Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), American singer and songwriter, a recording artist for Motown Records, and one of the most popular and influential singers of rhythm-and-blues music (R&B) in the 1960s and 1970s. His songs were notable for their brooding, introspective qualities.
Gaye was born in Washington, D.C., where he sang in church as a child. The son of a poor Pentecostal minister, he grew up listening to the music of American blues singer Ray Charles, which became a major influence on Gaye’s work. In 1958 Gaye joined an R&B vocal group called the Moonglows. Three years later, he signed a recording contract with Tamla, one of the Motown record companies, serving as a drummer for studio sessions and, later, as a singer. Influenced by American singers Frank Sinatra, and Nat ‘King’ Cole, Gaye had hoped to sing in the popular style known as crooning, but after his first album—a series of jazz standards—received little attention, Motown had him record up-tempo soul-music material. The result was a series of songs that became classics, beginning with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” (1963) and culminating in “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968).
Gaye’s other popular records from this 1960s Motown era include “Can I Get a Witness” (1963), a song with traits of gospel music and a strong influence on British rock groups such as The Rolling Stones (the group recorded the song in 1964); “How Sweet It Is” (1964), a song with jazz influences; and “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “I’ll Be Doggone” (both 1965), pensive songs written and produced by American Motown artist Smokey Robinson. Later in the decade, Gaye recorded a series of romantic duets with Motown singer Tammi Terrell, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967), “If This World Were Mine” (1967), “You’re All I Need to Get By” (1968), and “What You Gave Me” (1969).
Shortly after Terrell’s death in 1970, Gaye established a new style of soul music with the album What’s Going On (1971), a deeply personal and spiritual reflection on family and social issues and particularly on the Vietnam War (1959-1975). A work that blended styles of soul, jazz, and rock music, the album marked one of the first times Motown had given an artist nearly complete creative control.
During the next ten years, Gaye recorded and produced a series of brooding, erotic songs including “Trouble Man” (1972), “Let’s Get It On” (1973), and “I Want You” (1976). By the end of the 1970s, his career was in decline and his personal problems were mounting. Gaye retreated to Europe, where he recorded the hit song “Sexual Healing” (1982). He then returned to the United States and, after a disappointing musical tour, moved in with his parents. In 1984, in the midst of a heated quarrel, he was shot to death by his father.
In 1982 Gaye won two Grammy Awards for “Sexual Healing.” In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.