The Guide to Getting Into Marvin Gaye's Genius
You may have been conceived to his music. But if "Let's Get It On" is where your knowledge stops, this guide will help you navigate the many facets of Marvin Gaye.
Illustration by Adam Waito
The term “musical genius” gets tossed around far more often than it should, but it’s hard to think of anyone more deserving of the distinction than Marvin Gaye. How else do you describe a man with a four-octave range who also played drums, piano, percussion and synthesizer, moving up the ranks from Motown session player to one of the label’s most versatile superstars? Perhaps what’s most impressive is just how many different careers he managed to cram into his 27 years of professional music-making. He sang other people’s words early on and did so better than most artists could ever dream of, cranking out iconic hit after hit for Motown both as a solo artist and one of the greatest duet partners of all time, and when the time came to move on to bigger and better things sonically, he went ahead and penned a catalog that landed him in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He did it all—he was everything from sexy soul man to political activist. Hell, he even made the National Anthem his own. Most artists will never enter the same stratosphere as 1971’s What’s Going On; Marvin Gaye did and came back with Let’s Get It On two years later. Of course, it’s difficult to avoid wondering: How many more classic records would we have had if he hadn’t spent years struggling with substance abuse and mental illness? How many more creative tricks did he have up his sleeve when he was prematurely taken from us, shot dead just one day shy of his 45th birthday by his own father? He was lying in a morgue on a day he should have been blowing out candles, and the close succession of the date we mourn his unimaginable loss and the one when we celebrate his life and incredible talent means the two are forever linked—a bittersweet 48 hours in early April when we both reflect on an unparalleled catalogue of music that brought so much joy to millions and wonder how the man who made it could have been dealing with so many demons.
In a way, it's fitting for an artist whose work was full of contradictions—the spiritual and the sensual; the romantic sentiments and the questionable behavior toward women; the radio-friendly, sweet Prince of Motown and the bold, political statements of What's Going On; the gleeful passion of "Let's Get It On" and the heartbreak of 1978’s Here, My Dear. So as the anniversaries of his end and his beginning roll around again and we celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday this year, we've put together this guide to help navigate the many facets of Marvin Gaye.
So you want to get into: "Prince of Motown" Marvin?
Marvin’s music evolved with the times so impressively that it's easy to forget how adept Marvin Gaye was at the classic Motown sound. He signed to the label's Tamla subsidiary in 1961 and never looked back, churning out dancefloor hits like "Hitch Hike," "Can I Get A Witness" (which he reportedly recorded in one take) and the Smokey Robinson-penned "Ain't That Peculiar."
In 1968, he earned his first No. 1 single with "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," a track that—despite selling over four million copies—almost never saw the light of day thanks to disagreements between the singer and producer Norman Whitfield over Gaye singing outside his natural range that, as David N. Howard wrote in Sonic Alchemy: Visionary Music Producers and Their Maverick Recordings, “teetered on the brink of violence on more than one occasion” and a veto from Berry Gordy's during his infamous "quality control" meetings. Fortunately the song was released, but Gaye reportedly felt disillusioned by its success and yearned for more creative control, something that would come to a head in the form of an ultimatum from Gaye to Gordy two years later: release “What’s Going On” or he’d walk.
Playlist: "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" / "Can I Get A Witness" / "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" / "Hitch Hike" / "Pride and Joy" / "Ain't That Peculiar" / "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" / "Too Busy Thinking Bout My Baby" / "I'll Be Doggone" / "You're A Wonderful One" / "Try It, Baby"
So you want to get into: Marvin's Duets?
For all his success as a solo artist, Marvin Gaye was often at his best in the mid-'60s when performing with a partner. He recorded hit duets with Kim Weston ("It Takes Two"), Mary Wells (the Together album) and later on Diana Ross (1973's Diana & Marvin), but no one paired with him quite as perfectly as Tammi Terrell.
During their time together, Gaye and Terrell recorded three albums and enjoyed a slew of iconic hits—many penned by the legendary Ashford & Simpson—including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," and "You're All I Need to Get By." Sadly, she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1967 after collapsing on stage; by 1969, she had retired from live performances, and she died at the age of 24 in 1970. (There’s speculation that some of Terrell’s parts on Easy, the pair’s final album, were actually recorded by Valerie Simpson because Terrell was too ill to sing.)
Terrell's death hit Gaye hard, sending him into a deep depression and resulting in a four-year break from touring. Eventually he resurfaced with What's Going On, but he was a changed man. "I had such emotional experiences with Tammi and her subsequent death that I don't imagine I'll ever work with a girl again," he said in a 1971 interview.
Playlist: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (w/ Tammi Terrell) / "You're All I Need to Get By" (w/ Tammi Terrell) / "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" (w/ Tammi Terrell) / "Your Precious Love" (w/ Tammi Terrell) / "If I Could Build My Whole World Around You" (w/ Tammi Terrell) / "California Soul" (w/ Tammi Terrell) / "It Takes Two" (w/ Kim Weston) / "Two Can Have a Party" (w/ Tammi Terrell) / "You Are Everything" (w/ Diana Ross) / "Once Upon A Time" (w/ Mary Wells) / "What's the Matter With You, Baby" (w/ Mary Wells)
So you want to get into: Sexy Marvin?
Even if you don’t know anything else about Marvin Gaye, if you’re an inhabitant of Earth, you’re most likely familiar with “Let’s Get It On.” (And if you’re 45 or under, there’s a significant chance you were conceived to it.) From the very first notes of that iconic wah-wah intro, “Let’s Get It On” is undeniable; it stands as one of the best, sexiest songs of all time, a landmark that blends spirituality and sexuality as our sanctified narrator reminds us that “giving yourself to me can never be wrong if the love is true.”
It’s a concept that Gaye (who, incidentally, spent years trying to reconcile his sexuality with his strict religious upbringing) carries throughout the entire Let’s Get It On album, particularly on tracks like “You Sure Love to Ball,” “Come Get To This,” “Distant Lover” and “Keep Gettin’ It On.” That album cemented sex jams as one of his many calling cards, and later efforts like the smooth “After the Dance,” “Since I Had You” (which features a woman moaning suggestively in the background) and the disco-funk of “I Want You”—inspired by Gaye’s girlfriend, Janis Hunter—continued the theme. But it was 1982 comeback single “Sexual Healing” that gave Gaye his biggest post-”Let’s Get It On” sexy hit, earning him two Grammys.
Playlist: "Let's Get It On" / "Sexual Healing" / "You Sure Love To Ball" / "Feel All My Love Inside" / "Come Get To This" / "I Want You" / "Distant Lover" / "If I Should Die Tonight" / "After the Dance" / "Since I Had You / Keep Gettin’ It On"
So you want to get into: Funky Marvin?
There’s a solid funk element to much of Marvin Gaye’s music, whether it’s obvious like on the aptly titled “A Funky Space Reincarnation” and “Funk Me” (from 1978’s Here, My Dear and 1981’s In Our Lifetime?, respectively) and the 1977 dancefloor classic “Got to Give It Up” (which wound up costing Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams dearly after they were sued by Gaye’s estate for ripping it off on “Blurred Lines”) or more subtle.
He explored the moodier sides of the genre on tracks like “Is That Enough,” inspired by his divorce from first wife Anna Gordy, blending it with smooth jazz production while noting “she was too possessive, jealous” and demanding that “somebody tell me please, why do I have to pay attorney fees, my baby’s attorney fees.” The deceptively upbeat “In Our Lifetime” hints at Gaye’s growing paranoia, moving from simple sentiments like “she can be funky, he can be funky, I can be funky too” to lines like “there are pitfalls to life/here come the tears in my eyes” before ending with an apocalyptic shrug: “Folks have said the world is coming to an end, baby/I wonder, in our lifetime?/Oh well, let’s make love.”
Gaye’s final album, 1982’s Midnight Love, features the funky, happy accident “Rockin’ After Midnight” and the Rick James-influenced “Midnight Lady.” Even “Joy,” inspired by Gaye’s father and his religious background, has an undeniable funk groove. It was all in keeping with the times, and yet, remarkably, three to four decades later, it holds up without sounding painfully dated. (The fact that “Got to Give It Up,” borne from a request from Motown that Gaye record a disco track, has outlived disco itself by several generations speaks volumes.)
Playlist: "Got to Give It Up" / "In Our Lifetime" / "Rockin' After Midnight" / "A Funky Space Reincarnation" / "Midnight Lady" / "Ego Trippin' Out" / "Funk Me" / "Joy" / "Trouble Man" / "Is That Enough"
So you want to get into: Socially Conscious Marvin?
He dabbled with socially conscious music prior to its release (like his 1970 cover of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” which pays tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy), but to truly understand the stunning way in which Marvin Gaye used his music to advocate for political and social change, the first thing you need to do is put on What’s Going On and listen to it in its entirety.
Even without factoring in the lyrical content (inspired by the letters his brother Frankie sent from Vietnam detailing his experiences in the war as well as the civil rights issues, poverty, environmental concerns and injustice happening at home in the States during that time period), What’s Going On was an enormous musical departure for Gaye, a watershed masterpiece in which he experimented with multi-tracked vocals and some jazz and funk influences. Couple that with the political nature of the songs, and it should come as little shock that Berry Gordy absolutely hated the title track when he heard it, reportedly calling it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” But Motown execs Barney Ales and Harry Balk went behind Gordy’s back to release the track, and when it became the label’s fastest selling single at the time, Gordy was forced to eat his words and strike a deal with Gaye: record the full What’s Going On album within 30 days, and he could have creative control over his own music.
The record was an enormous turning point in Gaye’s career. (As he told David Ritz in Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me.”) Gaye continued to use his music to address political concerns, as on 1972’s “You’re the Man” (which is featured on the shelved album of the same name recorded that year and released last week), tackling that year’s presidential election and declaring “politics and hypocrites is turning us all into lunatics,” a sentiment that still feels deeply relevant in 2019. Those same sessions produced “The World Is Rated X,” which notes that “they let children see life destroyed, but they won’t let them see its making,” and the gospel-influenced “Piece of Clay,” one of Gaye’s most underrated vocal performances. “Father, stop criticizing your son/Mother, please leave your daughters alone,” he pleads before preaching about how “everybody wants somebody to be their own piece of clay” to mold how they see fit. It’s impossible to listen to it and not be reminded of Gaye’s own refusal to be someone else’s piece of clay. He fought to make his voice heard during a time when that could have been career suicide, and in doing so, he became one of the era’s most essential artists.
Playlist: "What's Going On" / "Abraham, Martin and John" / "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)" / "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" / "Save the Children" / "What's Happening Brother?" / "Piece of Clay" / "Right On" / "The World Is Rated X" / "You're the Man"