Marvin Gaye could be a moody prima donna, but he had the artistic genius and productivity to back it up. He also had understandable cause for his bad behavior, in the person of father Marvin Sr., a Hebrew Pentecostal minister who regularly beat Gaye in his youth, became jealous of his son’s phenomenal success, and eventually shot him to death—the Oedipus tragedy in reverse.
Originally, Gaye was the Miracles’ session drummer, and co-songwriter on his own early singles and on Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets.” He wanted to be a crooner like Sinatra and Nat King Cole and not have to “shake my ass.”14 He was married to Gordy’s sister Anna, so that gave him some leverage as he struggled to find his voice. But his albums of show tunes and standards didn’t sell, so, reluctantly, Gaye would bang out the next R&B single. He recalled that in the mid-sixties, “When I wouldn’t want to record—just flat out refuse—Berry would get mad, his voice would get real high, he’d lose his cool. I’d feel bad and finally get my ass back in the studio.”15 Gordy had given Anna and Gaye his old house to live in, and producer Clarence Paul would pick up Gaye there and give him some coke in the car on the way to the studio 16— and somehow Gaye amassed a string of classics despite the fact that he’d rather have been singing Cole Porter.
The rugged vocals of David Ruffin and the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs compelled Gaye to make his own sound grittier. “I heard in their voices a strength my own voice lacked. Listening to these singers every day inspired me to work even harder on my natural midrange—my tough-man voice. I developed a growl. The Temps and Tops made me remember that when a lot of women listen to music, they want to feel the power of a real man.”17 The edge was there in January’s “I’ll Be Doggone,” Gaye’s first million- selling single, cowritten by Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore, and guitarist Marv Tarplin. The song was the closest Motown came in the mid-sixties to the riff rock of white bands. Tarplin was influenced by the proto-folk-rock of “Needles and Pins”; the Byrds pinched the same riff for “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
Robinson took a page from Gaye’s life for the lyrics for “I’ll Be Doggone.” Gaye insists that a woman should try to be whatever her man wants her to be, especially when all he wants is for her to be true. “You see, Anna and I had a strange sense of when we were being untrue to each other. We always knew,” Gaye recalled. “One night, for example, I found myself getting in the car and driving to a motel, walking up to a certain room and knocking on the door. All by instinct. How could I be so sure that Anna was in there with another man? I had no way of knowing the motel and the room number. Some force led me on. I think that’s the same force that transforms my happiness to misery.” When he confronted his wife and her lover, Gaye said, “I think I laughed. I might have cried. But certainly there was some enjoyment in finding them. It was definitely an adventure.”18
- Ritz, Divided Soul, 78.
- Ibid., 110.
- Ibid., 114.
- Ibid., 100.
- Ibid., 109.