Mercy Mercy Me
His life began in poverty and ended in tragedy, with extraordinary highs and lows along the way. Here are 20 things you may not know about one of Motown's greatest artists.
He Grew Up in the Projects
Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was born in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1939. His father was a minister, his mother a domestic worker and his first home was in a public housing project. He began singing at his father's Pentecostal church when he was four years old. But at home, young Marvin endured what he later described as "brutal whippings," a pattern of abuse that foreshadowed April 1, 1984, the day his father shot and killed him.
He Sang Backup for Chuck Berry
Marvin (second from left) ran away from home and joined the U.S. Air Force when he was 17, but military life didn't agree with him and he was honorably discharged in very short order. He and childhood friend Reese Palmer then formed a vocal group called the Marquees (later the New Moonglows), which worked with Bo Diddley and performed as session singers on two 1959 Chuck Berry hits, "Back in the U.S.A" and "Almost Grown."
Motown Hired Him as a Drummer
Before he became known as a singer, Marvin played drums for some of Motown Records' biggest stars, including the Supremes, the Miracles, the Marvelettes and "Little" Stevie Wonder.
The "E" Was Added Later
After landing a solo contract with Motown subsidiary Tamla, Marvin Gay became Marvin Gaye. According to one report, he made the change after someone jokingly asked, "Is Marvin gay?" Others say he saw it as a way to distance himself from his father. In any case, Gaye appeared to be following the example of Sam Cooke, who had added an "e" to his original surname three years earlier.
His First Solo Album Flopped
Gaye, whose influences included Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole, was more interested in jazz than R&B, and he immediately clashed with record label executives. In the end, he got his way and in 1961 released "The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye," with standards like "My Funny Valentine" and "How High the Moon." But the album didn't gain traction. Gaye's first Top 10 hit—"Pride and Joy," on which Martha and the Vandellas sang backup—came two years later.
He Married Into the Motown Family
Gaye's first wife was Motown founder Berry Gordy's sister Anna, seen here next to Marvin (that's Tammi Terrell on the left). "Pride and Joy" apparently referred to Anna, but the couple's 1977 divorce inspired an entire double album—the bitter and heartbreaking "Here, My Dear."
Some of His Biggest Hits Were Duets
Gaye recorded a half-dozen duet albums, starting with 1964's "Together," with Mary Wells (seen here), and ending with 1973's "Diana & Marvin," with Diana Ross. But he had a special magic with Tammi Terrell. In the mid-'60s, Gaye and Terrell had a string of crossover hits, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need To Get By."
Photo by David Redfern via Getty Images
When Tammi Terrell Died, He Was Inconsolable
In 1967, Terrell collapsed onstage, falling into Gaye's arms. She was then rushed to the hospital, where tests revealed she had brain cancer. Despite their chemistry as performers, the duo weren't lovers—friends said they were like brother and sister. When Terrell died in 1970 at the age of 24, Gaye was so devastated he vowed never to perform again. At her funeral, "You're All I Need to Get By" played in the background as he delivered the eulogy.
Photo by Gilles Petard via Getty Images
Hitting No. 1 Didn't Thrill Him
In 1968, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" became Gaye's first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 (following four No. 1 singles on the R&B chart). Though the song sold over 4 million copies, the artist said he "didn't deserve" this success.
He Made a Stab at Acting
Gaye appeared in two movies, both about Vietnam War veterans: 1969's "The Ballad of Andy Crocker" (seen here), which starred Lee Majors and Joey Heatherton; and a 1971 biker flick, "Chrome and Hot Leather." Hoping for more acting roles, Gaye signed with the William Morris Agency, but nothing came of it.
He Wanted to Play in the NFL
At 31, Gaye set his sights on playing wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. "I'd rather catch a pass and score a touchdown in Tiger Stadium than rack up another gold record," he was quoted as saying. He trained hard, put on 30 pounds and met with Lions coach Joe Schmidt. But the coach refused to put Gaye at risk of being injured, and the singer's hopes of playing in the NFL were dashed.
"What's Going On" Almost Wasn't
Motown chief Berry Gordy hated the political song so much that he initially refused to release it, calling it "the worst thing I ever heard in my life." But he relented after Gaye threatened to go on strike. Released in 1971, the single reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the "What's Going On" album—considered by many to be Gaye's finest work—stayed on the charts for a full year.
Photo by Jim Britt
"Let's Get It On" Originally Wasn't About Sex
The original song, by producer Ed Townsend, was about getting on with life after recovering from alcoholism. But Gaye, who had just met Janis Hunter, who would become his second wife, radically changed the lyrics. The 1973 single became his biggest hit and instantly turned Gaye into a sex icon.
Photo by John Minihan
"Here, My Dear" Refers to His Divorce Agreement
To finalize his divorce, Gaye's agreed to give Anna half of his royalties from his next album. At first, he saw that as an incentive to put out "a quickie record—nothing heavy, nothing even good." Instead, he handed Anna "Here, My Dear," with lyrics specifically about their breakup ("Somebody tell me please / Why do I have to pay attorney fees?"). Although it sold poorly, the double album later became recognized as a masterpiece.
Photo by David Redfern via Getty Images
He Made Repeated Suicide Attempts
Gaye suffered from serious depression and often abused drugs. In 1969, Motown's Berry Gordy prevented him from shooting himself with a handgun. A decade later, in Hawaii, Gaye tried to end it all by ingesting a full ounce of cocaine ("I just wanted to be left alone and blow my brains on high-octane toot"). After his death, his sister Jeanne reported that Marvin had tried to jump out of a fast-moving car a few days before his father shot him.
Photo by Rob Verhorst via Getty Images
He Didn’t Win a Grammy Until 1983
Gaye's first Grammy Award was for the hit single "Sexual Healing." Sadly, most of his subsequent Grammys came after his death a year later.
Photo: Afro American Newspapers/Gado
At 44, He Moved in With His Parents
In August 1983, experiencing depression and cocaine-fueled paranoia compounded by serious financial woes, Gaye moved in with his mother and father. From then on, he lived in the modest Los Angeles home he had bought for them a decade earlier.
Photo by Paul Natkin
He Bought the Gun That Killed Him
In December 1983, Gaye gave his father a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson as a Christmas present. That's the gun that ended the singer's life.
Photo by Paul Natkin
He Died on the Eve of His 45th Birthday
On April 1, 1984, an argument between Gaye and his father escalated into violence. It ended when Marvin Gay Sr. (seen here breaking down in a courtroom during his sentencing) shot his son three times in the chest. Gaye's brother Frankie, who was on the scene, reported the Motown legend's final words: "I got what I wanted ... I couldn't do it myself, so I made him do it."
He Got a Huge Send-off
Gaye's funeral, on April 5, drew more than 10,000 mourners. Smokey Robinson and Dick Gregory delivered eulogies, and Stevie Wonder performed "Lighting Up the Candles." A year later, Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry proclaimed April 2 Marvin Gaye Day in the nation's capital, a holiday that's still celebrated today. In 2006, the city opened Marvin Gaye Park—with this mural at the entrance—near his now demolished childhood home.
Photo by Nick Kirkpatrick
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