One sure sign that a recording star is an icon is that their work is beyond time restrictions. The music, like the overall impact of the artist, is forever.
So it is with Marvin Gaye, a giant among giants, and one of the most important artists in the history of music and certainly of Motown.
But he was also a “trouble man” and a “stubborn kind of fellow,” to borrow from two of his dozens of major hits. He was torn between his spiritual side and his sensual side. The title of David Ritz’s landmark biography, “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye,” is perfect.
The book remains the ultimate source of information for those who want “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” regarding the man born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. on April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C. Hard to believe that had he not abruptly departed this life on April 1, 1984, Marvin Gaye would be 73 years old.
It was Ritz, who was very close to Gaye, who, noting the singer’s sex and God conflict, said what he needed was “sexual healing.” That statement prompted Gaye to write a song, “Sexual Healing,” that was to become one of his biggest and most enduring hits.
IT WAS NO. 1 on the national charts for an amazing 10 weeks and earned him the Grammy Award he had desired for so long. Gaye was also a “jealous kind of fellow” and once said only half-jokingly that he wanted to “tackle” Lou Rawls after the latter had been announced as the winner of the Grammy that Gaye thought should have been his.
That competitive streak is also why Motown never released anything on J.J. Barnes, who sounded enough like Marvin to prompt Gaye to go ballistic on more than one occasion.
He also had no intentions of competing with his younger brother, Frankie. He, too, could sing but Marvin insisted that he not go into the music business. But, alas, after Marvin Gaye passed, Frankie Gaye did indeed begin singing professionally, including with one of Marvin’s numerous partners, Kim Weston. (The others were Mary Wells, Diana Ross and, of course, Tammi Terrell.)
BUT DAVID RITZ’S 1985 biography is not the only credible book written about Marvin Gaye. There is also the more recent “My Brother, Marvin: A Memoir” written by his sister, Zeola Gaye, and published in 2011.
It is this book, in fact, that the play, “My Brother Marvin,” is based on. The musical drama will be presented at the Fisher Theatre Feb. 12-17. In the lead role is Detroit’s own Keith Washington, along with Clifton Powell, Lynn Whitfield and others. Tickets are being sold at the Fisher box office and all Ticketmaster locations. (To charge tickets by phone, call 1.800.745.3000.)
Frankie Gaye also wrote a book.
ONE OF THE most unusual transitions Marvin Gaye made — after wresting control of his career from Motown — was making the spiritually and socially conscious “What Going On” album in 1971. It was remarkable and unprecedented in every sense. Some even believe it to be the greatest album of all time.
Songs like “Save the Children,” “Wholy Holy,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “What’s Going On,” “What’s Happening Brother?” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” still resonate.
At the time Gaye said God wrote the songs through him.
BUT BY 1973, there was a completely different mindset. You could even say that his libido took over from where his “God rep” phase left off. Now, instead of “What’s Going On” it was “Let’s Get It On,” one of the best and most direct sex songs of all time.
“You don’t have to worry that it’s wrong,” sang a fully charged Marvin Gaye. “If the spirit moves you, let me groove you, let your love come down!”
He also said, “Giving yourself to me can never be wrong, if the love is true.” And in case the lady was shy or naive, Marvin said, “You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout!”
Equally sexually direct was the third single from the “Let’s Get It On” album, “You Sure Love to Ball” — and no, he was not talking about partying! “Oh baby, turn yourself around,” intoned Gaye, “so I can love you, girl.”
JUST AS UNEXPECTED, though in a completely different way, was a Marvin Gaye album titled “Here, My Dear” that was released in late 1978. With complete candor, the album detailed the start of Gaye’s relationship with Anna Gordy, the sister of Motown president Berry Gordy, their marriage, and the bitter ending of that marriage.
Since at the time Gaye was not able to make alimony and child support payments (they had an adopted son), due to unwise spending, his attorney came up with the idea of giving Anna Gordy Gaye half of the proceeds from his next album.
He did just that, but he also came down really hard on his ex-wife, and many people were surprised that Berry Gordy would allow an album with such explosive content that was damaging to his sister to be released by Motown.
As Ritz pointed out, Marvin was an honest man.
“MARVIN GAYE hated hypocrisy,” wrote Ritz in his book. “In spite of a vicious streak of self-destructiveness which, I believe, led to his demise, he was a man — an enormously complicated man — who reveled in candor.
“He pleased himself and those who were curious about him with outrageous disclosures. He loved to surprise and shock. Above all, he strove to tell the truth about the conflicts between his body and his soul.”
But nothing overshadows Marvin Gaye’s music, and he gave us some of the greatest songs ever, including “Got to Give It Up,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “I Want You,” “Chained,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “Pride and Joy,” “Try It Baby,” “I’ll Be Doggone,” “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” “You,” “Come Get to This,” “Distant Lover” and “Can I Get a Witness?” — in addition to all of the songs previously mentioned in this story.
Again using words from one of his hits, Marvin Gaye was “a wonderful one.”
“What Going On” was remarkable and unprecedented in every sense.
Some even believe it to be the greatest album of all time.