Marvin Gaye, the legendary R’n’B, soul, funk and folk singer, is celebrated as one of the greatest vocalists of all time and enjoys a legacy of the genre like no other.
The day before Marvin Gaye’s 45th birthday, on April 1st, 1984, he was tragically gunned down and murdered by his father as Marvin Jr. intervened in a fight between his parents. The horrific day, which lives in the memory of those who were alive during that time as a “where were you when” moments, will go down in history as the day the world lost a legend.
It is a hugely sad moment, not just because of the pain caused, but mainly because of the huge potential loss. Much like Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and many others, Gaye represented the leading talent in his genre and become a generation-defining artist as he traversed his musical roots to become the world’s preeminent soul singer.
Gaye did what very few other artists of his time, roll with the punches and move with the times. Gaye saw not only the opportunities in front of him but the handles by which to grab them by.
Without further ado… Let’s get it on…
‘Let’s Get It On’ – 1973
We couldn’t leave this one out, could we? Originally released on June 15, 1973, through Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records, saw Gaye collaborate with producer Ed Townsend to write what is arguably the singer’s most iconic song. Not only did it arrive as the title track to Gaye’s album, the sexually explicit lyrics of ‘Let’s Get It On’ propelled him to both legendary music and, ultimately, sex symbol status.
The archetypal track for any date night cliche still must be recognised as ‘Valerie’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the aforementioned Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, as one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest tracks where he not only demonstrated his raw vocal but his powerful style.
‘What’s Going On’ – 1971
The title track of his 11th studio album, Marvin Gaye began to open his eyes and talent toward more socially relevant topics. Originally inspired by the increasing police brutality of which Gaye began to witness more and more, the song also marked a change in direction for the Motown singer.
The turn was not only in style or composition but in material as it saw Gaye open his heart and his mind to the world and turn himself not only into a respected vocalist but a truly great artist. “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?’ he famously commented at the time of its release.
‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ – 1968
Given the magnitude of Marvin Gaye’s death and the headlines that soon followed, reverberations around the situation weren’t only felt within the R’n’B and soul singing world. Another such loss came when dear Tammi Terrell lost her life at just 24 years of age in 1970. She was fantastic in her own right, her collaboration on 1968’s ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ shone beyond anything they could’ve imagined.
Creating a sound that was luxurious, opulent but still authentic, they became great friends until Terrell lost her life but until that point the warmth, well wishes and wonder permeated their work—none more so than on this track.
‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’ – 1968
For the 25-year-old Marvin Gaye, this 1965 track proved to be one of his greatest tracks and a song which later went on to be covered by an incredible array of artists including, quite unexpectedly, The Grateful Dead.
It was the toast of the Motown scene and became a long-standing pinnacle of the genre and beyond. Gaye playfully toys with the song’s sensibilities, both charming and smooth, it typified Gaye’s appeal as the sweet boy who could show you a night to remember.
‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ – 1971
With lyrics such as “Crime is increasing / Trigger-happy policing” and “Bills pile up sky high / Send that boy off to die,” Gaye and his writing partner James Nyx Jr are painting a bleak and harrowing picture. While some may say describe the work as protest song of sorts, Gaye delivers these stark visions with a simplistic tonal style.
It differs from the smooth and soulful ‘What’s Going On’ in its frank falsetto delivery and a far more honest depiction of a desperate situation which hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, the inner city blues.
‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ – 1967
Another classic from Gaye and Terrell, an undeniable hit the world over. The song represented a passionate call into the wind, a rallying cry that the world could not defeat their love.
The song became a staple not only of bedroom dancing, nor disco strutting, but almost every person’s life. It is a track now heavily steeped in pop culture history and it smacks of the kind of magnetic charisma both Terrell and Gaye possessed. Showing the flipside to their comfortable nuances with steamy passion.
‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ – 1966
Written by Whitfield and Strong, ‘Grapevine’ was actually recorded twice in 1967. Firstly by Gaye and then later with a funkier version performed by Gladys Knight & The Pips. The latter rendition was more to Motown head Berry Gordy’s taste, releasing it as a single later that year and turning it into chart success. Not keen on Gaye’s version he convinced the artist to keep it for another album. However, when the radio DJs jumped on the grittier, authentic and dark version, Gordy had no choice but to release the song.
It spent seven weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. It became the singer’s iconic moment. Not least because of the song’s brilliant and sparse arrangement, but Gaye’s infinite ability to play with shadows on his interpretation of the lyrics, his light and dark vocal became synonymous with the star.