Marvin Gaye lives on 20 years after death

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

April 01, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

Folks in the projects where I grew up thought it was all a cruel joke. I remember catching pieces of the conversations.

Did you hear about Marvin Gaye?

Hear what?

He's dead. His daddy shot him.

What? Shut up.

It was on the news.

No, it wasn't.

Yeah, it was. Marvin Gaye is dead.

It's still hard to believe. Twenty years ago today, Marvin Gay Sr. (his son later added the "e" to the family name) stood in the doorway of the singer's bedroom, pointed a .38-caliber revolver at Marvin Jr. and pulled the trigger. When the pop star fell to the floor, his father moved closer and, at point-blank range, shot him again.

One of the finest singers to ever bless a mike was out of here a day before he would have turned 45. What happened that spring day in Los Angeles was indeed tragic. But for years, Marvin was, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, a "slave ship in shoes." An empty man who never loved himself. A sensitive dude who never got over the mental and physical abuse he suffered as a child.

The relationship between Marvin and his pops was extremely complex. Coming of age, the son loved and hated the father. Wanted his affection but received mostly beatings instead. The boy grew up and became a pop legend, rode the roller coaster of fame, made a fortune and lost a fortune. Moved back home during his last years, strung out on coke, paranoid and broken. After an argument that came to blows on April 1, 1984, the father got the gun and set the son free from his demons forever.

To get the full story, read Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye by ace music writer David Ritz. You don't have to be a fan to find yourself lost in this sad, intriguing tale. But if you love Marvin's music, if you've ever felt your own heart drop when "Distant Lover" came on, then you'd relish Divided Soul.

But listening to Marvin's records -- really studying the vocal nuances and opening yourself to the irrevocable pain and beauty, you'll understand that all the man wanted, all he ever desired, was love: sweet, complete and true.

"His creations, like prayers, were filled with a longing for love," Ritz writes in Divided Soul, "not self-love, but a far wiser, far larger love, a love that transcends ego and turns our hearts back to the source of itself."

Which is the reason Marvin Gaye's music never grows old. Hip-hop hadn't taken over the charts in '84 when the Motown star died, and there was nothing "neo" about soul then. But his work would greatly influence those two genres 20 years after his death. Rapper Erick Sermon resuscitated his flagging career and scored a major hit three summers ago with "Music," which brilliantly sampled Marvin's "Turn on Some Music." "Wanna Get to Know You," the current rap single by G-Unit, references "Come Live With Me Angel." And there would be no R. Kelly, D'Angelo, Maxwell or Joe if it weren't for Marvin.

When one talks of his masterpieces, 1971's politically charged What's Going On is often mentioned -- and justly so. I love that album, as many critics and music fans do. But I'm more interested in how Marvin addressed sex. Let's face it: It has always sold pop. And it was easy for Marvin to use it to boost his profile.

But listening to Let's Get It On or I Want You, you never would have guessed that the crooner was deeply insecure about his sex appeal. He had it, though. And plenty of it. After Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye was one of the most alluring (not to mention one of the most technically brilliant) black male singers to grace the pop world.

That type of appeal is a rarity these days. The old cats were regal -- giving us sophistication, sensuality and class with a stare, a pose, a smile, a thoughtfully executed note. With many of today's black male singers, it seems to be all about rippling abs, cornrows and pseudo-thug-isms. It's boring, and it's played out.

Plus, some of those singers (oh, let's name a few: Ginuwine, Jaheim, Tank) offer little substance vocally. Marvin, on the other hand, was a master at conveying a naked vulnerability, at blending various shades of black sound often in one song. In "Pride and Joy" and "Trouble Man," the blues and jazz simmer; doo-wop informs the layered vocals on "Come Get to This." And his sanctified grit cemented the beloved Motown sound on such classics as "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," "Hitch Hike," "Chained" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

Reading about Marvin's life, I pitied him sometimes and wished I could have been there to slap him other times. But listening to his music, feeling it, always makes me grateful that God put him here -- if only for a short while.

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