Family, friends and fans of Marvin Gaye came together on Wednesday to pay homage to the late Motown legend on what would have been his 75th birthday.
Gaye was shot and killed by his father on the eve of his 45th birthday in 1984, leaving behind a remarkable string of hits – led by Let’s Get it On, I Heard it Through the Grapevine and Sexual Healing – that remain pop, funk and soul classics.
“When it comes to DC, there’s nothing bigger, nothing better than Marvin Gaye,” proclaimed local radio DJ Guy Lambert, emcee of a birthday soiree at Marvin, a bar-restaurant honouring the nearly two years Gaye lived in Belgium.
Spotted in the diverse 200-strong crowd were Gaye’s youngest sister Zeola, who sang backing vocals on his 1977 dance hit Got to Give it Up, and his long-time friend and music arranger Gordon Banks, who on guitar led a lively jam session on Marvin’s al fresco stage.
Performing as well were members of Gaye’s very first combo, the Marquees, a doo-wop quartet that came together in 1959 in the Washington basement recording studio of pioneering rhythm and blues guitarist Bo Diddley.
“Marvin goes all the way back with us,” recalled Jimmy Falwell, whose own doo-wop group the Velons is still in business after 56 years. “We used to do talent shows at Dunbar high school and Marvin played drums behind us.”
Fame awaited the young Gaye at Motown, the Detroit record label founded by Berry Gordy that revolutionised pop music in the 1960s.
His first solo hit, Stubborn Kind of Fellow, charted in 1962, followed by songs such as Can I Get a Witness, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) and Ain’t That Peculiar.
With his smooth vocal style, Gaye was a perfect fit in duets alongside Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell, with whom he recorded Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.
But in his private life, Gaye suffered a tortured relationship with his father Marvin Gay (the “e” was added by the son), a fringe-church clergyman in Washington who had no qualms brutally beating his children.
Wrestling with drugs, drink and depression, and refusing to pay US taxes in protest at the Vietnam War, Gaye found inner peace in the early 1980s in seaside Ostend, Belgium, where he composed Sexual Healing, his last big hit.
“It was cold as I don’t know what, but it was special,” recalled Banks, who was there with him. “Nobody really knew who he was in little Ostend, so he could live without the shroud of being a superstar over there.”
The music fell silent on April 1, 1984 when, in the midst of a family altercation, Gaye was fatally shot twice in Los Angeles by his father.
“I’m really sorry for everything that happened… I’m paying the price now,” said the elder Gay at his trial, where he got a six-year suspended sentence after pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter.
Gay died in 1998, aged 84.
Next door to Gaye’s Washington junior high school, where he sang in a glee club, a young crowd marked Wednesday’s anniversary at a former Baptist church turned contemporary art space called Blind Whino.
“This was his neighbourhood,” said organiser April Watts, who regularly spins Gaye nuggets alongside modern R&B tunes on her weekend radio show. “He physically walked these street.
“He had the ability to interpret a song unlike anyone else ever did or probably ever will.
“He was a maverick… He made honest music and he was extremely creative. That is his legacy.”