One of the greatest losses of talent the world has ever experienced comes packed with one of the saddest stories too. Marvin Gaye was, ultimately, the voice of a generation. Like Bob Dylan before him, Gaye had managed to cultivate a series of authentic releases that positioned him as a booming vocal presence of the streets. Gaye helped create Motown in the sixties and became an icon for his unique voice and unwavering eye.
A singer, songwriter and famed producer, Gaye’s hits include the landmark singles ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) and the classic ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, but that is just scratching the surface. Arguably the man behind the greatest album of all time in What’s Going On, Gaye’s potential was only beginning to realise itself before he was tragically gunned down by his own father.
Breaking away from Motown may seem like a trivial moment in history, but Marvin Gaye was the first artist from the iconic label to actually walk away and make a name for himself on his own merit. It would be a seismic power shift and would also inspire Stevie Wonder to do the same, confirming that the power really did lie with the artist. The seventies saw Gaye release two watershed albums in What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, confirming himself as a vital pillar of music’s pantheon.
He spent a few years travelling and living in Europe as a tax exile before returning in 1982 with the Grammy Award-winning hit ‘Sexual Healing’ and the album Midnight Love that it featured on. The two releases hinted that Gaye could well be back to claim his throne at the top of the music pile. Instead, two years later, his life would be cut short.
Marvin Gaye was fatally shot by his father, Marvin Gay Sr, on April 1st 1984, in their home in Los Angeles, California. The singer was shot twice following a heated argument. Gaye had intervened in a threatening altercation between his parents when the fatal argument arose.
The singer’s father was an American Pentecostal minister and married his wife, Alberta Cooper, in 1935. Alberta already had a son named Michael, but after Gay Sr. said he would not raise another man’s son, Michael was sent to live with his sister-in-law. Cooper and Gay Sr. had several children together, including Marvin Jr. and Gay Sr., who also fathered another child as a consequence of an extra-marital affair.
As a father, Gay Srt. was known to be incredibly strict with his children. He would have them observe and extended Sabbath and was against the tradition of attending church on Sundays. Gay Sr. would also question his children on passages from the Bible, rewarding them with nothing if they were correct and dishing out a beating if they were wrong. The child who suffered most at the hands of Gay Sr. was his son, Marvin. His sister, Jeanne, said that from his childhood to his teenage years that Marvin’s life was a series of “brutal whippings”.
It was later compounded by the singer who described living under his father’s roof with some serious distaste. He noted, “Living with Father was like living with a king, an all-cruel, changeable, cruel and all-powerful king”. After becoming the breadwinner in the family, the balance of power shifted, but Gay Sr. was still keen to impose himself and his wishes on his family. It meant when an insurance policy letter had gone missing, Alberta was in line to pay the price.
The argument had become more and more threatening when Gaye decided enough was enough. Gay Sr. was shouting at Alberta through the house when the singer demanded they be quiet and, if it was so important, they speak face to face. According to Alberta, it was when Gay Sr. refused that things got heated.
Alberta made her way to the singer’s room, presumably seeking either comfort or protection. When Gaye warned his father about entering his room, Gay Sr. lost his temper and stormed straight in, provoking the singer to get out of bed and order his father out, using physical violence to achieve it. Alberta told Ritz: “Marvin hit him. I shouted for him to stop, but he paid no attention to me. He gave my husband some hard kicks.”
After the duo were separated, tempers were still red hot. Gaye Jr returned to his bed while his father retreated to his own bedroom only to return with a pistol. Brandishing the weapon, Gay Sr. pointed the .38 pistol at his son and shot two rounds, hitting him directly in the heart and ending the life of one of the most gifted singers of all time. “I was standing about eight feet away from Marvin, when my husband came to the door of the bedroom with his pistol,” said Alberta. “My husband didn’t say anything, he just pointed the gun at Marvin. I screamed, but it was very quick. He, my husband, shot – and Marvin screamed. I tried to run. Marvin slid down to the floor after the first shot.”
Marvin Gay Sr. pleaded no contest to the charge of voluntary manslaughter on September 20, 1984. He was sentenced to a six-year suspended sentence as well as five years probation, an incredibly weak sentence given the impact of the incident. “If I could bring him back, I would,” Gay Sr. told the court. “I was afraid of him. I thought I was going to get hurt. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m really sorry for everything that happened. I loved him. I wish he could step through this door right now. I’m paying the price now.”
The loss of Marvina Gaye is one of music’s darkest hours. A man who had brought love and peace to so many people’s lives was gunned down in the middle of a domestic argument that threatened the welfare of his family by his own father, no less. It’s one of the saddest stories in music’s history and sadly one that will forever be attached to the supremely talented Marvin Gaye.