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Book Review

A Motown Legend With Smooth Stylings, Rocky Life

TROUBLE MAN The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye by Steve Turner Ecco Press $24, 272 pages

November 16, 2000|PAULA FRIEDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marvin Gaye was one of Motown's finest, most soulful and popular recording artists. Biographer Steve Turner elaborates on the profoundly ironic turns that would lead Gaye to stardom. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1939, Gaye began singing gospel music in the church where his father served as elder when he was just 2 years old. But his relationship with cruelly abusive Marvin Gaye Sr. led the boy to tastes that lie far from the hybrid rhythm and blues music that became his hallmark.

"At a time when his white contemporaries, like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, were feasting on urban and country blues, he, like many other blacks, was trying to get as far away as possible from reminders of poverty and anguish. His taste was for the music of his teenage years, which seemed to be the ultimate in sophistication, taste and affluence--Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Mel Torme, and Frank Sinatra."

Gaye told producer Berry Gordy at Motown that he wanted to be "recorded as a jazz singer," and initially he was. But with the coming of some of Motown's new talent--including groups such as the Marvelettes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and the Supremes--Gordy began to pressure Gaye into recording similar material. With the exception of "The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye," a recording of classical songs set to jazz arrangements (which didn't sell well), Gaye found himself succumbing to the "funk approach that R&B was taking at that time." But the singer did develop and rigorously maintain his own style, characterized by elegance of dress and impeccable stage manners, a style that magnetized women in droves.

Turner gives a thoughtful analysis of Gaye's complicated troubles, the most debilitating of which seems to have been his drug and sex addictions. As a boy, Marvin watched his father seduce congregation members, frequently bringing women to their home, where he ordered his wife to serve the couple meals in the bedroom. In addition, Marvin Sr. further detached himself from his family by withdrawing into his room for long periods when he would dress himself up as a woman, occasionally making forays into the rest of the house to show himself. These actions, along with harsh physical punishments, created intense ambivalence in the boy, who both loved and hated his father. Intimidated by Marvin Sr.'s punitiveness, Gaye still longed for his affection. Turner believes that Marvin Gaye Sr.'s foundering masculinity caused his son to experience similar problems. Despite his attraction to women, the singer frequently pulled away from deep emotional bonds, engaging instead in detached and degrading sex.

But in his early days with Motown, Marvin Gaye's unhappiness did not publicly surface. Married to Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy's sister, Gaye primarily sang upbeat romantic love songs. Eventually Gordy teamed Gaye with female vocalist Tammy Terrell, and the two created such hits as "If I Could Build My Whole World Around You," and "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing," songs marked by their romantic optimism. Still, all was not well within the marriage or the man. After touring with Gaye in 1962, road manager Beans Bowles got a closer look:

"He was a disturbed man even at that point in his life. He was disturbed in whatever context you care to mention. He was disturbed about his father, he was disturbed about his relationship with Anna, and he was insecure about himself. I would say that, although he didn't show it, he was unhappy most of the time."

When Terrell died in 1968 from a brain tumor, Marvin Gaye's public veneer began to shatter. While the two never seemed to have had an actual physical affair, their union represented for Gaye the ideal love he so desired. After Terrell's death Gaye performed less, and his work became more openly dark. Vietnam, drugs (Gaye became addicted to cocaine) and sex based on humiliation worked their way into his music, and soon the rich, soulful brilliance of Gaye's songs became marred by violent fantasy, a turn that according to Turner helped pave the way for rap music's misogyny. Songs in his 1976 album "I Want You" "had none of the tenderness of his earlier love songs."

"Sexual Healing," a song released in 1982, began a process of self-examination for Gaye. Although he began to reverse the damage in his life and music, Gaye's shooting death in 1984 at the hands of his father brought this healing process to a violent halt.

Given Gaye's difficulties, we can expect a fair amount of sensationalism to accompany his biographical information. For the most part, Turner looks beyond shocking surfaces. Yet readers may find at least one or two of his photograph selections gratuitous, if not downright offensive. What purpose does it serve to include a photograph of the bed where Gaye was shot just minutes before the picture was taken? Some readers may also wish that Turner had omitted the photograph of Gaye in his open coffin. After all, Turner's material--the details of Marvin Gaye's extraordinary, if tumultuous, career and troubled life--speaks quite dramatically for itself.

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