Motown pioneer Marvin Gaye was one of the most influential R&B artists of all time. He has inspired generations of musicians and fans alike with his soulful, socially conscious brilliance.
But his life was nowhere near as smooth as his unforgettable voice. It ended abruptly on April 1, 1984, one day short of his 45th birthday, during an altercation with his lifelong nemesis, his father.
Marvin’s love of music developed as a coping mechanism early in his childhood. It was a way to deal with the pain from the constant abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, Marvin Gay, Sr., a Washington, D.C. preacher. As a teenager, Marvin left high school and joined the Air Force to escape the endless beatings and psychological torture.
By 1961, Marvin had attracted the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who signed him to the label that same year. He quickly began producing hits such as “Hitch Hike” and “Pride and Joy,” which became Gaye’s first top ten record.
His next project was a duet album with fellow Motown artist Mary Wells. It was reasonably successful, but when Marvin teamed up with Tammi Terrell, the chemistry was immediate and magical.
The pair recorded many now-classic tracks, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love,” both released in 1967. The following year “Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” came out, further solidifying the duo’s status as a force to be reckoned with.
By all accounts(including their own), Marvin and Tammi’s relationship was strictly platonic. They enjoyed a camaraderie and genuine affection that was readily apparent both on and offstage and were unfailingly supportive of each other (Tammi’s short life was no picnic either, to say the least.)
During a performance in October 1967, Terrell collapsed onstage in Marvin’s arms. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor soon after. Her death on March 16, 1970, affected Marvin deeply, triggering debilitating bouts of crippling depression and suicide threats.
During Tammi’s illness, Gaye had his biggest hit with 1968’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” He never acknowledged its success or recorded another duet during his lifetime.
Marvin wasn’t satisfied with the style of music he was making either. He had to push Motown hard to release 1971’s “What’s Going On,” an album that brilliantly explored socially relevant topics including poverty, the environment, drugs, racism, and politics.
Berry Gordy was hesitant to release it, doubting its commercial appeal. Still, it was an instant success and is considered a groundbreaking achievement in soul music.
In 1973, Marvin’s artistic focus shifted from the political to the personal. His decade-long marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry’s sister, was coming to its bitter conclusion. After their separation, Marvin was obviously in a sexy mood, at least if the 1973 album “Let’s Get It On” is any indication.
As part of his divorce settlement in 1976, he was ordered to hand over a good chunk from the royalties of his next album to cover his alimony payments. That album, the aptly named “Here, My Dear” was so candid about the details of the Gaye/Berry marriage that his ex almost sued him for invasion of privacy.
Gaye remarried, and when that union tanked, he moved to Hawaii to fight his addiction to cocaine. He uprooted himself once again, dodging the IRS by high-tailing it to Europe. He also recorded his last album for Motown during his time, ending his 20-year association with the label.
The final two years of Marvin’s life were a combination of brilliant music-making and worsening drug addiction. He released the album “Midnight Love” on Columbia Records in 1982, which contained the hit song “Sexual Healing.” It earned Gaye his first and only Grammy award. (The only one. Madness.)
Despite his renewed success, Marvin was in desperate straights, struggling with depression, debt, and addiction. He had no choice but to seek solace in his parents' home (that he had purchased for them), living under the same roof with the man who caused most of his issues in the first place.
On April 1, 1984, Marvin and his father had a heated argument about the location of a misplaced insurance policy. Things quickly spiraled out of control.
Marvin Jr. kicked Marvin Sr., and the older man retaliated by shooting his son in the chest. The bullet tore through his right lung, heart, and liver. That shot alone was fatal, but his father fired again.
Marvin’s brother Frankie, who held him as his life ebbed away, wrote that his brother’s sad, final words were, “I got what I wanted….I couldn’t do it myself, so I made him do it.”