The Day Marvin Gaye was Murdered
The incredibly talented performer was killed by his father 39 years ago today
(Something a little different from my Substack for a weekend read. Sorry there is no VoiceOver for this post)
Motown at its prime in the 1960s was a record label that boasted some of the most talented singers and songwriters in music history. I know, not simply because I grew up as a passionate fan, but because I wrote a business history of the label in 2002, Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power. There are few tales in American entertainment more exhilarating than Motown’s singular success. Its founder, Berry Gordy, was only 29 when he borrowed $800 from his family and opened the label in a run-down bungalow sandwiched between a funeral home and a beauty shop in a neglected Detroit neighborhood. Its entrance had a large sign that improbably boasted, “Hitsville U.S.A.” The kitchen doubled as the control room, the garage was the two-track studio, sales were in the dining room and bookkeeping and promotion was in the living room. It did not take long before word spread that any youngster with a streak of talent should visit the first Black record label in Detroit’s history.
The history of Motown is unfortunately not only filled with good news. It turns eventually into a modern day Greek tragedy, its heroes losing their footing as personal jealousies and professional rivalries that came with their tremendous success led to crippling infighting. Drugs and alcohol made it all the more volatile and at times dangerous.
There is no more disturbing story of a low point in the Motown tale than April 1, 1984, when news broke that the great Marvin Gaye had been murdered, a day before his 45th birthday. I remember that tragic day well. I had just arrived in London, getting ready for my wedding later that month. For the first few days, instead of focusing on the plans for our small family-only wedding, my fiancee, Trisha, and I, were lost in the shocking revelations from America about Marvin Gaye’s untimely and unnecessary death.
I wrote about Gaye’s murder in “Everything Had Changed,” chapter 34, of Motown. It is a short chapter, only 4 pages. It is reproduced in full below. It provides not only the very sad end of Marvin’s life, but also a snapshot of Motown at a turbulent crossroads.
“EVERYTHING HAD CHANGED”
After the success of Motown 25,1 there was a tremendous surge of nostalgia about the label. Artists from the Rolling Stones to Sister Sledge suddenly did Motown cover songs. Motown's music represented a generation in 1983's The Big Chill. (Motown was astute enough to ask for the film's sound-track rights, and the resulting record went platinum, selling three million copies in the United States alone.) Michael Bennett's 1981 Broadway hit Dreamgirls, with a story line loosely based on the lives of the Supremes, had an upsurge in ticket sales. (Diana Ross refused to see the play, in which the underappreciated Flo Ballard character stole the show.) Groups such as the Temptations and the Four Tops were just as likely to be seen in guest appearances on popular television shows like Moonlighting, The Love Boat, or The Fall Guy as they were to be seen onstage singing. Motown's classic artists and their songs found their way into commercials as jingles, rankling music purists but bringing the label some needed money in an otherwise dry creative stretch.
Sometimes groups entered the charts, as the Temptations did with “Treat Her Like a Lady,” but the hits were infrequent. A series of labels— most notably Rare Earth—created by Motown to tap into the rock and pop market had ceased operating. The same happened with Motown's effort to get a foothold in country music with the Melodyland and Hitsville labels. Even Soul Records, established in 1964, had finally folded in a sea of red ink after fourteen years.
There were still major artists who had helped to create that early magic, but some were losing the battles with their demons. Marvin Gaye had, as David Ritz noted, “another series of crazy crises.” In 1980, after the collapse of his second marriage and a flat album, Gaye, chased by incensed creditors and the IRS, fled to England, then to Belgium, taking his son Frankie (“Bubby”) with him, something his second wife charged was kidnapping. (His son had no passport, and when Gaye crossed borders in Europe, he hid the boy under blankets.) He almost married a prostitute while in Europe—he had been fascinated by them ever since he lost his virginity to one at fifteen. He floated through a seemingly endless series of one-night stands and ingested ever more drugs. When given the chance for a decent performance, he invariably sabotaged it. He showed up too late to sing at a command performance before Princess Margaret and other royals, and on his way to Manchester, England, for a show, he fled through a bathroom window in a London train station and began another drug binge. Most of those around him were hangers-on who wanted only to party on his dwindling money.
David Ritz visited him in Europe, and Gaye launched into a long monologue about how much he liked cocaine, which he used to snort, rub on his gums, and sometimes even eat. “I like the feeling,” he said. “No one will ever tell me it's not a good feeling. A clean, fresh high, 'specially early in the morning, will set you free.” It was in Europe that he started freebasing, ratcheting up his addiction and paranoia to a new intensity.
His long relationship with Motown had been irreparably damaged when the company, anxious to get some money back from the six hundred thousand per record they had guaranteed him, released In Our Lifetime in 1981 without his permission. In an interview in Blues and Soul magazine, Gaye infuriated the label when he told the reporter, “As far as I am concerned it is definitely my last album for Motown—even if Berry does not release me from my existing recording obligations and I am, in fact, under obligation to record for the rest of my natural life for Berry. If he refuses to release me, then you'll never hear any more music from Marvin Gaye…. I'll never record again.” Gaye was now so open about his drug use that he snorted copious amounts of cocaine in front of the interviewer.
When he returned to the United States in 1982, after a nearly three-year exile, he was signed to CBS Records, which had bought out his Motown contract. Late that year, Gaye delivered a smash song for CBS—the moving and deeply erotic “Sexual Healing,” his first number-one hit since 1971's “What's Going On?” The song brought him his first ever Grammys in the R&B category for Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance. In April 1983, he reluctantly agreed to an American concert tour—his first in four years. But he was as erratic as ever, consuming huge amounts of coke, arriving spaced out and late for concerts, and chattering obsessively about the next song he wanted to record, “Sanctified Pussy.” (It was later released by CBS as “Sanctified Lady.”) At times, he fretted about being assassinated. During some live performances, he surprised audiences by doing a striptease. His confrontational dealings with CBS began to resemble those of his turbulent Motown years.
When Smokey saw him for the first time since 1979, he recognized that Gaye was still stoned. Robinson, battling his own drug problems, tried getting through to him but failed.
On April Fool's Day 1984, the day before Gaye's forty-fifth birthday, his father, a prominent Washington, D.C., Pentecostal preacher, shot him to death. As David Ritz reported, Gaye had been living, high on drugs, in his parents' house for the last six months. “With Marvin high on coke and his father, a few steps down the hallway, drunk on vodka, the atmosphere was poisoned by chemicals, memories, and mutual antagonism.” At times, Gaye seemed close to madness, hurling around pistols and telephones and threatening his parents. He locked himself in his bedroom, sending out for coke and watching porn videos. He ranted that a murderer was stalking him. He beat up a Japanese girl and an Englishwoman after having sex with them. “My son, my poor son,” said his mother after his death, “turned into a monster.”
On the day he was murdered, Gaye and his father had gotten into a screaming match over a misplaced letter from an insurance company. When his father refused to leave his bedroom, Gaye started punching and shoving him. Gaye's mother stopped the scuffle. The senior Gay had warned that if Marvin struck him, he would kill him. In a few minutes, he reappeared and fired a bullet from a .38-caliber revolver into his son's chest. As Gaye slumped to the floor, his father walked over and fired another shot into his chest, point-blank.
After the murder, the transvestite lifestyle of Gaye's flamboyant father soon became public and kicked off a tabloid frenzy over the sordid details of Gaye's life and his family. Stories of how the senior Gay had terrorized his children, beating Marvin repeatedly, also filtered out. Marvin, had sold an estimated thirty million albums during his career, had four homes, ten cars, and two boats, in addition to a gigantic jewelry collection. Yet he died with only $30,000 cash. He owed more than $4.2 million to the IRS, $300,000 in alimony to Anna and Janis, and hundreds of thousands more to creditors worldwide. Seventeen months after Gaye's murder, his personal property was auctioned at the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Motown successfully bid $46,000 for the film rights to his life.
The senior Gay, meanwhile, pleaded not guilty, claiming he hadn't known the gun was loaded. Before the trial began, a walnut-sized tumor was discovered in his brain and was surgically removed. Still, a court held him competent to stand trial. Persuaded by traces of PCP in Marvin’s body (a drug that can induce violent behavior) and the large bruises on Gay Sr., the judge let him plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and in November 1984 he walked out with only a five-year probationary sentence. Gay Sr. was free to return home to his own bouts with depression and his fifth of vodka a day. But at least his son's violent struggle with life was over.
“Now I was moving in the same direction [as Marvin],” recalled Smokey. “Why couldn't I stop myself ?” Smokey's drug addiction had worsened. Finally, in 1986, he was taken by a friend to local faith healer Jean Perez, who ran a ministry in a run-down section of Los Angeles. From that night—when she embraced and prayed with him—Smokey, who was not a religious man, abruptly abandoned drugs. “The Lord washed me clean” was how he later described it.
By the late 1980s, Smokey was on a yoga and vitamin regimen. He came no closer to drugs than golf, which he jokingly called “the heroin of sports.” He even had a minirevival. Managed by Motown executive Mike Roshkind, he started a worldwide tour, had three hits off a new album, One Heartbeat, in 1987, and even won his first Grammy. That same year, a sobbing and emotionally spent Smokey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
But Motown, even with a revived Smokey, was still a shadow of what it had been. “The Motown we knew in the sixties,” said Otis Williams, “was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and everything had changed, even Berry.” At times, it appeared that the label had mostly become famous groups touring the golden-oldies circuit. Since Motown owned the names, it could freely substitute new singers to keep a group going. Martha Reeves had fake Vandellas, Mary Wilson—who had developed her own cocaine problem in the 1980s—sang with substitute Supremes, and the Marvelettes had no original members left but still performed under the group's name. (The Marvelettes had a white promoter who managed their career independent of Motown—rumor had it that he had won them in a high-stakes card game with Gordy.) The Temptations had only two originals, Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin. Over twenty-eight years, the group ran through fourteen different singers. Some ex-members toured as “formerly of the Temptations.” The Four Tops were all original members but were gone from the label for eight years before returning in 1983. Songwriting and production teams like HDH (Holland, Dozier and Holland) and Ashford and Simpson—who had married after leaving Motown—were distant memories.
In 1985, Motown produced another television special, Motown Returns to the Apollo. It was supposed to be a tribute to all the acts that had performed there over the years. Bill Cosby emceed, and the old-timers reassembled, including Diana Ross, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Mary Wilson, who had lawsuits against Motown, was not invited, although a friend took her along as his date, and she sat in the front row during the taping. At one point, Bill Cosby dragged her onstage to sing some backup for Smokey and the Four Tops. For the finale, when all the artists gathered for a farewell song, Diana Ross approached her. “Want to pick a fight tonight, Mary?”
Wilson ignored her. She just said, “Diane, I love you.”
Mary Wilson was edited out of the final show.
A few years later, when Mary Wilson attended a Diana Ross solo concert and went backstage to see her, Ross refused to come out until Wilson left. Their break, after years of rivalry and jealousy, was now complete.
Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power by Gerald Posner (pp. 315-319). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today Forever, was a 1983 hit television special that celebrated Motown’s 25-years in business.