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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?