This month Australian multi-instrumentalist and talented composer Tyrone Noonan returns to Doo Bop to focus on American singer/songwriter Marvin Gaye.
“Marvin Gaye is one of my single biggest influences, both as a songwriter and a singer. His concept album What’s Going On continues to top the lists of the greatest Motown albums of all time (and many best albums ever lists too), and his statements about spirituality, society and the environment continue to resonate through successive generations. My favourite Marvin song to perform is so hard to pick (lol), but it would be a choice between “What’s Going On”, “Let’s Get It On”, “Abraham, Martin and John” or “Distant Lover”!” – Tyrone Noonan
I Heard It Through The Grapevine…. Who was Marvin Gaye?
He was one of the pioneers of Motown, a singer, a song-writer, a producer, one of the forefathers of modern R&B, Marvin Gaye had one of those iconic voices that makes your soul smile and your hips swing. Rated 6th in Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Singers of All Time with numerous acclaimed singles and records including What’s Going On, voted as the fourth greatest pop song of all time, and receiving a Grammy in 1982 for Sexual Healing, Gaye had a highly acclaimed career.
Born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr, in Washington DC in 1939, the middle of three children, he found his love of music early when he started singing in his dad’s church at the age of three. From a young age Gaye sought solace from his father’s beatings in music. Later, he taught himself piano and drums. Fleeing his abusive father, Gaye enlisted in the air force, never forgetting his love of music, he began playing with local doo-wop groups as soon as he was discharged.
Gaye bounced around the club scene playing as a session drummer and back-up vocalist, awaiting his turn. His big break came in 1958, when Gaye’s first vocal group, The Marquees, were taped by Harvey Fuqua and through Fuqua’s acquaintance with Berry Gordy, Gaye wound up at Motown. Gaye had always envisioned himself as the “Black Sinatra”, but Motown saw him as a soul and R&B singer, causing constant rifts in the partnership, even though he stayed with the label for two decades. In 1962 he had his first solo hit, from here he went on to release a further 56 records onto the pop charts.
The highest selling single of the 60s was his hit I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which earned Gaye the title of the Prince of Motown.
From 1967-69 Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were the biggest duet going. Their song ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, is still the song by which all duets are compared. Their partnership was like nothing else and Gaye lost a part of himself when Terrell died tragically from a brain tumour after collapsing on stage. She was just 24.
Just as when he was a child, music was a catharsis for Gaye and he sang not only to express himself and his emotions, but to try and understand and heal them. Around the time of Tammi’s death, Marvin was deeply affected by his brother Frankie’s stories from the Vietnam War and turned to music to express his discomfort with a world in turmoil. Out poured the 1971 album What’s Going On, which explored issues from poverty and discrimination, to the environment, drug abuse, political corruption and the war, forever changing the sound and substance of soul and pop music. It was the first ever soul concept album and was nearly not released. Motown were hesitant to release any protest songs but were begging for new music from Gaye. It was released to huge success and acclaim. Gaye’s first self-production, it was the last great Motown album recorded in Detroit before the label’s move to Los Angeles. It was also the end for Gaye and Motown.
While What’s Going On was a social revolution in music, the album released two years later under Colombia Records, Let’s Get It On, was a sexual revolution. Marvin Gaye, spoke honestly and openly about his marriage break down, his desires, his new relationship, and the human condition that causes us all to just want to love and be loved.
Gaye had a long-term relationship with depression and substance abuse and after sinking into cocaine addiction, Gaye moved in with his parents to try and straighten his life out, but the tumultuous and abusive relationship with his father caused him to fall further into a depressive and suicidal state. Then on April 1st, 1984, Marvin was shot in the head by his father during an intense argument.
Marvin Gaye earned 18 pop Top 10s, three of which peaked at number one, and 38 R&B Top 10s; 13 of those hit number one, tying him for first with Michael Jackson. In 1987, he was honoured with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his legacy goes beyond numbers and records. He led the way for intensely personal artistic self-expression in the commercial world of modern pop music and elevated the impact of soul music as an agent for social change. Intimate, raw and brutally honest, his songs revealed a mixture of grit and sweetness, confidence and vulnerability, spirituality and sensuality. He said it best when he said
I think I’ve got a real thing going. I love people. I love life and I love nature and I can’t see why other people can’t be like that. – Marvin Gaye