Very few musicians and performers have what many in the music business refer to as "the gift." This gift is the rare ability to express emotion through the music they make, forcing the listener to "feel" the music, as opposed to just listening to it as background noise. These artists make songs you cannot ignore; music that resonates within our very souls and takes us to a spiritual place that is impossible to define through any other expressive vehicle. Marvin Gaye is one of these "gifted" people. In fact, he is so widely influential, that he is probably your favorite musician's favorite musician. Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, both colleagues of Marvin during his tenure with the legendary Motown record label, proclaim Marvin's masterpiece of an album, "What's Going On," as their favorite record of all-time. This 1971 work of art was a gutsy collection of pain and struggle-inspired music aimed at creating social change and awareness around unpopular topics like poverty, the war in Vietnam, social equality, lack of religion, education, pollution, and other ills of American society. This album is Gaye's mea culpa, his confession of gratitude and sense of his unworthiness of God's gift, as his musicianship, songwriting, and vocal abilities are overwhelmingly perfect when applied to the theme of a society taking itself for granted. It also defines the struggle within the artist himself, as Marvin was a complex man with many vices, often attributed to his upbringing in a very strict religious family. While at one moment he could be music's equivalent of Dr. Martin Luther King, the next moment, he could be society's social pariah, demonizing himself through songs that centered around sex. This duality would define and consume his life, and would ultimately follow him to his tragically early grave on April 1, 1984, when he was shot and killed by his own father, just one day shy of his 45th birthday.
Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939 in Washington D.C. as the son of a Minister in the House of God, a religious church that followed Pentecostal and Orthodox Jewish teachings. This unusual pairing of spiritual ties confused a young Marvin, as his strict father, Marvin Gay Sr., kept Marvin, his half-brother, Michael, his older sister, Jeanne, his beloved younger brother, Frankie, and his younger sister, "Sweetsie" on a very tight leash. Marvin, being the rebel, faced the worst of his father's wrath, as the tough disciplinarian was not shy in physically addressing his offspring. Marvin played in his father's church, learning his musical skills by singing and playing instruments in the choir, and this made Marvin Gay Sr. very proud-until he discovered Marvin Jr.'s penchant for secular music, which developed in his late teens. Like fellow soul man Sam Cooke, the high school girls became mesmerized by the pretty tone of Marvin's voice, as he had begun singing doo wop with his friend Johnny Stewart in a group they formed called "The Dippers." This infuriated Marvin's father to no end, and the beatings became more severe. Marvin also caught his father doing strange things around the family's home. Most notably, he was disturbed upon discovering his father dressed in women's underwear, something Gay Sr. was doing more and more often while keeping it a secret from his congregation. This struggle between a headstrong young boy and his religious, yet confused father, would rage for all of Marvin's life, and he dropped out of high school in 11th grade to join the Air Force, in the hope of becoming a pilot. Marvin's hard-headed ways earned him a discharge, forcing him to go back home and figure out what he wanted to do with his life.