On April 1, 1984, Motown and soul artist Marvin Gaye died of a gunshot wound to the heart. Years after his death, his music remains relevant. Today, we remember the Prince of Soul and Motown. We explain the impact that his legacy has on the world.
Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. on April 2, 1939, in Washington D.C.
Gaye developed an interest in music at an early age. It is reported that Gaye first performed in his father’s church from as early as age 4. Around age 13, Gaye began to take his love of music and singing seriously. He found music to be a source of peace for him. Growing up, Gaye was a victim of severe abuse at the hands of his father. He credited his mother’s encouragement to pursue music as the thing that kept him from committing suicide.
Before finding success as a solo artist, Gaye joined a vocal group called The New Moonglows. His wide vocal range impressed the groups’ founder, Harvey Fuqua. After the groups’ dismemberment, Gaye and Fuqa relocated to Detroit. It wasn’t long before Gaye impressed President of Motown Record, Berry Gordy. In 1960, Gordy sought Fuqa to sign Gaye to a contract on Motown Record’s subsidiary, Tamla Records.
During his early years at Tamla, Gaye dabbled in various musical endeavours. He played drums for artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, and he wrote music for The Marvelettes. Gaye also performed duets with some of the biggest names in music at that time, including Diana Ross and Mary Wells. “Can I Get a Witness” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” were some of Gaye’s biggest hits during the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1962 that Gaye would release his first certified hit in his name. This song was “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”. Since the release of that song, Marvin Gaye quickly became one of the biggest names in Motown.
Since his acclimation to fame, Gaye used his platform to create meaningful music.
One thing that has remained consistent throughout Gaye’s legacy is his ability to connect to his audience by using his music to tell stories. These stories are not just stories that affect a particular group of people. These aren’t even stories that are relevant during a particular point in time. Gaye’s music and the stories that he translates through his lyricism are timeless and applicable to everyone.
“What’s Going On” remains one of Gaye’s most popular and relevant songs today.
Even the story behind its release applies to the struggles that underrepresented groups face in society today. “What’s Going On” was inspired by many situations of violence and suffering that surrounded Gaye. Some reports claim that the song was inspired by police brutality. Others claim that the song was inspired by Gaye’s brother and the PTSD that he experienced after returning from the Vietnam war.
Regardless of the inspiration of the song, the message applies to the struggle and state of many people today around the world. There is a lot of suffering and pain. Police brutality and war are two phenomenons that are still occurring, and when these situations escalate, many of us do find ourselves asking “what’s going on”.
Gaye had the beautiful ability to capture human emotions in an alluring way.
Two of his most popular songs “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing” spoke about intimacy in a way that was not previously done until that point. During Marvin’s reign (and even in some of today’s communities), public discussions about intimacy were taboo. For a man, let alone a Black man, to sing about lust was unusual. Despite this fact, both of these songs did very well for Gaye, with “Sexual Healing” giving Gaye two Grammys. His libidinous lyrics paved the way for other artists, from Prince to The Weeknd, to talk about love more brazenly.
Marvin Gaye used his albums as one would use a journal.
Each opportunity that he had to grace the mic, was a chance for him to voice his thoughts and opinions on topics close to his heart. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” addressed systemic racism. “Mercy, Mercy Me,” spoke about environmental destruction. The innovation and creativity that Gaye used to convey and translate his messages provided artists who came after him with the freedom to do the same.
His ability to create meaningful music comes from his authentic experiences. Gaye faced homeless, abuse, and addiction. He used his tribulations to create music that resonated with his fans. During this process, he was able to set an example of resilience. “Sexual Healing,” one of Gaye’s biggest hits, was created and released after his long-term battle with depression and addiction.
Marvin is an innovator and icon in the music industry.
Many artists have referenced him as an inspiration, and many songs have been penned in honour of his legacy. Drake’s song “Marvin’s Room” is titled after Marvin Gaye’s studio, the same place that Drake recorded his song. Also, Charlie Puth’s song “Marvin Gaye” samples Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and makes references to many of Gaye’s songs.
What is your favourite Marvin Gaye song?
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