Past Lives: April 1st 1983, and the death of Marvin Gaye

In some ways, it was almost seems inevitable. On one hand, one of the best and most successful singers, not only in his illustrious record company, Motowns history, but also in the whole of popular music history. He had been having hits since the 1960’s, his breakthrough chart hit being I heard it through the grapevine’, which sold well over a million copies in 1968. Gaye strived for more, and reached his creative peak with his 1973 album, Let’s get it on. Such was its political sentiment that at first Motown had refused to release the title track as a single some three years earlier, which prompted Gaye to go on strike from the label. As close to his death as September 1982 he had the worldwide smash ‘Sexual healing’, and the accompanying album Midnight Love was released early 1983.

Marvin Gaye – I heard it through the grapevine (live in Montreaux)

But there was also another side to Marvin Gaye. He was an insecure man beset by problems (at the time of his death he had ongoing issues with the IRS over unpaid taxes, something which previously had led him to flee to Europe), depression and addiction. Left fragile by the death from brain cancer of his singing partner (Motown had paired them up to brilliant effect) Tammi Tyrell, he had tried suicide at least twice. He survived after taking a huge amount of cocaine, saying “I just wanted to be left alone and blow my brains on high-octane toot. It would be a slow but relatively pleasant death, certainly less messy than a gun.” Just four days before his death, he had reputedly tried to throw himself out of a fast-moving car, only to escape with bruising. Certainly his sister and brother Jeanne and Frankie believed he was serious about taking his own life.

Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing, live at the Grammy Awards, 1983

He had beaten the addiction to cocaine whilst living in Ostend, Belgium. He arrived a mess in London, trying to escape what he presumed would be jail after getting huge unpaid tax bills. Firstly residing in London, he moved to Ostend upon the suggestion of the music promoter Freddy Couseart. Here he began exercising, got himself relatively clean, and began enjoying things. He signed a deal with CBS for the Midnight Love album, began performing again, settled at least some of his tax issues, and began touring in the US.

Sadly the pressure and loneliness of touring gave way to increased Cocaine (and other substances) use, and following the tour, he went back to his parents home, situated at 2101 South Gramercy Place in Western Heights in the West Adams district of Los Angeles . He was also in a fragile mental state, convinced someone was out to kill him and he taken to wearing bulletproof vests at all times, except when on stage. He had gone back home to help look after his mother following a liver operation, but retreated into his bedroom and increasingly strange behaviour , wearing three overcoats and putting his shoes on the wrong feet.

Marvin Gaye – Last TV appearance, May 1983, on Soul Train.

On the other hand was Marin Gaye Sr, an abusive and violent father, who beat his son at just about every opportunity. Later on the singer would describe this relationship as “peculiar, changeable, cruel and all-powerful king.” On more than one occasion, Gaye Sr had attested that if any one of his siblings struck him, he would kill them.

On 1st February, the Gaye household had been in the midst of an ongoing argument between the parents about lost insurance documents. Gaye Sr started shouting at Gaye’s mother once again, when his son acted. Punching and kicking his father out of his bedroom, he went to sit with his mother on the bed. About 11,38, Marvin Gaye Sr returned to the room, and without saying a word he pointed a gun at his sons heart and pulled the trigger. It proved to be fatal, piercing several of his sons major organs. He then stepped forward and shot again, this time at point black range. With his wife screaming and fearing for her own life, and with Frankie and his daughter in law Irene running through the house to see what had happened., Gaye Sr calmly put the gun under a pillow and quietly sat on his house porch, waiting for the Police to arrive.

Arriving to find his brother bleeding profusely , Frankie held Marvin as he died. According to Frankie, his last words were “I got what I wanted… I couldn’t do it myself so I had him do it… it’s good, I ran my race, there’s no more left in me. He was taken to California Hospital Medical Center where at 1.01pm he was pronounced dead on arrival, and a subsequent autopsy found traces of drugs in his body.


Gaye Sr was arrested and tried, despite some doubts following surgery on a brain tumour. The Judge, Ronald George agreed to grant Marvin Sr. a plea bargain, partly as a result of evidence given that the drugs in Marvin’s body may have caused violence, and Gaye Sr testimony that he was frightened. As a result, Marvin Sr. pleaded no contest to Voluntary Manslaughter charge and  November 2, Judge Gordon Ringer sentenced Marvin Gay, Sr. to a six-year suspended sentence and five years probation. During the sentencing hearing, Marvin Gay, Sr., in tears struggling to come up with words, told the court: If I could bring him back, I would. I was afraid of him. I thought I was going to get hurt. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m really sorry for everything that happened”

And so ended a tragic, yet brilliant life. The timing meant that when he heard the news Smokey Robinson thought it was some kind of sick joke and called Gaye’s ex-wife Anna Gaye to find if it was true. She confirmed it before he could ask her, leaving Robinson in shock. Even to this day, fans gather round his walk of fame star to pay tribute to a life cut short. Marvin Gaye, we will never forget you


Maze featuring Frankie Beverly – Silky Soul, one of many tributes to Marvin Gaye, and with a video which features Marvin’s daughter Nona.

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