Marvin Gaye, one of the biggest stars to come out of Motown Records, and who became one of the biggest R&B performers in American history, was shot killed by his father 30 years ago today, one day before his 45th birthday. At the time of his death, Gaye was in the midst of a serious comeback, as his career had stutter stepped for the past few years prior.
With electricity as a stage performer on par with the likes of James Brown and Michael Jackson, a consummate word and songsmith who penned and produced opposite spectrums of sound like the seminal urban awareness musical masterpiece “What’s Going On,” to being an absolute aural lothario and sexmeister with “Let’s Get it On,” the sheer power of the creative arcs of Marvin Gaye have stood the test of time and even broke new ground and shattered previous sonic conventions. Like a John Lennon in many ways, Gaye was never afraid to express himself wholeheartedly in his public guise, with his creative visions and his fearless confidence, which like Lennon, sometimes required all too unhealthy by-products to keep help manifesting that vision (drugs, etc.), but ultimately still became globally revered as a figurehead in his respective genres.
His songs were about themes like unrequited love, solidified love, sexual wanton and attraction, solitary madness, political and urban strife; they run the gamut and are songs that have become some of not only Motown’s most memorable, but in the entire music spectrum as well (“How Sweet It Is,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Let’s Get it On,” “Got to Give It Up,” “Sexual Healing.”). They remain songs of personal universality to coin a sort of oxymoron, but it’s true; there’s something global yet highly individual about what the songs of Marvin Gaye do to people, how they are affected by him. To watch film of him performing live is like watching electricity being invented for the first time, it’s a kind of magic that intertwines into the rainbow colored ether with a pure joy. After all, music is supposed to be about pure joy, whether it’s a cowboy warbling about getting jilted at the altar or the biggest, most intimidating metal head shredding his guitar and screaming about the bad breaks in life, and all in between, the end result of music and its main purpose, is to instill some sort of contentment in the listener, body, mind, and soul. No one, with the possible exception of Otis Redding, was able to do it the way Marvin did.
Marvin Gaye’s pure honey-like voice, demeanor, and approach flowed like gold from a miller’s spinning wheel. He pushed all the right buttons to the audience and his approach to art, but like most artists who are imbued with that extra special sincerity like he was, Gaye was also a tortured soul, one who needed the same kind of metaphorical spiritual tourniquet he gave his listeners. At one point near the end of his career, the Washington, D.C. native had hit rock bottom. After some soul searching, he rebounded; leaving Motown after almost two decades, he moved to Columbia Records, released “Sexual Healing” in the early 1980s and suddenly was on top again. It all looked as if he was going to be another veteran, revered elder statesman of Rhythm and Blues when it all tragically terminated on April 1, 1984 with his senseless murder, perpetrated by his father, 30 years ago. It was a “rock and roll death” of the worst order — they all are, but this one seems to have been marred by senseless domestic violence, snuffing a light that shone so bright and so hot, dousing a torch that burned with intensity, creativity, and sensitivity, three adjectives which succinctly describe what Marvin Gaye was, what he gave to his millions of fans, and what he will always remain in his memory.
There’s so much incredible music from the cachet of Marvin Gaye, that today, one is urged to play as much as they can and celebrate the life of a true genius of his craft. Really. There’s no other way to put it. For one to understand and see and hear just how soulful Marvin Gaye was to people, witness his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, in which over a simple drum machine rhythm, he sings the traditional song so guttural, so emotional, so Marvin, that it almost becomes his own original song. His style and effortless grace had the power to do that, just like its had the power to dazzle us after all these years and will continue to do so. How sweet it was that we were loved by him.
April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984