Book Source: Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz
Hi guys! I’m Didi West. And this is Broken Limelight!
Today I’m going to talk about the life and tragic death of Marvin Gaye. Marvin is known for some of the greatest Motown hits of all time, such as Let’s Get it On, Heard it Through the Grapevine, Sexual Healing, and quite a few others. Marvin Gaye has earned the titles of the Prince of Motown and the Prince of Soul.
So let’s get right to Marvin’s story.
Marvin Gaye was born on April 2nd, 1939 to his parents Alberta and Marvin Gay Sr. He was their second of 4 children.
Marvin’s mother Alberta was a domestic worker. She was known to be warm and kind, and worked very hard. In fact, Marvin Sr was known to not be able to hold a job for very long, so Alberta worked really hard cleaning peoples houses. This was one of the reasons that Marvin grew to be resentful towards his father.
As he grew up, Marvin and his father didn’t get along, and Alberta would kind of play referee during fights between them. In fact, Alberta even had her own bedroom in between Marvin and Marvin’s Sr.’s bedrooms. Alberta and Marvin were very close and Marvin Sr seemed to be jealous of their relationship.
Marvin Sr., was a preacher who believed in discipline. He was also a known cross-dresser, and everyone in the neighborhood knew about it. He also wasn’t shy about this, he was know to be very flamboyant. Marvin and his siblings got teased for this, and also because of this their last name was Gay, and it was originally spelled just G-A-Y, until Marvin added an E on later.
Marvin found an comfort in music. He started singing in the church when he was about 5. Marvin Sr. use to get bitter when all the women would give him attention, especially when they were paying more attention to Marvin than they were to the sermon that Marvin Sr was giving.
By the time Marvin was 7, his father was whipping him regularly. He found salvation in music. By his late teens he was singing for money. His father hated it. He called it “devil’s music.”
His mother always supported him. She was like his symbol of unconditional love.
Marvin’s antagonism against the government started at an early age. By 15, Marvin grew restless. He developed a skepticism about his society. He became very aware of his city and the racial discrimination surrounding him and he started to rebel against society.
He refused to pay taxes.
During Marvin’s teenage years, his father would kick him out of the house often.
Marvin decided to join the airforce. He was kind of ashamed because he didn’t finish high school and he thought the air force would be an easy way out. It was not. Marvin found himself struggling with authority, and after 8 or 9 months, he decided to pretend he was crazy so that he could go home.
He said that the only good part about being in the airforce is that he finally got laid. He went to some crummy old building that had about 4 prostitutes for like 2,000 men, and he said that when it was finally his turn, the prostitute rushed through the job. That was Marvin’s first time, so he felt kind of betrayed by this experience.
He would actually struggle a lot with his sexuality and feelings of inadequacy. He, himself, said that his own sexual technique left a lot to be desired. He was shy about all the attention he got from his female fans, and that just turned them on more. He didn’t know what to do with all this attention, but he knew that he had to keep up this image of the ultimate lover. He assumed that he didn’t know as much as other guys.
Eventually women would throw themselves at him, and he couldn’t say no to them. At first it would be one girl, and then he would start having threesomes and foursomes, and then it was like, “how many women can one man pleasure?”
He was a little bit intimidated by his brother Frankie though. Frankie had a beautiful singing voice and was really good with getting ladies. Marvin was quoted as saying “not only was his sexual apparatus a lot larger than mine, he also had a very good voice. his size worried me, and there was no telling how big his talent might be.” Marvin’s bandmates would ask him to let Frankie sing, and he always rejected that idea, like he was afraid that Frankie would outsing him. This put a subtle tension between them.
(1957) So Marvin was forced to go back home to his parents house, but he wasn’t ready to face his dad. He felt like a failure for leaving the airforce. So he avoided his father and crashed on friends couches, and eventually it became clear to him that he had to start singing for money.
In the meantime, he would stop back at his parent’s house for a day or two and grab some clothes and food and see his mom. Him and his father would avoid each other, Marvin didn’t want to see his father and his father didn’t want to see him.
In 1960, Marvin gets in touch with Berry Gordy, the head of Motown Records, and Barry signed Marvin. In 1963, Marvin married Anna Gordy, who was Barry’s sister. She was 17 years older than Marvin and was said to have been like a mother figure. Everyone speculated that Marvin was just with her to get ahead in his career. And that wasn’t untrue, but Marvin did really love her. Anna and Barry were two people who always really believed in Marvin.
In 1966, Marvin impregnated Anna’s 17 year old niece, Denise Gordy. Apparently Anna couldn’t get pregnant, so Denise gave her the baby to her aunt Anna and Uncle Marvin. It seems that, there was no problem here, everyone was happy. Marvin and Anna wanted a baby and Denise had one she was happy to give up. So Marvin and Anna adopted the baby and named him Marvin Gaye the Third.
Marvin and Anna always kept quiet about the identity of the baby’s biological parents. That didn’t get out until about 1985.
Marvin was successful at Motown Records, but he had to put in a lot of effort to get the producers to listen to him. He was signed with them, but like they didn’t want to release Heard it through the Grapevine and originally shelved it. Eventually they decided to recut it and have Gladys Knight and the Pips record it. It was a hit, so they released Marvin’s version in 1968 and it quickly outsold Gladys Knight, at over 4 million copies sold, and became one of Motowns greatest hits. That success gave Marvin the freedom that would make him a superstar.
In the early 70’s, the Vietnam war was at it’s height, and Marvin had this new creative control so he decided to write the concept album What’s Going On.
He took inspiration from the war and dedicated it to his brother, Frankie who had fought in the war. Marvin thought it was a masterpiece, he was delivering a message about poverty, racism, war. But once again, Barry Gordy hated it. Barry wanted upbeat, dancey music.
So, Marvin refused to record anything until they released it. And they did, in 1972. It was of course, a success.
So now we’re in the early 70’s and Marvin is immersed in the LA music scene. It doesn’t take long for Marvin to become addicted to cocaine. Everyone around him noticed how he became irritable and paranoid.
His marriage with Anna Gordy fell apart, and he hooked up with 16 year old Janice Hunter. They met while Marvin was recording Lets Get it On, which was his tribute to sexual freedom.
Janice’s mother was dating one of Marvin’s producers, so she brought Janice to watch Marvin once. Marvin took her to dinner and bribed the waiter with a $20 dollar bill to serve Janice cocktails.
He then brought her to his home and they had sex for the first time.
Marvin was set out to create his ideal woman.
Janice actually wrote a book called “After the Dance; My Life with Marvin Gaye”, and in it, she tells a story of them hanging out and getting high with another couple and how they’re clearly sizing her up for an orgy. And Marvin basically volunteers her and doesn’t participate himself, but kind of acts like a ring leader and enjoys watching. And Janice is only 17 and she’s like eager to please him.
But afterwards she tells him that she wasn’t into it. And he goes on to tell her how he really felt about it.
“To watch purity turn to perversity is a fascinating thing,” he told her. “You were once my angel. But now you have fallen. And yes, I do admit, it is exciting to watch you fall.”
They would go on to get married and have two kids. Marvin’s drug use increased and he became increasingly violent. He once put a knife to Janice’s throat and told her to “provoke him, so he could put them both out of misery.”
So Janice took the kids and left.
Around 1979, Marvin’s starting to act erratically. His career had stalled and he had been spending a lot of money on drugs. He was also running from the taxman and at this point he’s feeling really down about going through his second divorce, so he fell into a deep depression and his cocaine use got worse. He went to live out of a van in Hawaii for a while to kind of hide out.
Marvin starts getting really paranoid around this time and saying that people are trying to kill him.
After living in Hawaii for a while, Marvin’s really in debt and is forced to get back on stage. But the tour they had planned ended in a big scandal, after Marvin decided not to show up to a show in Britain, where Princess Margaret had been in the audience waiting hours to see him.
So he decides to hide out again, this time in Belgium. In Belgium he writes Sexual Healing, and with this success, he moves back to LA. Marvin gets back on stage but his paranoia is increasing and he insists on having his brother stand next to him at all times, as a decoy in case anyone tries to kill him.
Marvin’s sister, Jeanne, says that Marvin actually moved back because he thought that Janice’s stepdad was going to come kill him because he had beat on her.
Needless to say, he’s becoming paranoid of everyone around him. He even accused his own brother, Frankie, of trying to kill him.
Marvin starts carrying a .38 pistol with him at all times. In 1983, Marvin gave his father a gun to help protect him.
At one point, Marvin had bought his family a big house in LA. Frankie lived nextdoor with his wife, Irene. Marvin started getting really paranoid and on one occasion, Marvin and Frankie got into an argument, and Marvin started shouting that he needed his gun, and to get him his gun right now. Frankie’s wife, Irene, saw how upset Marvin was, so she went and got the gun and she took the bullets out before handing it over to Marvin. Marvin immediately checks it and sees that the bullets are missing. He starts freaking out accusing Frankie of being against him.
Marvin’s relationship with his father, Marvin Sr., only worsened over the years. He was resentful of the fact that Marvin was successful and that he was able to buy the family a home. It was also because of Marvin that Alberta was able to stop working. It was like there was a constant struggle of who was the real head of the family.
In 1983, Marvin Sr went back to Washington DC to fix up a old house. Marvin took this opportunity to go back home. It was said that the house was really peaceful during this time. On one hand Marvin wa really happy that his father wasn’t around. On the other hand, he was really upset with his father because Alberta had to have surgery and Marvin Sr just left her. So Marvin stuck around to be there for her.
Eventually, Marvin Sr came back home like nothing happened. The energy quickly shifted and the environment in the home became really hostile. So much so that Marvin’s sister, Jeanne, decided to move out because she could sense the trouble and wanted no part in it.
Marvin lived with his parents in the big house in LA for the last 6 months of his life. During this time, he was very depressed and would rarely leave his bedroom or get dressed. He looked like he hadn’t slept for days, and everyone said he looked like he just wanted to give up.
In fact in his last few weeks, people were starting to wonder if he was contemplating suicide. His sister Jeanne said that just 4 days before his death, he tried to throw himself out of a moving car.
He was heavily using cocaine and had constant junkies and drug dealers coming in and out of the house. It was said that up to 20 to 30 people were coming each day.
Marvin’s dad was pissed.
On the morning of April 1st, 1984, Alberta and Marvin are hanging out in Marvin’s room, sitting on his bed. Marvin Sr. yells at Alberta from downstairs, asking her where some important insurance letter was. Marvin yelled back that if he wants to talk to mother, he better come upstairs and talk to her face. So Marvin Sr. comes up the stairs and starts yelling at Alberta about the letter, and Marvin jumped in and started yelling back at him. The two of them started yelling back and forth and Marvin starts telling him to get out of his room, and then, Marvin starts punching his father. His father goes down, and Marvin started kicking him.
Marvin Sr. eventually gets up, humiliated, all respect for his authority is gone.
A few minutes later, Marvin Sr. comes back into the room, gun in hand, and shoots Marvin. Marvin collapsed, and his father then steps forward, and shoots him again at point blank range.
Irene, who lives next door, hears the gunshots. She ran nextdoor and Alberta collapsed into Irene’s arms, telling her “Father shot Marvin”.
Marvin was shot once in the shoulder and once in the chest. His brother Frankie rushes over but he’s cautious in case Marvin Sr. decides to keep shooting. Marvin is still conscious at this point, so Irene calls the paramedics and they arrive within ten minutes, but they refuse to come in until they know that the gun is no longer inside the house.
So Irene finds Marvin Sr. and he’s sitting there calmly, and she tells him that she needs to take the gun so that the paramedics can come in, and Marvin Sr. says “what gun?” She said it was like nobody was home. So she looks under the pillow and finds the gun there.
A good 20 minutes pass before the paramedics can get to Marvin. He died in transit to the hospital. The paramedic asked Irene “do you know his name” and when she said “it’s Marvin Gaye.” he looked at her and said “you don’t mean, THE Marvin Gaye?” and she said “yes.” and the paramedic then started to cry.
The biographer, David Ritz, said that he remembers hearing on the radio that Marvin Gaye had died, and that he had been shot by his father, and he thought to himself “that’s how he’s going to do it, that’s how he’s going to kill himself.”
Marvin Gaye Sr. pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and received a five-year suspended sentence. He originally claimed that he had shot Marvin in self defense, however, that was determined to be untrue because of the fact that Marvin took a step forward and fired a second shot after Marvin was already down.
With that said, everyone agreed that it didn’t make sense to stick him with a long sentence because his health was already deteriorating and they thought it would be a death sentence, and that it wouldn’t do anyone any good. They did make him stay away from alcohol and firearms. The investigators also believed that this would be an isolated incident and that he poses no threat to society.
Alberta divorced Marvin Sr., and he passed away while living in a retirement home.
Marvin Gaye remains one of the most influential musicians of all time.
That’s it for today, I hope you enjoyed today’s episode of Broken Limelight. If you’d like to follow me on social media, you can get updates on new episodes at facebook.com/didiwestlv