Few figures in American music in the 20th century can compare to Marvin Gaye. As a singer, he was without peer, possessing a silky voice that could sound either angelic or seductive or, on his biggest hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," positively haunted. As a songwriter, he was equally skilled at writing with an eye for the charts and mining the depths of his heart, a combination that created many of the enduring classics of his era: "Hitch Hike," "Dancing in the Street," "Pride and Joy," "What's Going On," "Let's Get It On," "Got to Give It Up," and "Sexual Healing." That list also shows how the entire history of postwar R&B can be seen through the career of Marvin Gaye. He harnessed gospel and cabaret to create the exuberant uptown sound of Motown in the early '60s, but he changed with his turbulent times, pushing pop-R&B into the realms of soul by the end of the decade. As the 1970s dawned, Gaye grappled with social protest on What's Going On, the 1971 album that found the singer/songwriter charting his own idiosyncratic course. From that point, Gaye delved into funk, blaxploitation, and disco, eventually settling into the smooth environs of quiet storm. Throughout this period, Gaye battled personal demons, often creating powerful art through his struggles, but they caught up with him tragically in 1984, when he was murdered by his father. Gaye's legacy resonated over the decades -- he was a touchstone for soul and pop music that was either sensual or political -- but his early death leaves hanging the question of what he could've achieved if he were alive. During his two decades as a recording artist, he already accomplished more than most artists do in a lifetime.
Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C., the second child of Reverend Marvin Gay and Alberta Gay. A minister in the House of God, Reverend Marvin Gay ran a strict household and his son -- who would add an "e" to his surname when he signed to Motown/Tamla, partially in tribute to his idol Sam Cooke -- sought refuge in music. Marvin Gaye sang in his father's church at the age of three and quickly rose through its ranks as a soloist. Soon, he also learned piano and drums.
Following his high school graduation, Gaye enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Once his service concluded, he returned to Washington, immersing himself in the city's doo wop scene. He became part of the Rainbows, who were taken under the wing of Bo Diddley, an association that led them to OKeh after he couldn't convince his label Chess to sign the group. The Rainbows became the Marquees and they recorded "Hey Little School Girl"/"Wyatt Earp" with Diddley, but the 45 didn't go anywhere. Not long afterward, R&B impresario Harvey Fuqua enlisted the Marquees as his backing group, changing their name to the New Moonglows. The group relocated to Fuqua's hometown of Chicago and recorded a handful of sides for Chess, all billed as Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows. Notable among these was 1959's "Mama Loocie," the first song to feature Gaye singing lead.
The Moonglows split in 1960, and Gaye followed Fuqua to Detroit, working with Tri-Phi Records as a house musician. At the end of the year, Gaye caught the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who negotiated a deal with Fuqua for Gaye to sign to the Motown subsidiary Tamla.
The Soulful Moods of Marvin GayeInitially, Gaye planned to be a supper-club singer specializing in standards and jazz, but Gordy wanted him to aim toward a younger audience. The duo compromised. His 1961 debut single, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide," satisfied Gordy's needs, while the full-length The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye skewed toward the singer's preferences. Over the next few years, there was tension between Gaye's conception of himself as a singer and Motown/Tamla's musical direction, and the vocalist slowly gravitated in Gordy's direction.