We all know about the Marvin Gaye who helped to shape the sound of Motown Records in the 1960s with a string of hits, including “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, and duet recordings with Mary Wells and Tammi Terrell.
Some of you may know how Marvin later earned the titles “Prince of Motown” and “Prince of Soul”. And, during the 1970s, he recorded the concept albums What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On and became one of the first artists in Motown to break away from the reins of its production company. It was Gaye’s later recordings that influenced several R&B subgenres, such as quiet storm and neo-soul.
But how many of you know about his childhood growing up in Washington, DC.
Marvin was born in Washington, D.C., to minister Marvin Gay, Sr., and domestic worker Alberta Gay (née Cooper). He first grew up in a house located at 1617 First Street SW, only a few blocks from the Anacostia River. The First Street neighborhood was nicknamed “Simple City” owing to its being “half-city, half country”.
When Marvin was in his teens, the family relocated to the Deanwood section of North East D.C. Marvin was the second eldest of Marvin Gay, Sr.’s children and the third overall of six. He had two sisters: Jeanne and Zeola, and three brothers: Michael Cooper, Frankie Gaye and Antwaun Gaye. Michael Cooper was from his mother’s previous relationship while Antwaun was born as a result of his father’s extramarital affairs.
Marvin began singing in church at age four and was accompanied by his father on piano. Marvin and his family were part of a Pentecostal church known as the House of God. The House of God took its teachings from Hebrew Pentecostalism, advocated strict conduct, and adhered to both the Old and New Testaments. Gaye developed a love of singing at an early age and was encouraged to pursue a professional music career after a performance at a school play. His home life consisted of “brutal whippings” at the hands of his father, who struck him for any shortcoming.
The younger Marvin described living under his father’s house as similar to “living with a king, a very peculiar, changeable, cruel and all powerful king.” He further stated that had his mother not encouraged his singing, he would have been a child suicide case. His sister later explained that Marvin was beaten often, from age seven well into his teenage years.
Marvin attended Cardozo High School and joined several doo-wop vocal groups, including the Dippers and the D.C. Tones. The younger Marvin’s relationship with his father worsened during his teenage years as his father would kick him out of the house for what he perceived was misbehavior. Following an argument in which he stood up against his father, the younger Marvin walked out of the house for good and dropped out of high school. With dreams of being a flyer, 17-year-old Marvin enlisted in the United States Air Force as a Basic Airman. Disappointed in having to perform menial tasks, he faked mental illness and was discharged shortly afterwards. Gaye’s sergeant stated that Marvin refused to follow orders.
And the rest, as they say, is History.