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Drugs, wine women and music: the life and death of Marvin Gaye


Body and soul: Gaye threw himself into his concerts. Pictorial Parade/ Getty

Body and soul: Gaye threw himself into his concerts. Pictorial Parade/ Getty

Body and soul: Gaye threw himself into his concerts. Pictorial Parade/ Getty

The way his life was going, it's unlikely Marvin Gaye was going to be around for his 75th birthday this week. As things panned out, the slinky King of Soul didn't even make it to his 45th – shot dead by his own father with just hours to go.

Coked-up and paranoid for months, the singer had taken to wearing a bulletproof vest he only removed when he was about to step on stage, or when he got home to the house he'd signed over to his parents to keep it from his creditors.

It was late morning when Gaye's father entered his bedroom and, without saying a word, shot him in the heart. As the singer slumped to his knees, his father stepped forward and fired again at point blank rage with a pistol he'd been given by his son to guard him.

It was a bizarre, sordid end to a life that was itself often bizarre and sordid. But Marvin Gaye had soared gloriously too, carrying the voice of black America to new heights.

Marvin's relationship with his father, also Marvin, was troubled. Marvin Snr's calling as a Pentecostal minister didn't curb his womanising, cross-dressing or sadism. Beaten into his teens, the singer described his upbringing as "like living with a very peculiar, changeable, cruel and all-powerful king". His loving mother taught him how to drown out his torment with song. But for her, he'd have killed himself.

Some felt Marvin was looking for another mother when he started dating Anna Gordy in 1960. He was 20, she was 35. She was also the sister of Berry Gordy, whose new Motown Records label was gearing up as pop's greatest hits factory.

By the time they tied the knot in 1963, Marvin was a contender in a Motown stable that already featured Smokey Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Martha And The Vandellas and (though as yet they couldn't get arrested) The Supremes.

As a youngster, Marvin hated his sweet, high-pitched voice, adding an 'e' to the family name, Gay, to deflect pokes at his sexuality – his father's penchant for women's clothes was a neighbourhood joke, to Marvin's endless shame.

But his voice came out clear on the tinny 1960s transistor radios and he racked up a run of hit singles as a solo artist and in duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and soul-mate Tammi Tyrell.

While Gaye's voracious sexual appetite was well-known, his love for Tyrell seemingly stayed platonic. Their partnership was cut short in 1967 when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Her illness, followed by her death in 1970 aged just 24, devastated Gaye.

By then, the musical ground had shifted.

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The three-minute single which Motown had elevated to an art form was suffering at the hands of the album.

But while others had fallen by the wayside, Marvin had grown in stature and commercial clout. Such was his self-assurance, he could now throw down the gauntlet to the label's dictatorial founder, and his brother-in-law, Berry Gordy.

Marvin's marriage to Anna Gordy was in freefall, but if this fuelled Gordy's hostility to Gaye's latest scheme, it wasn't the only reason.

Gordy still passionately believed in the power of the single. It was what Motown knew, and did best, and had made Motown great.

Plunged into sorrowful reflection by an America torn along race lines, by letters home from his soldier brother in Vietnam, and by his grieving for Tammi, Marvin wanted to say stuff that couldn't be said in three minutes. The result was the seminal album, What's Going On? When Gordy rubbished a preview as "the worst thing I've ever heard", Gaye persuaded executives to release it behind the boss's back. It was a smash.

Vindicated but burned out, Gaye's later 1970s were marked by slipshod work, financial woes and cocaine and heroin abuse. In 1981 he roused himself and retreated to Ostend in Belgium under the wing of small-time promoter Freddy Cousaert. In his grim North Sea exile he kicked hard drugs, took up jogging and boxing, and remade himself.

He returned to the world stage for one glorious final act, scoring global hits with 'Sexual Healing' and its parent album Midnight Love. But it would be a parent that would do for him after he hopped straight back onto the merry-go-round of wine, women, coke and the horse tranquiliser angel dust.

Despite the money rolling in, Marvin was still on the run from creditors, which was one reason he moved in with his folks. The bad blood between father and son simmered for months before exploding in gunfire. One sister later said the father had "made it very clear" to his children that he would kill any one of them that dared attack him.

After yet another row, Marvin did just that, kicking lumps out of his father. It seems he then retired to his room to await the inevitable. Another sister reflected: "There was no doubt he wanted to die. He couldn't take it anymore."

A tearful reverend told the judge: "If I could bring him back, I would. I loved him."

He got a suspended sentence for voluntary manslaughter.


Heard It Through The Grapevine: how artist changed the face of soul

When 21-year-old Marvin Gaye, right, signed for Motown Records in 1960 some begrudgers said it was only because he was dating the boss's sister.

Gaye eventually married Anna Gordy, sibling of the legendary Berry, but their increasingly shaky marriage didn't help pull many strings with his brother-in-law.

Gaye became Motown's top star – and one of the most influential figures in pop history – by dint of his sweet voice, his peerless phrasing, and his gifts with a lyric and a melody.

Singles like 'Heard It Through the Grapevine', 'Sexual Healing' and 'Got To Give It Up' stand as all-time classics. The latter, from 1977, gifted Michael Jackson his signature style and remains one of the foundation stones for today's dance.

Gaye's other indelible gift to pop was his 1971 concept album What's Going On?

With popular music splitting down the appalling vistas of dumb heavy metal, gormless prog rock and wussy acoustic navel gazing, Gaye showed that music could be so much more.

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