He was Mr. Midnight, and before that, for so many years, he was the Prince of Motown.
Marvin Gaye, born in Washington, D.C., 45 years ago today, died yesterday in Los Angeles after he was shot. His father, the Rev. Marvin Gaye Sr., was booked for investigation of murder.
It was the final chapter in a life as full of depressing valleys as it was of creative peaks. What will remain, of course, are the songs Marvin Gaye sang so beautifully over the past 20 years, from his first R&B hit in 1962, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," to his 1982 comeback smash, "Sexual Healing." In that period, Gaye established himself as one of the most influential figures in contemporary pop music, along with his Motown labelmates Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
He was an elegant man, his fine, warm features often cast in mysterious yet enveloping smiles that covered up the most intense personal pains: two bitter divorces, bankruptcy, creative blocks, several years without a record label and four long years of self-imposed exile in Europe.
Gaye's blockbuster "Midnight Love" album, which won him two Grammys last year, reestablished him artistically and commercially, and set him once again in the forefront of black and pop music. Last year "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," one of Gaye's classic Motown anthems, served as the theme song for "The Big Chill" and was as big a hit then as it had been 15 years before.
He was an enigmatic personality who never felt comfortable on stage despite many years on the road. He stayed off that road for years at a time (his 1983 show at the Capital Centre marked his first tour in five years), yet whenever he returned, his fans were waiting.
"I'm not especially an entertainer," he once explained. "I'm an artist and an entertainer, but the two are completely different. With one I'm extremely happy and joyful and at peace, and with the other I'm frankly out of my element. Although I do it okay, I do it nicely and everything, it's not where I get my biggest kick."
Gaye preferred the intimacy and control of the recording studio to explore his lifelong obsessions: sexuality, spirituality and social justice. Like AlGreen, another performer who moved from being a sanctified singer to become a soul superstar, Gaye never resolved those tensions, yet somehow thrived on their existence.
What carried Gaye through--and what carried us along with him--was a cool, confident voice that was cozy and friendly when it sought to engage our hearts, urgent and demanding when it sought to engage our minds. Always it was sincere, a wrenched heart resting in a bed of pathos. That was undoubtedly a carryover from Gaye's first singing experience in the Washington church where his father served as a minister. The rich imprint of gospel, first evident in the solos of a 5-year-old Marvin Gaye, would loom large in his life. His first musical training came on the organ at his father's church.
"I think music is God," Gaye once said. "It's one of the closest linkups with God we can possibly experience. I think it's a common vibrating tone of musical notes that holds all life together."
He went on to sing in the choir, to sing atRandall Junior High and Cardozo High School and, with his first group, the Marquees, at the dances and parties that were so much a part of Washington's culture. When Gaye left school, he served in the Air Force and then joined a singing group called the Moonglows, and probably would have established himself as either a group singer or a drummer (he spent two years backing the Miracles) had not Berry Gordy Jr. of Motown heard him singing informally at a 1962 party in Detroit.
Within a year, Marvin Gaye had his first hit.
People grew up to the string of classic records Gaye made for Motown between 1962 and 1973. He was the Prince, as much the symbol of Motown as Diana Ross or Robinson or Wonder. A master of both the romantic and earthy ballad form, he was certainly Motown's grittiest male singer, and its first independent spirit.
His songs included "Hitch Hike," "Try It Baby," "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You," "I'll Be Doggone," "Ain't That Peculiar," "One More Heartache," "Chained." He teamed up with Mary Wells for "Can I Get a Witness," and to even greater effect with Tammi Terrell on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." There were also his political themes, such as"Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)."
Gaye's records reflected the evolution of Motown, from the straightforward R&B of "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" to the sophisticated "Grapevine" to his epochal 1971 concept album, "What's Going On," a song cycle of social and political importance marked by a harsh, haunting beauty. An ambitious personal statement about urban decay, ecology, the Vietnam war and spiritual impoverishment, it was the first Motown album shaped away from the hit production line, with the songs more expansive both lyrically and musically (and inspiring similar albums by Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and others).
It also marked two other firsts: The use of the names of Motown's previously anonymous session musicians and the printing of lyrics to the songs. "What's Going On" and the follow-up album, "Trouble Man," established Gaye as much more than a hit-maker, marking him asa major songwriter and artist.
Unfortunately, he never followed up the sociopolitical explorations of those albums, opting instead for what many consider the definitive collection of explicitly sensual music, "Let's Get It On." From that time on, almost all Gaye's albums dealt, often quite frankly, with personal relationships.
The tragedies that haunted Marvin Gaye's life began in 1967, when Tammi Terrell collapsed in his arms during a concert performance after a brain hemorrhage. When she died three years later, a despondent Gaye abandoned both concerts and recordings until the release of "What's Going On."
Gaye's first marriage, to Anna Gordy, sister of the Motown founder and 15 years older than he, ended in divorce. The pain and the massive finality of a $600,000 divorce settlement provided the public gist of three of Gaye's Motown albums--"Here My Dear," "I Want You" and "In Our Lifetime."
In 1981 the federal government hit Gaye with a $2 million bill for unpaid back taxes, and a second marriage, to Janis Hunter, also ended in divorce when she left Gaye for another sex symbol, singer Teddy Pendergrass. There was also a suicide attempt in Hawaii, when Gaye said he ingested an ounce of pure cocaine. At that time, he had been reduced to living in a converted bread truck. Ironically, Gaye served as an inspiration for Elaine Jesmer's thinly veiled music biz novel, "Number One With a Bullet."
Gaye left Motown in 1981 under a cloud of divorce, bankruptcy and creative differences and in 1982 signed with CBS when that company agreed to help him with his financial difficulties. "Midnight Love" mixed the old sensual ballad style with the new synthesized funk, with Gaye playing most of the instruments himself, which is something he never did on stage.
"I think anything I do is done out of my lust for life," Gaye once said, "my curiosity and my dedication as an artist. I should live to the depths of depravity and I shall rise to the heights of spirituality. There is no other way I could became a fine artist.
"I was born to do what I do and I understand that and I take things as they come. Many times it's difficult, but I do all right."
Soon after, on "In Our Lifetime," he sang these lines: "There are pitfalls in life/ We accept the pleasure/ We accept the pain." Yesterday, they both ended for Marvin Gaye.
(Thank you, Josh!)