Of all of the performers who passed through Motown Records' Detroit hit factory in the 1960s, Marvin Gaye was perhaps the most iconoclastic. Beyond the smooth voice, good looks, and snappy Pop Soul tunes that fueled his initial success, Gaye subsequently revealed an ambitious sonic vision and deeply personal songwriting talent that would help to rewrite the rules of Soul music and establish him as one of R&B's most influential creative forces — as well as the first artist to successfully break away from Motown's rigid musical formula to pursue his own creative vision.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Gaye was raised in the strict House of God church, in which his abusive father was a minister, and in which young Marvin first discovered his love for music. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Gaye returned home in 1958 and sang in neighborhood Doo Wop groups, before joining a late edition of the seminal Moonglows. It was through the Moonglows' leader, Harvey Fuqua, that Gaye came to the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who signed him to the label in 1961. Later that year, he married Gordy's sister Anna.
Gaye played drums on sessions for some of Motown's other acts before breaking through with a series of hits including "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," "Hitch Hike," "Can I Get a Witness," "Pride and Joy," "Ain't That Peculiar," "I'll Be Doggone," and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," as well as duets with labelmates Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and particularly Tammi Terrell, with whom he cut such hits as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
In late 1968, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" became Gaye's first single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart. He had recorded the track more than a year earlier, but Berry Gordy had refused to release it until after Gladys Knight and the Pips' version became a hit. Gaye's frustration with Motown's creative restrictions deepened after Gordy initially balked at releasing Gaye’s subsequent album What's Going On, a deeply personal masterpiece that reinvented Gaye's sound while tapping into such topical concerns as poverty, racism, drug abuse, the environment, and the Vietnam war. Despite Gordy's lack of enthusiasm, What's Going On became a smash, while its title track, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," all became Top Ten singles. The album's success won Gaye creative control over his future releases, and had the broader effect of encouraging other Motown artists, such as Stevie Wonder, to demand control as well.
Gaye continued to produce challenging albums through the 70s, among them Let's Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear, the latter a meditation on his painful divorce from Anna Gordy. The divorce seemed to send Gaye into a personal tailspin, and he spent much of the second half of the 70s in musical limbo, relocating to Hawaii and eventually Europe while dealing with problems with drugs and the I.R.S. 1981's In Our Lifetime ended Gaye's relationship with Motown, after he claimed that the album was unfinished and that the label altered and released it without his consent.
Gaye's career rebounded substantially after he signed with Columbia Records and released 1982's massively successful Midnight Love, which spawned the smash single "Sexual Healing." But the artist's resurgence ended abruptly on April 1, 1984, when he was shot to death by his father following a violent argument at his parents' house in Los Angeles.