Marvin Gaye’s prolific career spanned over 25 years, from his beginnings in Motown to his evolution to socially conscious funk, his music soothed the world and made it fall in love.
While the beloved performer gave his all to his fans and influenced a generation of artists, his lifelong struggle with his father would lead to his untimely death under the most tragic circumstances.
Marvin Gaye’s father was the first of fifteen children born into a family that knew poverty and violence at the hands of his father. He found a savior in the Pentecostal church becoming a minister in his late teens then a bishop with a reputation as a healer.
While offering support and salvation to his congregation, he was never able to overcome the shadows of his childhood. Marvin Gaye Jr. was the second of four children born to Marvin Sr. and his wife Alberta in 1939, and for the first four or five years of Gaye’s life, the relationship between father and son was relatively stable.
It was Marvin Sr. who taught Gaye to play the piano and would bring his young son to sing in front of his congregation. At home, the father was a severe disciplinarian; he would regularly beat his children for the smallest infractions; he expected his family to follow a strict weekend long sabbath and would beat them for misquoting the bible.
Marvin Sr.’s preaching career took a nosedive in the early 1950’s, and he began a slow descent into alcoholism which only exacerbated the abuse he handed out to his family.
According to Gaye’s siblings Marvin Jr. received the harshest punishments of all of them, his father seemingly having a vendetta against his eldest son for complex and unexplained reasons, as discussed in the Telegraph “at an early age he felt threatened by his son and that carried on into adulthood.”
It was around this time that Gaye discovered that his father was a cross-dresser, a poorly kept secret in the neighborhood and one that led to him and his siblings being bullied by the other neighborhood children.
Even as Gaye went onto achieve worldwide fame and success, his father couldn’t support his son, as Steve Taylor, Gaye’s biographer recalls for the Independent “No matter what he achieved with his songs, all he got was resentment and criticism.” Marvin Jr. also added the ‘e’ to his name to further distance himself from his father.
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Fame had allowed Gaye to move away from the family which offered some respite, but he was not able to escape his demons. There were periods of sobriety, most notably in Belgium where he recorded the album ‘Midnight Love’ which featured the hit single ‘Sexual Healing’, but by the ‘Sexual Healing’ tour of 1983 the pressures of being on the road meant Gaye was once again abusing cocaine which made him severely paranoid and fearing for his life.
By Gaye’s own accounts his father was a tyrant, ‘a cruel and all-powerful king’ who pushed his son to the brink of suicide many times. Marvin was saved by the love of his mother Alberta who encouraged and supported him throughout his life.
They had a very close relationship which is why, when Alberta became sick in August 1983, Marvin moved back in with both his parents to look after her.
The volatile living situation would explode on April 1st, 1984 when Marvin Sr. would fatally shoot his son during a heated argument. In the months leading up to the event, the two men often engaged in explosive arguments and Marvin Jr. would regularly step in to protect his mother from his father’s abuse.
During this period, friends and family have reported that Marvin Jr’s paranoia had reached epic proportions and he would barely leave his room. Maybe this is the reason that on Christmas Day 1983 Gaye gifted his father a .38 special Smith & Wesson pistol, the gun that would be used to kill him four months later.
Marvin Sr. reached a plea deal on the charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years probation and a five-year suspended sentence. Even though the conviction was felt too lenient by some, from the accounts of his children their father was a broken man, as reported in the Telegraph, “Once he pulled the trigger he was dead inside.
There would have been no justice if he’d gone to prison. He became a recluse, died many years later, old and alone. He didn’t get away with anything.”
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The death of Marvin Gaye sent shock waves through the world of music and beyond and are still felt to this day. His legacy lives on through his recordings and his political work, as biographer Steve Taylor states “he will be remembered as one of the top five black performers of all time.”