Born on April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C., Marvin Pentz Gaye, Jr. was raised under the strict control of his father, Reverend Marvin Gay Sr. Throughout his childhood, Gaye often found peace in music, mastering the piano and drums at a young age. Until high school, his singing experience was limited to church revivals, but soon he developed a love for R&B and doo-wop that would set the foundation for his career. He sang in his father’s church and in the 1950s joined a group called the New Moonglows before signing with Motown.
It didn’t take long for Gaye to find success after signing with Motown. He didn’t only find it with as a soloist but also doing duets. For three high-flying years, Gaye and Tammi Terrell wowed the country with their soaring duet performances of songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You.” Unfortunately, their reign as the Royal Couple of R&B ended when Terrell died unexpectedly in 1970. His beloved partner’s death ushered in a dark period for the singer, who swore never to partner with another female vocalist and threatened to abandon the stage for good.
In 1970, inspired by escalating violence and political unrest over the Vietnam War, Gaye wrote the landmark song “What’s Going On.” Despite clashes with Motown over the song’s creative direction, the single was released in 1971 and became an instant hit. Departing from the tried and true Motown formula, Gaye went out on his own artistically, paving the way for other Motown artists like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to branch out in later years.
Through most of the mid-1970s, Gaye was touring, collaborating or producing. Despite a successful comeback in the early 1980s, Gaye continued to struggle badly with substance abuse and bouts of depression that plagued him for a majority of his life. After his last tour, he moved into his parents’ house. There he and his father fell into a pattern of violent fights and quarrels that recalled conflicts that had haunted the family for decades. On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gaye Sr. shot and killed his son after a physical altercation; the father claimed he acted in self-defense but would later be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Three years after his death, Marvin Gaye Jr. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame