David Ritz’s 2008 biography of the singer Marvin Gaye, Divided Soul, presents its subject as an Oedipal figure. Gaye spent his life struggling physically and psychologically with his father, who eventually killed him, and playing strange mind-games with lovers whom Ritz believes could never live up to Gaye’s image of an ideal woman: his mother. Also importantly—though it sometimes feels like a sideshow to the sex, drugs, and psychology—Gaye made some vital music, helped drive innovation in R&B in the 70s, and sold millions of albums.
Ritz, a fan of Gaye who had written a biography of Ray Charles, wrote to the Los Angeles Times n 1978 to defend Marvin Gaye’s just-released divorce-chronicling album Here My Dear. Though it’s now understood to be one of the artist’s masterpieces, it was dismissed by many critics when it was released. Gaye read the piece and wanted to meet Ritz, so Ritz got to live a music writer’s dream. Much of the book stems from interviews Ritz conducted with Gaye, his family members, friends, and collaborators.
Ritz establishes the force of Gaye’s psychological baggage early. Prone to fits of violence, Gaye’s father used to make his children strip naked and beat them brutally at the slightest provocation. Gaye’s mother comforted the children as best she could, worried that stepping in would earn her beatings as well. This sets up what Ritz calls a “tragic triangle” between son, mother, and father, and plagued the singer with an inferiority complex. In his words, “‘[f]eeling inadequate has always been my biggest problem.’”
Marvin’s father was the source of other angsts for his son. Gaye tells Ritz, “‘My father. . . likes to wear women’s clothing. . . I find the situation all the more difficult because, to tell you the truth, I have the same fascination with women’s clothes. . . seeing myself as a woman is something that intrigues me.’” Ritz writes constantly about Gaye’s desire to please women and his worry that he would be unable to do so; apparently Gaye went so far as to beg his second wife to cheat on him, just so he could feel terrible when she did. Gaye liked prostitutes—as he told a French Magazine in 1983, “‘I need prostitutes. . . Prostitutes protect me from passion.’” He didn’t have to worry about failure if sex was more of a business transaction.
Probably because he was constantly feeling inadequate, Gaye was usually paranoid, always competitive, and also convinced of his own future greatness, all at once. “‘Early on, I realized—largely through dreams—that I, too, was destined to be. . . a singer. . . more visions than dreams. Visions of myself on stage, while all the world watched and waited for me to sing something so stupendous that life as we know it would be forever altered.’” Throughout Gaye’s career, he was scared of the young singers coming up behind him, whether it was Teddy Pendergrass and his mountain-moving voice or Prince’s falsettoed excellence. Even Smokey Robinson, a friend who wrote several of Gaye’s hits, comes under fire: “‘Smokey has a melodic mind, though if he could play a whole instrument. . . his songs wouldn’t all sound the same.’” (A false charge.) Gaye’s second wife Jan was apparently a talented singer, but Gaye, worried that she might take some of his spotlight, refused to let her into the studio, saying “‘I like to see women serve me—and that’s that.’”
To deal with all these anxieties, Marvin smoked a lot of weed, and drifted in and out of heavy cocaine usage. “‘I stay high. . . I respect reefer.’” He also hid from the world and blew off responsibilities and work in the studio, a lot, especially in the late 70s and early 80s, when he would disappear into his room, piles of cocaine, and depression for months on end. Leon Ware, who wrote almost Gaye’s entire 1976 I Want You album, said of the star, “‘I’d never met anyone who could say ‘fuck it’ as quickly as Marvin.’”
Ritz’s writing can be a little heavy-handed; he likes to end each chapter with a dramatic bang, like a TV soap opera. These big bangs generally come in the form of dichotomies: “As a result, Gaye alternated between two extremes, seeking love and rejecting love, realizing success and throwing it away, assuming the attitude of a prince while living with the fears of a pauper.” Or, “. . . it threw Gaye into deeper despair, even as he prepared to marry Jan, a woman whose intense beauty—whose feminine force—drove Marvin to the brink of madness and beyond.” Lord only knows how much feminine force Jan must have possessed to push Marvin beyond madness.
Despite Jan’s feminine force and Gaye’s legendary ability to say fuck it, Gaye produced great things. He started singing in church at a very young age, and he was influenced by a number of 50s black musicians working in both jazz and R&B. “‘The big four were Rudy West, Clyde McPhatter, Little Willie John, and Ray Charles,’” says Gaye. The things he admires about this big four prefigure his own approach to singing: Rudy’s “‘pure, satin style,’” Clyde’s “‘power and beauty,’” Little Willie’s “‘silky edge of sexy danger,’” and the “‘sweat in his [Ray Charles] voice.’” Importantly, Gaye wasn’t limited to doowoppers and big Ray. He loved Billie Holiday, whom he awarded the highest of praise—“‘She was deeper than sex’”—and he “‘also got hooked on Miles Davis, especially the way he played ballads. . . Miles cried like a singer, and Billie sang like an instrumentalist.’”
Gaye’s listening habits transcended race, and his ambitions did too. He wanted “‘to become Frank Sinatra’” and “‘also dug Dean Martin and especially Perry Como’” because of “‘their relaxed presentation.’” From video footage of Marvin Gaye singing his 1976 hit “I Want You” on the couch in his studio, it’s clear that relaxed presentation is important to him.
It took a while before Gaye scored his first hit with Motown. He left home in D.C. to join the air force; he thought it would offer escape from his father’s authority, but it only replaced his father with men in uniform. Back in D.C., Gaye started singing with a vocal group, the Marquees. They worked with one of the fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, Bo Diddley, who tried to get the group to play in a more aggressive, driving style, which didn’t really fit their—and especially Gaye’s—talents.
Ritz believes Harvey Fuqua put Gaye on the path to greatness. Fuqua transformed Gaye and his Marquees into Harvey and the Moonglows, and brought the group to Chess records in Chicago (famous for its ground breaking blues recordings). Recording sessions at Chess didn’t yield a hit, but Gaye followed Fuqua to Detroit, where Fuqua handed him over to a guy by the name of Berry Gordy. Gordy—Gaye calls him “BG,” Ritz refers to him as “the boss”—was a shrewd businessman and sometimes-songwriter who was starting to build a musical empire. Gordy brought in a ton of talented songwriters, musicians, and singers, pitted them all against each other, underpaid everybody, and helped define the sound of the 60s with hit after hit from iconic names: Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Martha & the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder.
Readers are likely familiar with the various peaks and valleys of Marvin’s life once he got to Motown. He married Anna Gordy, sister of Berry and 17 years his senior, partially out of love and partially to climb the ladder at the label—“‘From a professional point of view,’” notes Gaye, “‘I have to say. . . that I knew just what I was doing. Marrying a queen might not make me king, but at least I’d have a shot at being prince.’”
Even with Anna on his side, it took Gaye a while to land a hit—his first album went for the jazz and pop standards in a Sinatra-like mode, and flopped—but he did, getting “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” into the top ten on the R&B chart in 1962, and more followed. He didn’t love performing, but he did it when he had too (often the show directors would send the always-energetic Stevie Wonder on stage before Gaye to stoke his competitive fire and make him perform better).
After being a cog—an important one, but still a cog—in Motown’s finely tuned, market-flooding machine, Marvin managed to break free into a more autonomous space in the 70s. He had watched BG closely throughout the 60s, and learned a trick or two. In 1971, Gaye recorded What’s Going On, an album sung through the eyes of a returning Vietnam veteran (based on Gaye’s brother Frankie) about how everything was going to hell. “‘From Jump Street, Motown fought What’s Going On. . . They didn’t like it, didn’t understand it, and didn’t trust it. Management said the songs were too long, too formless. . . Basically I said, ‘Put it out or I’ll never record for you again.’” Gaye won, and so did What’s Going On, which remains one of critics’ favorite albums to this day.
For better or for worse, Gaye stopped putting out albums at regular intervals, but innovation accompanied his freedom (it should be noted that Gaye’s Motown buddies Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson were able to both innovate and produce frequently, as was southern competitor Al Green). Gaye incorporated the sound of funk into his music, stretched out his songs, added new orchestral flourishes, and started multi-tracking his voice and recording his own harmonies as if he were a one-man doo wop group. After the movie score Trouble Man, he moved from the politics of the country to the politics of the bedroom, and perhaps under the influence of the lush sensuality in Al Green and Barry White’s music, put out the sexually-charged Let’s Get It On in 1973. 1976 brought I Want You, relentless in its funk and its longing, and Gaye released Here My Dear in 1978, a cathartic album about his divorce. He put two more albums out before his father shot and killed him after a dispute in 1984, but Here, My Dear was his last dynamic work.
The saddest thing about Gaye’s story is that it shares common elements with the stories of many famous and successful musicians. Whether it’s Pete Townshend or Prince, musicians—and artists more generally—are often driven to remarkable heights by anxieties stemming from childhood traumas. The tortured artists persona is a powerful image, but unfortunately it also has a strong basis in reality. Gaye is a funky Oedipus who came to a tragic end, and he’s not the only one.