But, oh, how I wish he weren’t.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest talents in all of rhythm & blues and soul. Marvin Gaye died on April 1, 1984, shot dead by his father. He was one day shy of his 45th birthday. Had he lived, then, April 2 would have been Marvin’s 70th birthday.
I don’t have much to say about the spectacular life he lived–the radically conservative church of his youth; the music (ah! the music!); the cross-dressing (oh, yes!); and all the rest. I hope today we will all be inundated with thoughtful and diverse recollections about the man in both the mainstream and alternative presses. Motown–the recording studio he helped make famous–is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and even they have something special planned to mark what would have been his birthday. I encourage you to learn more about the man if you are so inclined.
I do remember the day he died. I don’t remember where we were that day, but it was somewhere in L.A. or in East L.A. We had just gotten home to La Puente (about 12 miles east of E.L.A.) and turned on the late afternoon news. I was shocked. I was early into my musical maturing process, only 12 years old at the time, and I was shocked. Marvin had already become one of my favorites. Wasn’t he one of everybody’s?
I want to say two things about the man and his music, one from the perspective of a huge fan and the other from that of a young person of color growing up in Chicano southern California.
He was about as good as you get, and you could feel it. Smokey Robinson said it well when he suggested “the driving force behind Marvin Gaye’s immense talent was his pain.” Marvin felt it all, and he made you feel it to. From the pop-based, post-doo-wop stuff of his early career; to the stellar duets and soul inspired solos in the mid and late sixties; to his socially-conscious turn in the late sixties and seventies; and to his dirty, make you feel all kinds of hot in his later years, Marvin had the gift that is the heart of soul music. It was pain. It was joy. It was relief. It was hope. And it was always moving. He even made the national anthem sexy!
Finally, he was always the “real deal.” In the places I knew as a kid, and in the places I grew to know as an adult, Marvin Gaye was loved and respected. Black folk, and even Mexican Americans, felt his authenticity. I heard his oldies, but also those songs you don’t hear to much on the radio, always in groups where people visibly felt the thing it was he wanted us to feel. I remember being in an Oakland bar once, around 1997, when a live version of one of his albums started playing during the intermission of a jumping band. The vibe went from the dance hall to the bedroom in about 10 seconds flat. That’s what Marvin could do.
Here are some of my favorite performances of him online. (If you are ever looking for the definitive collection of his recorded materials, I would recommend Marvin Gaye’s The Master 1961-1984, a collection which brings together the songs you know and the songs you should.)
[NOTE: Marvin’s only Grammy Award was for this song, awarded to him at this ceremony. He was dead one year later.]