Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. (April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984), better known by his stage name Marvin Gaye, was an American singer-songwriter and instrumentalist with a four-octave vocal range. Starting as a member of the doo-wop group The Moonglows in the late fifties, he ventured into a solo career after the group disbanded in 1960 signing with the Tamla Records subsidiary of Motown Records. After starting off as a session drummer, Gaye ranked as the label's top-selling solo artist during the 1960s.
In 1961, Tamla released Gaye's first single, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide.” Later in 1961, Motown issued Gaye's first album, “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye” comprising Gaye's jazz interests with a couple of R&B songs. The album tanked and no hit single came of it.
“Stubborn Kind of Fellow” released in 1962 became a hit on the Hot Rhythm and Blues Sides chart reaching #8 and eventually peaked at #46 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in early 1963. A parent album, “That Stubborn Kinda Fellow,” was released in 1962, the same month that Gaye's fifth single, “Hitch Hike,” was released. That song reached #30 on the Hot 100, bringing Gaye his first Top 40 single. Gaye's early success confirmed his arrival as a hit maker, and he landed on his first major tour as a performer on Motown's Motortown Revue.
Gaye's career following his performances with the Motortown Revue assured him success. Gaye's next single, “Pride & Joy,” became a major hit in the spring of 1963, reaching #10 on the Hot 100, selling nearly one million copies. Later that year, Gaye repeated the success with the Top 30 hit, “Can I Get a Witness.”
Gaye reached the Top 10 in early 1965 with “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” which sold close to one million copies. Gaye eventually scored his first immediate million-sellers in 1965 with the Smokey Robinson compositions, “Ain't That Peculiar” and “I'll Be Doggone.” These songs and other singles released during the 1965 to 1966 period would be the result of Gaye's next release, “Moods of Marvin Gaye.”
In early 1967, Gaye scored his first international hit with the duet, “It Takes Two,” with Kim Weston, who ironically had already left the label when it became a hit. That year, Motown hooked Gaye up with veteran Philadelphia-based singer Tammi Terrell, who had an early stint with James Brown. Gaye would later say of Terrell that she was his “perfect partner” musically. Hit singles the duo scored within an eighteen-month period included “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You're All I Need to Get By.” Other hits such as “You Ain't Livin' till You're Lovin'” and “The Onion Song” found success in Europe. The duo's recording of “If This World Were Mine,” the b-side of “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” found modest success on the charts, the first sole Gaye composition to do so. Terrell would be diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor which eventually led to her death at the age of 24 in 1970.
In 1968, what would become his signature song, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” was released on the album originally issued as “In the Groove.” Gaye's version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” blew up on the charts upon its 1968 release. By the end of the year, the song had hit #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot-Selling Soul Singles charts and by 1969 had reached #1 on the U.K. Singles chart becoming Gaye's first international smash.
His landmark album “What’s Going On” was released in 1971. The first Marvin Gaye album credited as produced solely by the artist himself, “What's Going On” is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle, since the album ends on a reprise to the album's opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.
“What's Going On” was the first album on which Motown Records' main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit. Featuring introspective lyrics about drug abuse, poverty and the Vietnam War, the album was also the first to reflect the beginning of a new trend in soul music. “What's Going On” was both an immediate commercial and critical success and has endured as a classic of early-1970s soul. “What's Going On” remained on the Billboard 200 Albums chart for over a year and sold over two million copies, making it Marvin Gaye's best-selling album to that date until he released “Let's Get It On” in 1973. Besides the title track other hit singles that came out of the album included “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” making Gaye the first solo artist to have three Top 10 singles off one album on the Billboard Hot 100.
Released in 1973, “Let's Get It On” consisted of material Gaye had initially recorded during the sessions of “What's Going On.” Along with the title track other singles from the album included “Come Get to This,” which recalled Gaye's early Motown soul sound of the previous decade, while the then-controversial “You Sure Love to Ball” reached modest success but was kept from being promoted by Motown due to its sexually explicit nature.
In 1976, Gaye released his first solo album in three years with “I Want You.” The title track became a #1 R&B hit while also reaching the Top 20 of the Hot 100. The first of his albums to embrace the then popular disco sound of the time, Motown released a double-A 12” of “I Want You” alongside another smooth dancer, “After the Dance.” The songs found success as a unit on the Billboard Hot Disco chart, reaching #10.
In the spring of 1977, Gaye released “Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1,” which gave him his third #1 Hot 100, the final one Gaye released in his lifetime. The song also topped the R&B and Dance Singles charts.
Gaye entered the recording studio intending to produce a “lazy” album, but ended up with the sprawling double-album set, “Here, My Dear,” which was held up from release for over a year. Finally released after Motown's demand for new product in late 1978, the album was initially a flop, tanking after only a couple months on the charts. Its only single, “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” peaked at #23 on the R&B chart, in early 1979, becoming Gaye's first single since “Soldier's Plea” 17 years earlier to not hit the Billboard Hot 100.
After signing with CBS' Columbia Records division in 1982, Gaye worked on what became the “Midnight Love” album which was released that year. The parent single, “Sexual Healing,” was released to receptive audiences globally, reaching #1 in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. R&B Singles chart, while becoming a Top 10 Hot 100. The single became the fastest-selling and fastest-rising single in five years on the R&B chart staying at #1 for a record-setting ten weeks. “Sexual Healing” won Gaye his first two Grammy Awards including Best Male Vocal Performance, in February 1983. The following year, he was nominated for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance again, this time for the “Midnight Love” album.
On April 1, 1984, Gaye's father fatally shot him after an argument that started after his parents squabbled over misplaced business documents. Gaye attempted to intervene, and was killed by his father using a gun that Marvin Jr. had given him four months before. Marvin Gaye would have turned 45 the next day. Marvin Sr. was sentenced to five years of probation after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Charges of first-degree murder were dropped after it was revealed that Marvin Sr. had been beaten by Gaye before the killing.
In 1987, Marvin Gaye Jr. was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also inducted to Hollywood's Rock Walk in 1989 and was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990. In 2005, Marvin Gaye Jr. was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.