Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 30: Marvin Gaye, Soul Singer

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The Independent Culture
MARVIN GAYE'S melodramatic death in 1984, at the age of 45, had the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. There was nowhere else for him to go. Truly, nobody knew the trouble he'd seen.

Gaye was shot dead by his father, using a .38 Smith and Wesson that the singer himself had bought, under the cocaine-fuelled delusion that someone was out to get his family. He gave the gun to his father for protection. Gaye senior, who had never owned a gun in his life, drew it and killed Marvin during a characteristically violent quarrel.

Gaye's mother Alberta always reckoned that her troubled son's death was a kind of suicide. Marvin's drunken, womanising father, a preacher of sorts, who ruled his children with a rod of iron, was not known for his stability. Alberta's view was that Marvin gave the gun to his father and then deliberately infuriated him, knowing what the consequences would be.

It is not an implausible theory given that Gaye, unable in his drug-addled state even to remember his own lyrics, and in the grip of a paranoia so complete that he needed food-tasters, seemed to have reached the end of his road. Shortly before his death he tore out the inside of his television set to silence the threatening voices.

If the best soul music, like blues, is wrought from personal pain, it is little wonder that Marvin Gaye's work has been revered - and frequently sampled - by successive generations of rhythm and blues artistes. But it would be wrong to view Gaye's career as nothing more than a prolonged cry of anguish. "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing", recorded with Tammi Terrell in 1967, may be the most joyous love song ever released on Motown, a label that made something of a speciality of that sort of thing. For a while, Gaye was king of the romantic duets, recording with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Diana Ross, as well as with Terrell.

Berry Gordy, the razor-sharp head of that record label, used Marvin in this way because he recognised him as not just the sweetest male voice in his stable, but also the sexiest man. For Gaye, though, the Motown love songs were not merely some commercial confection designed to part teenagers from their spending money. He meant them. When his friend and partner Terrell developed a brain tumour, which later killed her, Gaye was devastated. He spent a year in seclusion.

He resurfaced in 1971 with "What's Going On", "Mercy, Mercy Me", and "Inner City Blues", all of which were million-selling records despite being some distance from the cheery tunes for which Motown was known. At this remove Gaye's lyrics, despairing of poverty, discrimination, and pollution, may seem banal, but the sincerity is so patent that they endure.

Every project on which Gaye embarked, he threw himself into body and soul. The spirituality of "What's Going On" was succeeded by the sexuality of the album Let's Get It On, which devoted itself to the art of talking a woman into bed. Gaye lived every track, and began to sink deeper into a morass of financial and drug-related problems.

Remarkably, throughout this period he continued to add excellent tracks to his impressive catalogue - which stretched back to the doo-wop period of the late Fifties - including duets with Diana Ross, and the 1982 single "Sexual Healing".

More than Stevie Wonder, James Brown or even Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye epitomised soul. There's a kind of heroism in submerging yourself in your work as completely as he did, and it may have hastened his untimely end. That he managed to pursue his personal and idiosyncratic path in a hit factory like Motown is a minor miracle.