Marvin Gaye was a singer/songwriter, pianist and drummer from Washington, D.C. His father Marvin Sr. was a Pentecostal minister who ruled his family with an iron fist; Marvin learned how to sing and play piano from his father, but also endured countless beatings as a child. After dropping out of high school and a short stint in the Air Force, Marvin decided to pursue a career in music.
“My husband never wanted Marvin, and he never liked him. He used to say he didn’t think he was really his child. I told him that was nonsense. He knew Marvin was his. But for some reason, he didn’t love Marvin, and what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either. Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.”
— Alberta Gay (Marvin’s mother)
In 1960, Gaye impressed Motown president Berry Gordy at a house party, and was signed to a contract with the record label. After a couple years struggling to find an audience, Gaye scored with the hit songs “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” and “Hitch Hike” in 1962, the first of his many hit songs throughout the sixties. After a decade executing “The Motown Sound”, Gaye seized artistic control of his music, and produced a second, more personal library of work, at times socially and politically conscious, at other times frankly sexual and autobiographical. In the late seventies, Gaye ran into financial difficulties and a cocaine addiction, but was able to rehabilitate himself and his career in the early eighties. On April Fools Day in 1984, Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father in a domestic dispute.
Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), singer, songwriter, piano, drums
“Girls slow down! Not you, buddy.” Witness this hilarious video, with rapidly vibrating dancers:
His early style is similar to Sam Cooke. “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, one of his best early period songs:
Not Much Longer Would You Be Mine
Dave Marsh, in his The Heart of Rock & Soul — The 1001 Best Singles Ever Made, ranks “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” as the greatest single of all time:
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” isn’t a plea to save a love affair; it’s Marvin Gaye’s essay on salvaging the human spirit. The record distills four hundred years of paranoia and talking drum gossip into three minutes and fifteen seconds of anguished soul-searching. The proof’s as readily accessible as your next unexpected encounter on the radio with the fretful, self-absorbed vocal that makes the record a lost continent of music and emotion.
How does something so familiar remain surprising for twenty years? To begin with, Gaye plays out the singing with his characteristic amalgam of power and elegance, sophistication and instinct: now hoarse, now soaring, sometimes spitting out imprecations with frightening clarity, sometimes almost chanting in pure street slang, sometimes pleading at the edge of incoherence, twisting, shortening, and elongating syllables to capture emotions words can’t define. And Gaye does this not just in a line or two or three but continuously. As a result, a record that’s of absolutely stereotypical length creates a world that seems to last forever.
“Grapevine” is also a triumph for producer Norman Whitfield. The music begins with an obsessively reiterated electric piano figure. Its churchy chords are followed with a plain backbeat off the drum kit and a rattlesnake tambourine, then a chopping guitar and soaring strings. So Whitfield creates a masterpiece before Gaye ever strangles a note. That ultrapercussive beat on the tambourine is the sound of the rumor reaching home; the rest of the record is about the consequences.
The welter of voices — horns, female choruses, echo, bass-drum breakdowns over string arpeggios serves as a community of gossip. with the singer isolated but engulfed within it. Though he rails against the facts, he knows they have him trapped. What makes “Grapevine”‘s most anguished lines — “Losin’ you would end my life, you see / Because you mean that much to me” — so harrowing is that they come from the mouth of a man raised to believe in the literal fires of hell who now worships love. For Gaye, being cheated out of his lover is a sign of heavenly condemnation. So he lets his voice make a gospel leap for that first “you,” then immediately brings it back into control, as if he’s still struggling with how much she does mean to him.”
— Dave Marsh
What’s Going On? Three Friends Tell Their War Stories
Robert Ortiz, by David Guzman
“It was the first day of summer, 1974. Nearly a year earlier, October, 1973, I received my Selective Service card; making me eligible for a war that was not only extremely unpopular for my generation and especially my neighborhood in East Harlem, but conjured up nightmarish terror from the countless tales of returning soldiers and marines. I heard my own brother’s screams at night and witnessed the belligerence and bitterness into which his existence morphed. But on this fateful day, it really came home for me. My best friend, Robert Ortiz, came home. It was my first experience with death up close and personal. His casket was closed with a small window to see his head. It was the only part of his body that came home after he stepped on a mine. Music has a way of indelibly searing an experience in your soul. Later that day, I was alone with my thoughts and profound grief, and I heard Marvin Gaye’s immortal tune that so aptly captured my feelings at this poignant moment in my personal history. The tears streamed down my face to the powerful lyrics and soulful, rhythmic sounds of “What’s Going On”. Sometimes, the heaviness of pain in my chest that comes with hearing this song is too much to bear. But over time, I have come to accept the gnaw in my entralls as remembrance that should continue. Few songs evoke more emotion.”
— David G.
Rodney Todd, by Cheryl Kirk
“It is one thing to see a movie, hear a story or know the history of the impact of war. It is a totally different situation when you have been personally touched by the horror that comes from it — something you cannot appreciate until you have walked in the shoes of someone whose loved one has had their life altered forever by a tragedy while “serving our country”, either voluntarily or by no choice of their own. 18, 19, 20 year old kids, fearful of being ripped from their homes and sent away: awful, tragic, horrid.
When Rod had been back in the Long Beach Naval Hospital for some time, another Marine, Al Herlicka, showed up one day, one of two survivors in a helicopter crash in Vietnam that killed 17 others. We were introduced to him; his family lived back east and weren’t able to be there. I was seeing Rod so much I was well known by the Marine Corps representatives and medical staff. Going through Al’s memorabilia, it was a bone chilling moment when we saw a picture of his unit that had mostly died. There in the group was Art Council, Rod’s lifetime friend, killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Al was one of two survivors from Art’s unit. At first, we hadn’t made the connection. There were so many helicopter crashes and deaths — it felt like they happened every week. Al talked about the feelings of being one of two survivors: unbelievably blessed, how could he be so lucky, filled with guilt and remorse.
Enough. I’ve lived this too much.”
Steven Seeley, by Susan Seeley
“In early 2004, Steven was fresh out of MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot), otherwise known as “boot camp”, and on his way to Camp Pendleton in California for infantry training. Infantry “front line” action was the only way Steven wanted to serve. He was very excited to get through training so he could go to Iraq and do what he’s been preparing for these last several months. As the mother it’s very hard to understand this type of mentality, where fear seems to be non-existent, and the thought of danger is exhilarating. While these were very proud moments, I had never experienced anything like the emotions I was going through. Even now, writing about this brings back those powerful emotions, to the point of tears and stomach flutters. I knew what kind of dangers he would face. The reality that he may come home wrapped in a flag overwhelmed me daily. He finished infantry training, just after the company he was assigned to departed for a tour in Iraq, which meant his tour to Iraq would be delayed up to 7 months. He was very upset and I was very relieved!
On March 2nd, 2005, Steven has left for a seven month tour in Ramadi, Iraq. The war had changed significantly, and now we were hearing more stories about snipers, roadside bombs and rocket propelled grenades (RPG) than air raid bombings. It sounded even more dangerous to me. When Steven had been in Iraq for a month or two, there was a news flash on the USA Today website that Marines had been killed in Ramadi, Iraq. There were no other details. My husband and I waited and cried for two gut-wrenching days, afraid to answer the telephone and the door before we heard from Steven. I cannot tell you how good it was to hear his voice the day we got his call at three in the morning. There were many other times like this during that long seven months, but I am happy to say he came home on his own two feet September 28th, 2005. He is now serving as a Sergeant and training those infantry Marines fresh from the MCRD.”
— Susan S.
After this final story was written, Steven landed awkwardly during a training exercise, and was paralyzed from the waist down. He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, and lives in New Mexico with his wife.
Marvin Gaye Song Notes:
1. “What’s Going On (Alt)” can be found on Rarities Edition: What’s Going On.
2. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (Alt)” is a radio edit found on Hitsville, USA — The Motown Singles Collection, 1959-1971, which may be the best oldies compilation ever. Of these two, the alternate of “What’s Going On” is more important; the “Mercy Mercy Me” alternate is non-essential.
3. “It’s A Desperate Situation” and “I Can’t Help It (I Love You)” were never released as singles by Motown, and are my two favorite songs from Lost And Found: Love Starved Heart (Expanded Edition), a collection of unreleased songs from the Motown vaults.
4. “Anger” and “Feel All My Love Inside” are somewhat arbitrary choices to represent his acclaimed 1970s albums Here, My Dear and I Want You, respectively.
Marvin Gaye Songs:
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭✭
What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭✭
What’s Going On (Alt), Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭✭
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭✭
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (Alt), Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭✭
I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭✭
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell ✭✭✭
You’re All I Need To Get By, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell ✭✭✭
Let’s Get It On, Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭
Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye ✭✭✭
Can I Get A Witness, Marvin Gaye ✭✭
Pride And Joy (Mono), Marvin Gaye ✭✭
I’ll Be Doggone, Marvin Gaye ✭✭
Sexual Healing, Marvin Gaye ✭✭
Too Busy Thinking About My Baby, Marvin Gaye ✭✭
What’s Happening Brother, Marvin Gaye ✭✭
I Can’t Help It (I Love You), Marvin Gaye ✭
That’s The Way Love Is, Marvin Gaye ✭
God Is Love, Marvin Gaye ✭
Right On, Marvin Gaye ✭
It’s A Desperate Situation, Marvin Gaye ✭
Anger, Marvin Gaye ✭
Ain’t That Peculiar, Marvin Gaye ✭
Main Theme From “Trouble Man”, Marvin Gaye ✭
It Takes Two, Marvin Gaye & Mary Wells ✭
Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell ✭
I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Gladys Knight & The Pips ✭✭✭✭
I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Creedence Clearwater Revival Band ✭✭
What’s Going On (Live), Los Lobos ✭
What’s Going On (Live), Chaka Khan ✭
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Diana Ross ✭✭✭
Let’s Get It On, Jack Black ✭