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Reflecting on the stormy life and death of Marvin Gaye

• Apr 2, 2019 at 2:00 PM

“I thought I could win (my father’s) love through singing, so I sang my heart out,” Marvin Gaye, soul singer and Motown trailblazer, confided to his friend David Fritz. “But the better I became, the greater his demands.”

On April 1, 1984, one day before he would’ve turned 45, the singer was shot to death by the very father whose love he had sought to win since childhood.

Alberta Gay, Marvin’s mother, said of her husband, “He didn’t love Marvin, and what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love him either. Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.”

Marvin was raised in Washington, D.C., by his mom, Alberta, and his dad, Marvin Gay Sr. (The son added the “e” to his surname when he reached adulthood.) His mother worked as housekeeper, cook and child minder wherever she could. His father was a preacher in the House of God.

The pastor was very strict and he beat his children with his belt if they displeased him. Out of four children, Marvin Jr. fell short of his father’s standards most often. He was forced to strip naked and beaten with the belt until welts rose up on his skin.

The House of God, a mix of orthodox Judaism and Pentecostal Christianity, prohibited dancing, movies and television.

“We were forced to cut off the outside world,” Marvin said. “Come Friday night at sundown, everything stopped for us. We weren’t allowed to play. We couldn’t even ride the bus. All we could do was pray and praise God.”

Praise included singing, and that’s how Gaye learned that he had a gift. Everyone in his family was blessed with a wonderful voice. But young Marvin was the one who received lavish compliments and adoration for his singing. Sometimes, he got more attention for his voice than his father got for preaching, and Marvin felt that his father might be jealous.

Praise singing was the only acceptable singing, however. “The House of God can never approve of any music that does not praise God,” the pastor declared. Marvin was discovering that secular music had appeal, and he enjoyed singing it.

In junior high, he sang in the choir and earned top grades. But when Marvin got to high school, his interest in school dwindled. His father repeatedly kicked him out of the house. He quit school at 17, and began singing in doo-wop groups. He eventually sang for Berry Gordy, then-president of Motown, which led to a contract. He played drums and piano for several artists. He was a gifted songwriter, as well, writing or co-writing many of his biggest hits, including “Sexual Healing,” “Let’s Get It On” and “What’s Going On.”

Marvin’s duets with Tammi Terrell made them huge R&B stars. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” may be their most famous song. I frequently hear it on movie soundtracks and I’ve heard my 16-year-old singing it. They made two albums and toured together, but sadly, she collapsed in his arms onstage during a performance. She had a brain tumor. They continued to record together, but she eventually died of brain cancer. He refused to perform live for five years.

Notable among his many albums are two of his three concept albums, “What’s Going On” and “Let’s Get It On.”

Released in 1971, the songs on “What’s Going On” segue from one to another and they create a narrative from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning home from the war. Marvin sings about poverty, drug abuse, the Vietnam War and global warming. It was both a critical and popular success when released, and today is considered to be a landmark album.

Another landmark album in soul music, 1973’s “Let’s Get It On” was the most commercially successful LP of Marvin Gaye’s career. It featured multi-tracked background singing of his own voice and, as you may have guessed from the title, sexually explicit lyrics. Marvin wrote in the liner notes, “I hope the music I present here makes you lucky.”

I’ve heard it said that many children have been conceived while this album played, so my guess is that Marvin’s music has made many people lucky. Or unlucky, depending on your perception.

The gifted singer, songwriter, producer and musician died far too young. He was living with his parents in a home that he had bought for them. His father calmly walked into the room and shot his son in the heart with a .38-caliber pistol, then shot him again in the shoulder.

The former pastor pleaded not guilty and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after a doctor discovered he had a brain tumor. He died in a nursing home in 1998, 14 years after killing his son.

Marvin Gaye, Prince of Soul, would’ve been 80 years old today.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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