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The tragedy surrounding the death of Marvin Gaye

You do not get much more tragic than the death of Marvin Gaye. The star of Motown, who managed to combine soul with social issues on the 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On, lost his life in the most heartbreaking of ways. Fuelled by a lifelong feud with his father and a deteriorating mental state, when the news broke of the death of the ‘Prince of Motown’ on April 1st, 1984, the world was left reeling, and it has never been quite the same since.

Since childhood, Marvin Gaye had a fraught relationship with his father, Marvin Gay Sr. Gaye’s father was a Christian minister and a harsh disciplinarian who physically punished his children regularly. Strangely though, he had a totally contrasting side, one which caused his son a lot of trauma and pain.

He was also a crossdresser, which was well known in the family’s local area in Washington, D.C., and this caused the younger Marvin to be targeted by bullies. You have to remember that at the time, the country was incredibly homophobic and misogynistic, and this widespread social attitude is what led to Marvin Gaye feeling the way he did. 

The younger Marvin felt he had been slighted by his father, and this was the reason that he added the ‘e’ to his surname as soon as he found musical success, wanting to distance himself from his father. This perennial locking of horns didn’t end there, either. Marvin Sr. always regarded Gaye’s musical career with disdain and resented him for the fact that he was closer to his mother, Alberta. After Gaye found significant success with Motown, he became the breadwinner of the family, and this also made Marvin Sr. deeply envious. 

Fast forward to 1983, and Gaye had remerged from a period of quiet and tax exile in Europe with the release of the 1982 megahit, ‘Sexual Healing’. This return to the limelight meant that he was now again indulging in cocaine and other substances. This only added to the developing paranoia that had started over an alleged attempt on his life, and an aftereffect of this was wearing a bulletproof vest until he got up on stage. Gaye toured the US on the final Sexual Healing tour of April 1983, and it was here that his problems really developed, with his mental state the worst it had ever been.

The tour ended in August 1983, and afterwards, Gaye returned home to care for his mother who was recovering from serious kidney surgery. He moved into his parents’ house at 2101 South Gramercy Place, Los Angeles, which the musician had bought for them in 1973. During the stay, Marvin Sr. was absent. He finally returned in October and returned from a business trip in Washington, during which he had purchased insurance on the family’s previous residence. This insurance was to play a ket part in Marvin Gaye’s death. 

At the start of Gaye’s stay, his sisters Jeanne and Zeola were also living in the home, but left shortly after their father returned as the conflict between the Marvins was becoming too much to bear. Over the next six months, things were tense, to say the least. One argument led the elder Marvin to call the police and escort his son from the property. Gaye then stayed with one of his sisters for a time before returning to his parent’s residence. He is quoted in a People article from April 16th, 1984, as telling one of his friends: “After all, I have just one father. I want to make peace with him”.

It is also a well-known point of the saga that, in the run-up to Marvin Gaye’s death, Marvin Sr. told Jeanne that if Marvin ever touched him, he’d “kill him”.

The final dice were rolled on Christmas Day 1983, when Gaye gifted his father a Smith & Wesson .38 Special pistol to protect himself in the event of an intrusion. At this point in his life, many of his closest friends and family note that Gaye was so low mentally that he spoke of little else but death and suicide. During this time, wracked by a deteriorating mental state, he sometimes wore three overcoats and put shoes on the wrong foot. 

Indicating just how gloomy Marvin Gaye was feeling at the time, per an account by Jeanne, only four days prior to his death, he had attempted to kill himself by jumping out of a speeding sports car, but failed. Instead, he suffered only minor bruises. Jeanne recalled that “there was no doubt Marvin wanted to die” because he “couldn’t take any more”.

In the days prior to the soul legend’s death, Gaye’s parents were arguing about the misplaced insurance policy letter. This raged on, and the day before his death, the argument found itself in Gaye’s bedroom. He was incensed by his father’s treatment of his mother and commanded him to leave her alone. The elder Marvin complied, there was no violence, but he continued to scream throughout the house. 

At around half past midnight on April 1st, 1984, Marvin Sr. was shouting at his wife about the document once more. Gaye shouted downstairs at his father, and told him if he had something to say, he should do it in person. 

Per Alberta, Gaye’s mother, Marvin Sr., refused the request of their son, so Gaye warned him not to enter his room. Things reached boiling point, and Marvin Sr. ran upstairs angrily and started castigating his wife once more. Gaye entered the fold and told his father to leave the room. It didn’t work, so the ‘Prince of Motown’ resorted to violence. He shoved his father out of the room then started beating him in the hallway.

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Reflecting on the incident late, Alberta said: “Marvin hit him. I shouted for him to stop, but he paid no attention to me. He gave my husband some hard kicks.”

Marvin Gaye had overstepped the line, and things would never be the same again. It was an unwritten but universally accepted rule in the family that if any of the children ever dared to lay a finger on their father, he would “murder” them. Marvin Sr. had made it clear over the years and had even “said so publicly on more than one occasion”.

The beating carried on into Marvin Sr.’s bedroom until Alberta eventually managed to separate them. Only minutes later, the patriarch returned with the pistol that his son had bought him for Christmas and shot him in the heart and shoulder. Alberta told the police: “I was standing about eight feet away from Marvin, when my husband came to the door of the bedroom with his pistol. 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.”

Mortified at the murder of her son and fearful for her own life, Alberta let out a blood-curling scream and ran out of the bedroom, pleading that Marvin Sr. did not shoot her. The calm Marvin Sr. hid the gun underneath his pillow. Hearing all the commotion, Gaye’s brother Frankie and his wifeIrene ran over from the guest house on the property they were staying in. At first, Frankie had thought a car had backfired until he heard his mother’s screams. Outside, Alberta ran into Irene’s arms, crying: “He’s shot Marvin. He’s killed my boy.”

Frankie ran into the house, and carefully walked towards his brother’s room, unsure of whether their murderous father was still brandishing the weapon, of his location, or if his brother was actually dead. When he got to Gaye’s room, he found his brother bleeding out. 

Frankie claims that Marvin, who was fading rapdily away at this point, whispered to him: “I got what I wanted… I couldn’t do it myself, so I had him do it… it’s good, I ran my race, there’s no more left in me.”

After that, the tragic affair wrapped up swiftly. Irene visited Marvin Sr. in his bedroom and asked for the location of the gun. After searching his room, she found it under his pillow. She left the house, and dropped the gun on the lawn. Marvin Sr., who was now sitting on the front porch, was arrested. 

Marvin Gay Sr. at his sentencing hearing following the shooting of his son, in September 1984. (Credit: Wikimedia)

In his police interview, Marvin Sr. claimed self-defence and that he was scared that something serious was going to happen with Gaye’s beating of him. He also maintained that he never knew the gun had bullets in it, thinking they were either “blanks or BBs”. 

Indicative of the sentiment that underpinned the affair, when asked by the police if he loved his son, Sr. said regretfully: “Let’s say I didn’t dislike him.” After he was told that his son had died from the two shots Marvin Sr. sobbed after realising what he’d done.  

Even though it was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, Gaye’s siblings believe that he got what he wanted all along. They regard the murder as “premeditated suicide”, and feel that Gaye wanted their father to murder him and knew he would.

Jeanne posited that Gaye forced his father’s hand, and that in doing so, he “accomplished three things. He put himself out of his misery. He brought relief to Mother by finally getting her husband out of her life. And he punished Father, by making certain that the rest of his life would be miserable… my brother knew just what he was doing.”

Regardless of the reasons behind both Marvin’s actions, you cannot deny that this is perhaps the most depressing affair in music history. On the evening of his 45th birthday, one of soul’s brightest stars lost their life seemingly on a whim, and whether it be down to his severe mental state, protection of his mother or both, it was a catastrophe and will remain so. 

As for Marvin Sr., he pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and recieved a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation. You can’t help but think that he got off lightly given the hell he put his family through, but as with every tragedy, each character has a tale to tell, and you just never know. 

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