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Gaye demolished barriers for Motown, music

By From page B1 | March 28, 2014

When we lose artists at a young age, we feel cheated.

We grieve both for the person as well as, in some selfish way, for ourselves. Without a personal connection to the person, we grieve the loss of future work.

In the case of Marvin Gaye, the legendary Motown singer, it was the shocking sadness of his April 1, 1984, end. On the heels of his most commercially successful record, he was shot dead in his parents’ home – and the pistol was in his minister father’s hand.

Next week marks two noteworthy landmarks for Gaye: Tuesday is 30 years since his death, but were he still alive, Gaye would’ve celebrated his 75th birthday Wednesday.

For the uninitiated, the inimitable singer spent the ’60s dishing out more hits than a mixed martial arts fighter, a fruitful era featuring such classics as “How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and his iconic stab at “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”

By the ’70s, the “Prince of Motown” leveled up. Yearning to better express himself, Gaye started penning his own albums, crafting “What’s Going On,” “Let’s Get it On” and “I Want You,” complete works that were as pivotal in proving the album format could be as vital to soul and R&B as The Beatles did for rock ’n’ roll.

Gaye’s split with Motown in the late ’70s was a period of creative floundering. He worked through a fog of drugs, depression and other issues toward health while crafting “Sexual Healing,” one of his most successful singles, but the supporting tour steered Gaye back to his demons.

Scholar and radio personality Michael Eric Dyson wrote in his book “Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye,” a quiet storm of religion, race and sexuality was as much Gaye’s undoing as his making.

For example, Gaye bought the pistol his father, the Rev. Marvin Gaye Sr., used to shoot and kill his son. Friends and family reported Gaye was depressed and addicted to cocaine prior to his death. Dyson suggests the scenario was sort of a suicide by cop, with Gaye physically assaulting his father until it provoked the desired response.

Frankie Gaye, Marvin’s brother who was there at his death, wrote in an autobiography that the singer told him he “got what (he) wanted,” supporting Dyson’s notion that Gaye coaxed his father to such violence.

While Gaye’s death casts a long shadow, his body of work endures to a younger generation as well.

Gaye set a precedence some modern musicians may take for granted. “What’s Going On” was part of a rebirth for the Motown label in the early 1970s, allowing its artists such as Gaye and Stevie Wonder more creative freedom, with less of an insistence on meeting the Motown sound, typified by distinct low-end tracks and a melding of gospel influences with a pop sensibility.

It also relinquished on songwriting teams, allowing Gaye to craft a concept album that stood as his response to the Vietnam War, the pain and truth of which his veteran brother Frankie Gaye was able to tell him about.

What Gaye did with “What’s Going On” was help bring an African-American voice to the collective conscious about social and political issues in the ’70s, but artistically, he also carved out a wider space for R&B, soul and the Motown sound to be more. A reliance on singles as the primary mode of release was waning and “What’s Going On” – despite its unforgettable title track – made the case of album-based soul.

It gave the freedom for Wonder, too, to craft such songs as “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City,” songs under the Motown flag that carried a level of socio-political savvy as well as having a great groove.

Opening the palette carries through to today. It isn’t crazy to draw a line from Gaye to contemporaries such as John Legend or Miguel, who hold themselves to a bar that marries contemporary issues to their R&B crooning.

While few conversations about Gaye exist without talking about his sudden, sad death, at least there is more to the conversation about him and his legacy than that.

To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco is the editor of the Tailwind and writes the pop culture blog/column For Those About to Rock. Before joining the DR staff in July 2007, DeCicco (pronounced Deh-CEE-Coh) worked at The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., and the Greeley Tribune in Greeley, Colo. A 2004 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, DeCicco spends his free time attending concerts, listening to music, going to movies, traveling and hiking.
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