Marvin Gaye started his career as one of Motown’s brightest stars. He helped to establish the label’s quintessential sound in the ’60s, before leaning into the far more provocative “message” music movement in the ’70s.
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Both legs of Gaye’s career proved lucrative. His earlier offerings—”Pride and Joy” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” for example—got him crowned The Prince of Motown. His later releases made him a voice of a generation wanting for societal change. His 1971 track “What’s Going On” remains one of the most pivotal protest songs of all time.
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Sadly, his time in the spotlight was cut short due to his death on April 1, 1984. Gaye was shot and killed by his own father just one day short of his 45th birthday.
Father, Father / We Don’t Need To Escalate
Despite his success, Gaye’s life was anything but easy. His father, Marvin Gay Sr.—the “e” was added to the soul singer’s stage name—worked as a preacher at a Hebrew Pentecostal Church. He kept strictly to his moral code and ensured his children did too.
“Living with a Father was like living with a king, an all-cruel, changeable, cruel, and all-powerful king,” Gaye once said.
Gaye’s mother, Alberta Cooper Gay, spoke out a number of times about the harbored animosity Gay Sr. held for his son.
“My husband never wanted Marvin, and he never liked him,” Cooper revealed. “For some reason, he didn’t love Marvin, and what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either. Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.”
Elsewhere, Steve Turner (the author of Gaye’s biography Trouble Man) detailed the emotional and physical abuse Gaye and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father. In an interview with A&E True Crime, Turner says it was Gay Sr.’s jealousy of his son’s success and the resentment he felt for him not living a “Godly life” that moved him to murder.
“He fancied himself as a prophet and message-giver, and then Marvin became hailed as a voice of his generation, and yet Marvin wasn’t living a Godly life,” Turner said. “That seemed so unfair to Reverend Gay. Also, Marvin was very close to his mother.”
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Their tumultuous relationship came to a head on April 1, 1984, at his parents’ home in Los Angeles. Reportedly, Gaye stood up for his mother, screaming at Gay Sr., “You can’t talk to my mother like that!”
After a brief, but clearly heated, physical fight, Gay Sr. walked up to his son with a .38 caliber revolver and shot him twice. The first shot was fatal, but Gay Sr. decided to shoot him a second time, point-blank.
His childhood trauma paired with his addiction struggles sent Gaye into a deep depression toward the end of his life. The soul singer’s final words were, “I got what I wanted….I couldn’t do it myself, so I made him do it.”
Gay Sr. pleaded no contest to the murder. He claimed he did fire the shot but thought it was loaded with blanks or BBs.
“I pulled the trigger,” Gay Sr. said during a jail cell interview. “The first one didn’t seem to bother him. He put his hand up to his face like he’d been hit with a BB. And then I fired again. I was backing up toward my room. I was going to go in there and lock the door.”
Gay Sr. was ultimately given a six-year suspended prison sentence. He later died of pneumonia in 1998.
Immediately following his death, Gaye’s peers mourned his loss at a memorial service in the Hollywood Hills. There, the likes of Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder delivered eulogies to their fellow Motown star.
Wonder composed an original song for the tribute titled “Lighting Up the Candles.” It would later appear on his 1991 album, Jungle Fever.
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“Marvin was the person who encouraged me that the music I had within me, I must feel free to let come out,” Wonder said at the time.
In the years since his death, everyone from Charlie Puth and Elton John to Thomas Rhett has made mention of Gaye in their songs, making clear just how influential Gaye was to music as a whole.
Gaye was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 alongside B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Carl Perkins, and more.
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns