Father, Deliver Us From Evil: The Abrupt End To Marvin Gaye’s Tormented Life
Marvin Gaye struggled to obey two fathers in his life. He wrestled with the strict, yet hypocritical sovereignty of his paternal papa’s rule. And he desperately hated to lose favor with his spiritual father, the Christian God whom his own dad preached about in his Seventh Day Adventist church. His secular father exuded rigidity, vitriol and beatings to gain the obedience of his eldest son. His spiritual Father was a guide whose unconditional love Marvin felt he was not worthy of. When Gaye, in essence, rebelled with his carnal and narcotic vices against his own father, guilt and shame seemingly infiltrated his psyche about how that rebellion would affect his stance with the heavenly Father. His career was crowned with great success and an outpouring of adulation, but Gaye’s achievements were constantly marred in his mind with the split view he had of his own persona. While Gaye demonstrated a massive ego, almost messianic at times, on further inspection, it appeared his inner life was filled with an overwhelming abundance of self-doubt.
Perhaps the line between what was acceptable, and what was not, in his life began to blur at an early age, as Marvin saw his father, Marvin Gay, Sr., walk a teetering line between the secular and the spiritual. As a preacher for the strident House Of God church, which blended Orthodox Judaic practices with Pentecostal Christian teachings, Marvin Sr. made sure that Saturdays in the Gay household were rigidly observant of the Sabbath. No child’s play, no radios, nothing but prayer and worship. He certainly did not spare the rod, for Marvin Jr. said that by age 12 he had been beaten over every inch of his body by his dad. When young Marvin entered into his teenage years, his father grew more disenchanted by the House of God church. He preached to a few couples out of his home, an apartment in the projects. He turned to a heavy dependence on alcohol and rarely worked. Marvin’s mom held down many jobs to keep the family going.
Marvin Sr. also had another peculiar vice. “My father likes to wear women’s clothing,” Marvin Gaye, Jr. told author David Ritz. The senior Gaye would put on his wife’s panties, dresses and wigs. “As you well know, that doesn’t mean he’s homosexual. In fact, my father was always known as a ladies’ man. He simply likes to dress up…I find the situation all the more difficult because, to tell you the truth, I have the same fascination with women’s clothes. In my case, that has nothing to do with any attraction for men. Sexually, men don’t interest me. But seeing myself as a woman is something that intrigues me. It’s also something I fear. I indulge myself only at the most discreet and intimate moments. Afterwards, I must bear the guilt and shame for weeks. After all, indulgence of the flesh is wicked, no matter what your kick. The hot stuff is lethal. I’ve never been able to stay away from the hot stuff.”
Mimicking what he saw as his father’s weakness for kink and drink and being ashamed before his heavenly Father for succumbing to those vices would haunt Marvin Gaye, Jr. throughout his life. Neighborhood children would taunt young Marvin about his father’s long curly hair and ‘feminine’ demeanor. The common refrain, “Is Marvin Gaye?,” would hound him around the schoolyards. Later in life, Marvin Jr., who was born with his father’s surname, Gay, would add an ‘e’ to the end of his own identity in order to eradicate an implied stigma.
Music was an escape for the insecure kid. Singing in his father’s church led Marvin to believe he had a capable voice, and moreover, a way with the female parishioners who hugged him after each performance. Any music other than hymns were considered the devil’s tunes in the Gay household. As a rebellion against the beatings and his father’s strict discipline, Marvin Jr. began singing doo-wop around the halls of Cardozo High School in the Washington D.C. area. He formed his first doo-wop group called the D.C. Tones. Restless with home life and school, Marvin left in the eleventh grade and joined the Air Force for a short stint. He lost his virginity in a cattle call lineup into a whorehouse outside the base. The event horrified yet titillated the impressionable shy young Gaye. The brush with this seamy and impersonal side of sex would fuel his cravings in future dalliances and influence the tone of his overtly erotic work. He told Actuel magazine, “I need prostitutes. Prostitutes protect me from passion. Passions are dangerous. They cause you to lust after other men’s wives.”
Back in D.C., Marvin sat in with a doo-wop group called the Marquees for dance parties and school gatherings. The famous Bo Diddley took an interest in Marvin’s skills and hooked him up with Harvey Fuqua, a successful doo-wop artist touring with his own group, Harvey and the Moonglows. Gaye traveled along as their drummer, playing many a dilapidated venue and sleeping under cold starlit skies. By the turn of the 1960s, Harvey and Marvin headed to Detroit. In December 1960, Berry Gordy, Jr., upstart owner of the Motown label, was holding a Christmas party for his musicians and staff. His sister Gwen came into the control room and told him to listen to someone singing and playing the piano in the studio. “Looking out,” Berry related in his autobiography, “I saw this rather boyish, slim handsome guy. Sitting at the piano, gracefully stroking the keys in an almost melancholy fashion, he appeared to be deep in thought.” After wandering out in the studio and listening to his music, Berry recalled, “I knew right then that I wanted to work with this man.”
Twenty-year old Marvin became an in-house musician at the Hitsville facility, along with the likes of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and “Little” Stevie Wonder. His friend Harvey Fuqua got married to Berry Gordy’s sister Gwen, and Marvin fell under the spell of another Gordy sibling, Anna. The two married in 1961. Marvin was placed in country-wide package tours with other Motown artists, and he tried to score hits with his first several albums to moderate success. Songs he co-wrote like “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Hitch Hike,” and “Pride and Joy,” garnered him enough cash to buy his parents a home back in Washington D.C. His mom was able to quit working, while Marvin Sr. spent more time swilling his vodka.
Drugs were a commonplace substance around the Motown studios in the early ‘60s. Marvin soon took to cocaine, anesthetizing his insecurity towards success and his neglect to follow in the walk of his Lord. “I like the feeling,” Gaye told David Ritz. “No one will ever tell me it’s not a good feeling. A clean, fresh high, ‘specially early in the morning will set you free – at least for a minute. There are times when blow got to me, and sometimes I know it built up bad vibes inside my brain. I saw coke, though, as an elitist item, a gourmet drug, and maybe that was one of its attractions. Was I corrupting myself? Slowly, very slowly.”
Paired with a couple of in-house female singers for duets, Marvin found his vocal stylings meshed perfectly with one Tammy Montgomery. A backup singer who was discovered by James Brown, she soon changed her name to Tammi Terrell. Teaming with Gaye, their 1967 hit, the Ashford & Simpson-penned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” was the first of several subsequent top-ten charting singles and three successful albums they worked on together. In the summer of 1967, while performing at Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia, Tammi suddenly collapsed into Marvin’s arms. Carrying her offstage, it became apparent that she was quite ill. Speculation on the nature of her disability came down to either a brain tumor, or the result of a jealous boyfriend hitting her severely in the head. She and Marvin were not lovers, but he had a special place in his heart for Tammi. Singer-songwriter Valerie Simpson had to imitate Tammi’s stylings by the duo’s third album in order to get the material released on Motown. In 1970, Tammi succumbed to her illness and died.
The tragic loss devastated Marvin. His marriage with Anna Gordy had been in tatters, he’d already planned to shoot himself in a suicide bid only to be stopped by Anna’s father, and his drug consumption escalated. In the midst of Tammi’s slow demise, Gaye’s solo career, ironically, was skyrocketing. The Whitfield-Strong classic, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” was given a groovy makeover with Gaye’s seamless delivery, propelling the single onto the top of Billboard’s chart for seven weeks beginning December 14, 1968. Irrespective of his fiery fame, Marvin refused to go on tour. He saw Motown as enslaving him with pop standards instead of the personal jazz fare he so desired to sing, and so, he virtually went into seclusion at the end of the decade.
Gaye had always combatively refuted his high school detractors’ assertions he was a wimp by becoming a versatile athlete. In 1970, he again felt the need to display his testosterone levels by approaching the NFL’s Detroit Lions for possible inclusion into their fall line-up. The team politely declined his advances. He instead invested in a prizefighting endeavor.
Incensed by the growing civil tensions after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and feeling the need to somehow address the insanity of the Vietnam War, Gaye turned to his younger brother Frankie, just back from Southeast Asia, for inspiration. “There was so much pain over there,” Frankie related to author Pamela Des Barres, “so much hurt. You hear about things that go on, but there’s nothing more terrible than war. Human life becomes cheap. You have to do something to yourself to keep from crying all the time, to keep from being afraid all the time. Every minute seemed like an eternity. We talked at length about Marvin knowing my feelings. Him being a part of me, it was devastating for him. We cried together. He could feel my pain. ‘What’s Going On’ was his way of fighting. It was his Vietnam.”
Marvin called his Motown boss, Berry Gordy, who was vacationing in the Bahamas. “He had done nothing for the past year and all of a sudden he wants to do a protest album,” Berry recalled in his autobiography. He wanted to produce a protest album about police brutality, Vietnam, social conditions, the state of the environment. Gordy tried to talk him out of it. “Marvin, you’ve got this great, sexy image and you’ve got to protect it.” Gaye wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. “Marvin, we learn from everything,” Gordy told him. “That’s what life’s all about. I don’t think you’re right, but if you really want to do it, do it. And if it doesn’t work you’ll learn something; and if it does I’ll learn something.’ The album was called ‘What’s Going On.’ I learned something.”
It was the first concept album by an African-American artist, and when it was released in 1971, the haunting title single rose to number 2 on the chart. Subsequent socially-conscious hits, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology Song)” rose to number four and “Inner City Blues” leapt to number nine on the Billboard Top 100. Critics deemed it Gaye’s masterpiece.
While many hailed it as Marvin’s solo triumph, others in the know at Motown knew that the album was truly a collaborative piece with many unsung musicians in the shadows. David Van DePitte arranged and orchestrated the music for many of the album’s tunes. He told authors Adam White and Fred Bronson his impression of Gaye. “I thought he was pretty terrific, but I had never worked with him or for him prior to this project. Somebody said to me, ‘Guess what, you’re elected.’ After taking a quick poll around the room, I came to find out that nobody else wanted to do it. They had all worked with Marvin before and found him to be such a pain in the fanny…as we sat down and started working on these tunes, not only did he not have a concept, but I thought it bizarre that all this material was finished but he didn’t have lyrics for all of it.” Other writers were concocting much of the material and waiting for Gaye to put his own personal stamp on it. “It was a prolonged process,” DePitte continued, “only because Marvin didn’t show up half the time. We were working at his home, and I would go and sit for hours. He would have an afternoon or evening appointment, and he’d not show – so I would just go home and try for another day. The actual time we spent working at the album probably wasn’t any longer than a week, but I think it ended up going over a period of three to four months all told, because of trying to hook up with Marvin.”
Gaye was becoming increasingly withdrawn and reluctant to perform. He followed up his hit album with a score to the blaxploitation film “Trouble Man.” With a marriage completely undone, Marvin sought out another female companion, with someone 17 years’ his junior. When 16-year old Janis Hunter strolled into the Motown studio with her parents while Marvin was recording “Let’s Get It On,” the performer lit up and gave the take his all. He was immediately smitten. The randy sexual delivery of this title tune, on an album that would be filled with erotic overtones, was suddenly given new meaning with this girl in his life. With his “Let’s Get It On” record, Marvin wished to banish the “nasty” connotations his strict religious upbringing had pummeled in his conscience and reflect on the act of love as something akin to a spiritual experience. Most listeners just thought it was a no-holds-barred sex album. The title song’s co-writer, Ed Townsend contends it was conceived to advocate overcoming any addiction, whether it be to sex, drugs, or other debilitating influences. No matter what the interpretation, the single went to number one on September 8, 1973.
Gaye moved into a quaint home with Janis in Los Angeles’ Bohemian-themed Topanga Canyon area. In this natural wooded environment, the two lived in seclusion for the better part of a year. In 1974, he was coaxed off the mountain to perform a rousing live show at Oakland Stadium in northern California. Bolstered by the warm reception, Gaye came out of his self-imposed exile and mounted a massive tour reaping millions of dollars that summer. Janis had a baby while he was on the road. Meanwhile, Anna, Marvin’s wife, was rather irate about his behavior. In 1975, she filed for a divorce that would drag on for a couple of years.
Marvin moved himself and his new family into a sprawling estate in the exclusive community of Hidden Hills outside of Los Angeles. According to the lawyer whom he contracted to settle his divorce from Anna, Curtis Shaw, Gaye was always breaking the rules of the community, disregarding regulations on fence heights and lighting mandates for his tennis court. “He’d say it doesn’t harm anyone and this is a free country,” Shaw told the Detroit Free Press. “I’d say there are rules that we have to follow. He’d say, ‘I don’t want to hear that.” He was living the life of a king and didn’t need to be tied down. On Sunset Boulevard, near Hudson Street in Hollywood, he built his own Marvin Gaye Recording Studio, complete with an upstairs apartment filled with a huge waterbed and giant Jacuzzi. Paintings depicting him as some sort of spiritual guru with white doves and adoring children hung around the recording room as a reminder to others who was the figurehead on the premises. Gaye seemed to have taken on his own spiritual path where he was the master of his universe for the time being.
As a love letter to Janis, he concocted the album “I Want You.” Just like “Let’s Get It On,” this new endeavor was a frank, carnal expression of his desires, both for lustful pleasures and for domestic bliss. Released in early 1976, the record sold millions but was generally panned by the critics. It was his formal proposal for Janis to be his wife. Marvin was still hitched to Anna though. He was facing contempt of court for failure to pay alimony and child support. Instead, Gaye went back on the road to promote his new album, gyrating and cooing ever more suggestively to his adoring female fans. Berry Gordy, Jr. decided to make Marvin an offer. Concocting a way to get child support for his sister Anna and her son with Marvin, Gordy proposed Gaye record an album. Whatever the album made would fulfill his responsibility to his ex-wife. “If the album did not make enough,” Gordy’s autobiography related as his conversation to Marvin, “it would be my responsibility to take care of Anna and Marvin III. You would have no more responsibility. Two weeks of about six hours a day in full settlement after a seventeen-year marriage has got to be a good deal for anybody,” Gordy told Gaye.
Marvin chose not to take Berry up on his offer. The judge in the case instead ordered Marvin to make the album anyway, and if it didn’t sell, Marvin himself would have to pay Anna additional monies. Marvin put together a tortured set of songs about his bitterness over their divorce, releasing them in a 2-record set called “Here, My Dear.” The album was a poor seller. To compound his money woes, the IRS was beginning to take interest in hundreds of thousands of dollars Gaye owed in back taxes.
In the meantime, he and Janis had another child and wed in October 1977 for a brief time. They separated a year later. Marvin’s world was spinning out of control. He was losing money left and right. And most of the blame for love and money woes could be placed on his fondness for cocaine. “How much have I spent on toot over the years?,” he answered David Ritz in 1982, “I don’t even want to think about it. To be truthful, I’ve been careful never to keep track. I don’t want to know. My attitude has always been, whenever good blow is around, buy it, regardless of price. It’s cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe more. Enough to certify me as a fool. You’d have to call me a drug addict and a sex freak.”
Janis wound up having a short-lived relationship with singer Teddy Pendergrass. Marvin caught up with her in Hawaii during the summer of 1979, and after failing to win back her heart, he reportedly held a knife “about an inch” from it. She left the island, and Marvin proceeded to snort an ounce of cocaine into his system in an hour’s period, in a desperate suicide attempt. He was deeply conflicted, knowing that this ultimate act was a mortal sin before God. The drug did not snuff out his life.
Marvin’s mother, Alberta, flew to Hawaii to be with her troubled son. Having always had a very close relationship with her, Gaye’s mom tended to overlook the drugs and women infused in her son’s life and acted as a sounding board for him to unload his feelings of insecurity and unworthiness to. In 1980, Marvin relocated to London to perform a series of concerts and to dodge an ever-increasing probe by the U.S. Federal government into his tax status. The drugs, the women, and his Mom dutifully followed. He had been recording a new slate of songs which he anticipated, once sufficiently mixed properly, would put his career back in the forefront. Motown chose to release the album, “In Our Lifetime,” prematurely in Gaye’s estimation, and this action subsequently incensed the irritable performer. He told a reporter with Blues and Soul magazine, “…As far as I’m concerned it is definitely my last album for Motown – even if Berry (Gordy) does not release me from my existing recording obligations and I am, in fact, under obligation to record for the rest of my natural life for Berry. If he refuses to release me, then you’ll never hear any more music from Marvin Gaye…I’ll never record again.”
“In Our Lifetime” was a dismal seller. Once again, the timbre of the message it delivered showcased a spiritual conflict that Marvin himself continued to wrestle with. The album’s cover depicted Gaye as both an angel and a devil. His life was a non-stop blur of sex and freebasing. The divorce with Janis had finally gone through. His mother returned to the United States. Marvin was about as low as one can go. Then a wealthy businessman named Freddy Courseaut stepped in to try to get Gaye back on his feet. He offered to set him up in a small apartment dwelling in a tiny Belgian community called Ostend. Settling in to the quiet life, Marvin became healthier, jogging and bike-riding about town, becoming a local celebrity. He successfully broke from his contract with Motown and signed with CBS Records. And a writer named David Ritz, who had been compiling interviews and facts to pen Marvin’s biography, flew to Belgium and helped the down-and-out singer come up with his next big hit.
“Marvin had a reggae-styled rhythm track from his keyboardist, Odell Brown, that he was obsessed with,” Ritz told Songwriter Universe magazine. “He knew the track had potential. On his coffee table was an avant-garde, French sadomasochistic book, full of cartoon drawings of women who were sexually brutalized. I told Marvin, ‘This is sick. What you need is sexual healing, being in love with one woman, where sex and love are joined instead of sexual perversity.’ Marvin liked the concept of sexual healing, so he asked me to write lyrics to go with this concept.”
Marvin went into a recording studio in Ohaine, Belgium with his old bandmate, Harvey Fuqua, and laid down the tracks that would become the “Midnight Love” album. Gaye played drums, synthesizer, organ, electric piano, congas and percussion. The record was not as personalized as his earlier endeavors, and the carnal, romantic side of Marvin seemed to eclipse any spiritual message he might have wished to convey. “Sexual Healing” went to number three on Billboard’s Hot 100 and number one on its Rhythm and Blues chart in November 1982. By this time, Marvin had decided to end his self-imposed exile and ride the comeback trail west to Los Angeles. When he arrived in California in October 1982, his mother was in the hospital with a grave kidney ailment. His father had moved back to Washington, D.C. for a short spell. Marvin tended to his mother’s needs.
Back in America, Gaye was praised as a soul icon. He granted numerous interviews and lived the high life in rented homes and fancy cars. By January 1983, his father returned from his sabbatical. In a city filled with 10 million people, the two men would soon find themselves living together in a tiny, tense-filled environment that would lead to tragedy. But during the first three months of 1983, Marvin was riding a crest of praise and adulation. He sang a moving rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game. In February, the legendary singer snared the one award that had always eluded him, the Grammy. And in March, he paid tribute to his first home away from home, Motown Records, by singing “What’s Going On” at the taping of their 25th Anniversary Special in Pasadena.
Alimony, child support, the IRS, and especially cocaine were tearing up Gaye’s financial reserves. By April 1983, he realized that touring in support of his album, something he was loathe to do, would be an inevitability. The four months on the road mangled whatever sanity he had left in his psyche. Author David Ritz reported one musician saying, “There was more coke on that tour than on any tour in the history of entertainment. Marvin was smoking it, even eating it.” The manic crooner kept his drug dealer in one room backstage and a preacher in another room.
Paranoia was the mainstay of each night on the road. In Boston, he hired famous criminal defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey, to head up an investigation into an alleged incident where Gaye claims he was poisoned by somebody. Bailey turned up no suspects or evidence. Marvin’s younger brother Frankie joined up midway through the tour to check on his whacked-out sibling. “I’d never seen Marvin in such a state,” Frankie was reported as saying by author Ritz. “He’d do a concert, be completely drained of energy, but then stay up for another eight hours, getting high, making up stories about how he was going to be murdered. It was so sad. He had developed this whole thing about how Jan (his ex-wife) was plotting to kill him. Knowing Jan as I do, I knew there wasn’t a lick of truth in that, and I told Marvin just that. But he was far gone by then.”
Tour manager Andre White told the Detroit Free Press, “I knew it would be his last tour – he knew it, too. Gaye had a premonition about being shot. He had it so strong that I had to prove to him he was one of the most protected men in the United States.” White regularly posted four bodyguards around the stage each night. One of his roadies was armed with a submachine gun.
Marvin would end his act singing the song “Joy,” which was a spiritual tribute to the lessons he’d been taught in his father’s church. Conversely, for the “Sexual Healing” encore, Gaye’s backup singer would strip him of his clothes, down to his underwear, while he practically bared all to the eager females of the front row. His lifelong battle to assimilate the pleasures of the flesh with that of the spirit seemed to boil down to this final pathetic gesture. After 97 grueling shows, Marvin returned to Los Angeles in August 1983 a broken man. Andre White wanted to drop the singer off at a hospital, but Gaye insisted on going home. As he pulled into Marvin’s parent’s neighborhood in the Crenshaw district of town, White told the Detroit Free Press he presciently joked to his unsettled passenger, “You know your mother and your father are not going to shoot you – so you’ve got it made.” Marvin strolled up the front walk of the home at 2101 South Gramercy Place and never really left there again.
He slept in a bedroom next to his mother’s. His dad was in the bedroom on the other side of his wife’s room. Both men vied for the attention of the matriarch. Alberta Gay’s sympathies sided with her beleaguered son. Drug dealers and easy women paraded up the stairs to his bedroom night and day. Marvin closed himself in, not trusting anyone, coked to the gills and checking his loaded guns. With the shades drawn, he’d spend endless hours watching adult videos on his flickering bedroom TV. Meanwhile, Marvin Gay, Sr. had also withdrawn into his own stupor in a haze of hard liquor.
His sister Jeanne related to David Ritz that Marvin “wanted to die. He couldn’t take it any more.” Marvin’s friend Clarence Paul further commented, “I spent a whole night with Marvin just a week or so before he died. I’d given up coke and Marvin asked how. ‘Just didn’t’ want the feeling anymore,’ I told him. He acted amazed. He was also frightened to death. He had me standing guard at the window, looking for whoever was supposed to come by to kill him. ‘There ain’t no killer, Marvin,’ I said, ‘you’re makng this s*** up. Who the hell would want to kill you?’ He said he couldn’t tell me. Said was real complicated. But I didn’t believe him.”
Marvin took to beating some of the women who came to his room. Deborah Derrick, one of those girlfriends told the Detroit Free Press that Marvin, Sr. was jealous of his son’s relationship with his mother. As the talented musician withered away in his room, it seemed to more than one close observer that he was just waiting for his father to come down the hall and deliver him from his evils. During the last week of Marvin’s life, his sister Irene was taking food up to his room everyday. “I can’t describe how terrible he looked,” she told David Ritz. “He’d gone completely crazy. He couldn’t even put on his clothes, and when he did, he dressed like a bum.” Sister Jeanne elaborated on Marvin’s deteriorating state: “Four days before the tragedy, Marvin tried to kill himself by throwing himself out of a car going sixty miles an hour. He was only bruised, but there’s no doubt he wanted to die.”
On Sunday, April 1, 1984, Marvin, Sr. searched the house for a missing insurance letter. He was in a cantankerous mood, accusing everyone within earshot that they had snatched the elusive document. Marvin Gaye was lying upstairs in his bed, wrapped in his usual maroon robe, his mother by his side, gently talking to him, soothing his nerves. When his dad shouted upstairs, accusing Alberta again for misplacing the letter, Marvin taunted his dad, telling the 71 year-old to come upstairs and speak to him if he had anything bad to say about his mom. Marvin, Sr. appeared in the doorway to the bedroom and berated his wife. Marvin, Jr. leapt to his feet and shoved his dad into the hallway, beating him with his fists. The elder retreated, and Marvin, Jr. walked back into his bedroom.
Jeanne Gay summed up to David Ritz the ultimate rule of the household. “In the past Father had made it very clear that if Marvin were to strike him, he’d murder him. Father said so publicly on more than one occasion.” Marvin, Sr. returned to his son’s bedroom with a .38 caliber revolver that Marvin, Jr. had purchased for him four months earlier. He fired a shot directly into his son’s chest. The singer slumped to the floor. His dad stepped closer and put another slug into him at point blank range. Alberta clambered out of the bedroom, screaming for her husband not to kill her, and ran out of the house. Marvin, Sr. walked out to the front stoop, hurled the gun aside and waited for the police. When the paramedics appeared, it was not apparent whether there was a threat of gunplay still on the premises, and so, they reportedly delayed their entrance into the house. Marvin Gaye, Jr. bled to death in his brother Frankie’s arms. He was taken to California Hospital Medical Center where he was officially pronounced dead at 1:01 p.m. He was one day shy of his 45th birthday.
Marvin, Sr. was booked into the Los Angeles County Men’s Detention facility. He told investigators that he responded in self-defense to his son’s attack on his person and didn’t realize the gun was loaded. He told the Los Angeles Herald, “I pulled the trigger. The first one didn’t seem to bother him. He put his hand up to his face like he’d been hit with a BB. And then I fired again.” He says he didn’t realize Marvin, Jr. was dead until being informed by an investigator later when he was incarcerated. “I thought he was kidding me. I said, ‘Oh God of mercy, oh, oh, oh!’ It shocked me. I just went to pieces.” The elder Gay was kept under psychiatric observation to see if he would be fit to stand trial. During examination, a small tumor was found in his brain.
Marvin Gaye, Jr.’s funeral on April 5, 1984 drew an estimated 10,000 people to the Forest Lawn Memorial grounds in Glendale, California. Stevie Wonder sang a special tribute to his fallen Motown comrade. He eulogized before the audience, “We should be happy to know that, in the spirit of what he was as a human being and the spirit of his music, Marvin is with us.” Comedian and political activist Dick Gregory, a longtime friend of Gaye’s, reflected on Marvin’s declarations. “I like to raise people’s consciousness, he said. I like to give them hope. Well Brother Marvin you did that.” As fellow Motown artists sang a final song, the throngs of mourners filed past an open casket. Gaye was dressed in a formal gold and white uniform from his 1983 tour. Later in the week his cremated ashes were filtered into the Pacific Ocean by family members.
Alberta filed for divorce from her husband of 49 years on June 18, 1984. Marvin Gaye, Sr. had his tumor removed and was soon fit to stand trial. Police photos taken on the day Marvin, Jr. attacked him showed massive bruises on Marvin, Sr.’s body. He pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. On November 2nd, Judge Gordon Ringer suspended the six years and placed the frail father on 5 years probation. “Sending (Gay) to prison or requiring any additional county jail time would be a death sentence,” the judge reasoned. Marvin, Sr. and Alberta rarely saw each other after his release. He moved back into the house at Gramercy Place. Alberta described a day she went by her former home to David Ritz and encountered her ex-husband. “He wasn’t apologetic or repentant. He acted like someone who had finally gotten something out of the way. Now that Marvin was out of the way, he didn’t express any regrets. Since he’s been home from jail, he’d been drinking again – a fifth of vodka a day. He can’t even find his way from the backyard into the house. I don’t know how to pray for him. I don’t know where to begin.”
Ironically, despite his wavering physical condition, Marvin Gaye, Sr. wasn’t quite at death’s door. He survived another decade and a half until October 17, 1998, when he finally passed away in a Long Beach retirement home due to complications derived from pneumonia. Alberta had already succumbed to the ravages of bone cancer in 1987.
CBS Records went on to posthumously release two more albums of Marvin Gaye’s material. Author David Ritz, who had previously been denied writing credit for “Sexual Healing,” finally received royalty payments and acknowledgement after court proceedings ended in 1988.
For a man who possessed a marketable, creative talent for the musical medium of soul, Marvin Gaye, Jr. spent the majority of his life struggling to find his own. Marvin’s early life was grounded in a confused and complicated value system, as he sought approval from a distant pious father then rebelled from his seemingly gross hypocrisies. Subjugating his quest for acceptance from a higher authority, he took refuge in finite vices that perniciously ate away his inner spirit. His will to live truly seemed to seep from his body. Gaye always seemed prescient of his tenuous grasp on life. “In the back of my mind, maybe I know that I won’t live long,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1972. For such a genius who possessed the natural ability to become a legend as great as Frank Sinatra, Gaye subverted and stifled that ambition in pursuit of attaining instant gratifications and rewards. The duality of fathers in his life, the one who hounded his mother and the one who looked down from Heaven, were seemingly blurred in his mind into one entity who disapproved of his achievements and excesses. In the end, Marvin sought a kind of deliverance. Anna Gordy, his former wife, recognized the significance of the one who delivered Marvin back to his Maker. She wisely observed to author Pamela Des Barres, “I knew when I heard about (Marvin’s death) that it was God’s will. I thought about the fact, oddly and ironically, the very person who helped bring him into this world…God had the same person take him out of this world.”
© 2001 Ned Truslow
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