Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye

Hitsville, USA

Berry Gordy Jr.
Berry Gordy Jr.

Berry Gordy, Jr., a high school dropout, had reinvented himself several times. He was a Korean War Veteran, an ex-prize fighter, an ex-autoworker, a record-store owner and a successful songwriter.

Gordy had a knack for blending rock 'n' roll, gospel, and rhythm and blues into catchy tunes — black dance music that white kids would buy, as he famously put it. He used proceeds from "Lonely Teardrops," which he cowrote for Jackie Wilson, to form the Motown Record Corp., whose labels included Anna Records, named for his sister, Anna Gordy.

The Gordys surrounded themselves with Detroit's best musicians, songwriters and producers, and Motown began cranking out records at a studio called Hitsville, USA. Its first hit, "Shop Around," recorded by the Miracles and written by Gordy and Smokey Robinson, came in 1961.

Marvin Gaye insinuated himself into Motown soon after he arrived in Detroit. Yes, Berry Gordy recognized Gaye as a talent. But the 20-year-old earned his position as Prince of Motown when Anna Gordy, 37, fell in love with him. They were married in January 1961.

Anna Gordy Gaye
Anna Gordy Gaye

Gaye played cowrote, played percussion and sang backup on a number of Motown hits. But he fashioned himself a jazz balladeer, a la Nat King Cole, and his signature look included a crew neck shirt and cardigan sweater, like a black Perry Como.

Gaye's first Motown LP, "The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye," included covers of "My Funny Valentine," "Love for Sale" and "How High the Moon." It flopped. On the early Motown Revue bus tours, he sang "What Kind of Fool Am I" and "Days of Wine and Roses" while the audience sat on its hands.

In 1962 Gordy convinced Gaye to record his first R&B-styled tune, "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow." It became a top 10 hit. Over a 10-month period, he used that same soulful style of screams and high-register singing on a series of hits, including "Hitch Hike," "Pride and Joy" and "Can I Get a Witness."

Marvin Gaye, mobbed by fans
Marvin Gaye, mobbed by fans

Yet Gaye continued to flog the ballad material. A 1964 album of ballads included covers of "I'll Be Around" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face." A 1965 Cole tribute record included "Ramblin' Rose" and "Mona Lisa." A 1965 recording of Broadway show tunes included "People" and "Hello Dolly."

Those LPs gathered dust while his R&B recordings flew off record store shelves. Gaye finally gave in.

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