died in March 1970 but shook off his depression three months later when he recorded the singles "What's Going On," "God Is Love" and "Sad Tomorrows."

Gordy refused to release "What's Going On," infamously calling it "the worst record I ever heard." Gaye threatened to leave Motown unless it was released and the plantation master relented. It was released with virtually no publicity in January 1971 and quickly shot up to number one on the Billboard R&B chart, where it stayed for five weeks and years later was ranked the fourth best song of all time by Rolling Stone.

After the single's success, Gaye demanded an entire album of similar tracks and Gordy had no choice but to agree.

What's Going On was a bold departure from Gaye's earlier work and was the first soul concept album, although it had ample funk and jazz influences, as well. Most of the album's nine song lead into the next and it ends with a reprise of the opening theme. The album also spawned two number one singles, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."

Gaye renegotiated his Motown contract after What's Going On was released to immediate critical and commercial success. The $1 million deal finally gave him creative control as well as being the most highly paid black artist, and his follow-up album, the soundtrack for the blaxploitation firm Trouble Man, also was a huge hit.

Shifting gears in 1973, Gaye recorded the sensual Let's Get It On, which became his biggest selling album during his lifetime. But while the hits kept coming, by 1979 he was besieged by tax and drug problems. He filed for bankruptcy and moved to Hawaii where he lived frugally until setting out on a star-crossed 1980 European tour that included showing up seven hours late for a Command Performance at a Royal Gala Charity Show for Princess Margaret.

Gaye finally broke with Motown the following year when he accused the label of editing and remixing his Lifetime album without his permission. He enjoyed a brief period of sobriety while living in Belgium and then signed with Columbia Records in 1982. He released Midnight Love late that year and the single "Sexual Healing" was to become his last hit.

His bouts of depression deepend in 1983 and his friends feared for his life, but Gaye's end came unexpectedly.

He had moved back into his parents' house and threatened to commit suicide several times after bitter arguments with his father. On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gay Sr. fatally shot his son after he intervened in an argument that had started after husband and his wife squabbled over some misplaced business documents.

Marvin Gaye would have turned 45 the next day.

This article is based in part on the Wikipedia entry on Gaye.

PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): Gaye with The Moonglows (ca. 1959); Gaye (1954); Berry Gordy (ca. 1962); The Soulful Moods dust jacket; Gaye and Tammy Terrell during a 1967 Mike Douglas Show performance; United dust jacket; Gaye with Anna Gordy Gaye; What's Going On recording session; What's Going On dust jacket; Live at the Oakland Coliseum during his 1973-74 world tour; Live at the London Palladium in 1977; Gaye honored by Ebony magazine (2008).

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