American Masters' Marvin Gaye: What's Going On

American Masters' Marvin Gaye: What's Going On

Sat, 02/25/2012 - 4:00pm

Photo: Marvin Gaye at his home

Credit: Courtesy of Charlie Gillet

Marvin Gaye challenged and transformed black music, leaving an indelible mark on our cultural landscape. 

His standing among the most enduring 20th century American musical artists is without question, yet Marvin Gaye’s story is rarely told beyond the tragic circumstances of his death – shot the day before his 45th birthday on April 1, 1984 by his own father, Reverend Marvin Gay, Sr.  Enormously talented and equally complicated, Gaye created an intimate style – full of honesty, integrity, and vulnerability.  He was creative and brilliant, conflicted and troubled – always torn between his religious upbringing and his secular aspirations.  His music was politically and sexually charged, yet personally, he could be distant and aloof. American Masters' Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On, airing Saturday, February 25 at 4 p.m. on WXXI World (DT21.2/cable 524), reveals his autobiography in lyrics and melody – the discord, confusion and depression behind the Motown star.

“Marvin Gaye had an extraordinary passion for music” says Susan Lacy, Creator and Executive Producer of American Masters, a five-time winner of the Emmy for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction series.  “He poured his innermost feelings into his work, capturing the full range of human emotions.”

Gaye was born April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C.  His father, whose religious teachings, violent outbursts and habit of wearing female clothing haunted Gaye his entire life, was a traveling minister and a strict disciplinarian.  As a child, Gaye sang in his father’s choir and yearned for his love and approval, but often received only scorn and abuse.  He would turn his affections to his mother, who was also a victim of the senior Gay’s behavior, creating a strong and unspoken bond between them. 

“The complications in Gaye’s family life drove his existence, start to finish,” says writer/director/producer Sam Pollard.  “His pain, his confusion, his views of the world around him all stemmed from the relationships closest to him, and spilled into the lyrics of his music.”

After an honorable discharge from the Air Force, Gaye moved to Detroit, arriving at Motown in 1960 where he met and later married Anna Gordy, sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy.  Gaye was 21, Anna was 36 when they met.  By Gaye’s own description, he was a “studio musician, a session drummer and songwriter.”  In a stable of remarkable talent such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and the Temptations, Gaye became a star and a sex symbol, with a unique – and somewhat maverick – style.  His first success on the R&B chart was Stubborn Kind of Fellow (1962) and his recording of Norman Whitfield’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1968) became the best selling single in Motown history.  His romantic duets with Tammi Terrell, such as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (1967) and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing (1968), established them as the most popular recording duo of their time. 

When Terrell died from a brain tumor in 1970, three years after collapsing in his arms on stage during a concert, Gaye was devastated.  With the passing of Terrell and his marriage to Anna in trouble, he went into a deep depression.  However, “I felt a strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men,” he said.  In June of that year, Gaye recorded What’s Going On, an album filled with deep emotion and political consciousness.  Gordy initially refused to release the album, fearing it would ruin Gaye’s sexy public image.  But when What’s Going On hit the charts in 1971, it was a huge hit – “probably the greatest piece of work that Motown has ever put out,” Gordy finally admitted.   

After the success of What’s Going On, Gaye gained new creative freedom at Motown. In 1972, he moved to Los Angeles and met 16-year-old Janice (Jan) Hunter while working on a new album.  They soon married and had two children. But the couple eventually lost themselves in substance abuse and separated.“He did his best to create his own family,” says Jan Gaye, “to have his children around him, to have a home … for us it wasn’t an easy thing to do because we were both heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol.”

Gaye uprooted himself, went to Belgium and detoxed. He returned to record the hit Sexual Healing (1982) but his success and sobriety didn’t last long.  He swiftly spiraled downward – back into substance abuse – becoming emotionally erratic and inappropriately revealing in his stage performances.  This lifestyle led to the ultimate, and deadly, conflict with his father.