By Eric Levin
April 16, 1984 12:00 PM
Eugene Adebari/REX/Shutterstock

For all the roller-coaster swoops his life took through drugs, divorce, bankruptcy, exile and even attempted suicide, soul singer Marvin Gaye defiantly insisted that “fleeing is not my nature.” Not even, he might have added, from his troubled relationship with his father, the Rev. Marvin Gay Sr. A few months ago, after a quarrel at the Los Angeles house Gaye had bought for his parents and was sharing with them, the elder Gaye summoned police when Marvin refused to leave. The son relented, but after a short stay with a sister he returned and later told a friend, “After all, I have just one father. I want to make peace with him.”

That was an objective Gaye never achieved. When police arrived on April 1 at the sprawling green-and-white house in an upper-middle-class black neighborhood near the Santa Monica Freeway, they found his mother, Alberta, distraught and Marvin Sr. sitting calmly outside, a .38-caliber pistol nearby. Marvin was lying upstairs with two bullets in his chest. Gay Sr., a 69-year-old retired Pentecostal minister, was later charged with murder.

Regardless of what precipitated the final bitter confrontation between father and son just one day before the singer’s 45th birthday, the chasm between them had not closed despite Gaye’s intentions.

Given Marvin’s life-style in recent months, it hardly could have been otherwise. During his 1982 comeback, Gaye had attempted to purge himself of drugs. But afterward, a friend relates, “He went back to cocaine. Everybody knew it.” Occupying a block of rooms in his parents’ house, “He’d take drugs and make telephone calls all night, and then maybe sleep from 8 a.m. till noon. His mother would often bring him up breakfast around 1 and lovingly watch him eat.”

The scene described is out of Satyricon: “Pushers, women, all kinds of people would come to the door all through the night, and Marvin would let them in. God, he’d let the world in, he was so magnanimous. Sometimes his father would search such people. He didn’t like them walking around the house. There were so many entrances and exits, so many rooms. His father probably just got fed up.”

There surely were other reasons for the father-son animosity. In late 1982, following two messy divorces and a career dive, Gaye had returned to the U.S. from Belgium—not so much because Midnight Love, his reggae-influenced comeback album, was beginning to snake up the charts, but because his mother had been hospitalized with severe kidney problems. He remained by her side. “She adored Marvin,” explains the friend, “and Marvin loved her. I sometimes thought the father was a little jealous. He would say that Marvin had to realize that she was his wife first. Marvin was always very polite with his father. He called him ‘Sir.’ ”

That formality dates back to Gaye’s Washington, D.C. childhood. “My father was a strict disciplinarian,” Gaye once said. “I probably have recurrent fears of the beatings I took as a child.” Recalls one of Gaye’s boyhood playmates: “Marvin was a very troubled child. He suffered from acute depression. He reached out to everybody, looking for love.”

Intelligent and articulate but often quiet, Gay Sr. would bring the third of his five children to church, where young Marvin (born Marvin Gay — he would add the “e” later) would strum his guitar and sing hymns after his father’s sermons. Following an honorable discharge from the Air Force, Gaye began harmonizing and in 1961 was signed to Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown label. Soon he was the boss’ brother-in-law and, with a dozen hit records including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the label’s pharaoh-faced heartthrob.

Gaye broke free of formula in 1971 with What’s Going On, a searing but sensuous protest album (poverty, Vietnam, pollution)—the first from a major black star. Then his mercurial nature (“I truly feel I’m an artist, and I don’t give any quarter nor do I ask any”) began to catch up with him. An affair with Janis Hunter, 17 years his junior, led to divorce from Anna Gordy, 17 years his senior. He married Hunter, with whom he had two children. But hardly before the ink on the dissolution papers with Anna was dry, Janis filed for divorce.

Gaye admitted he once menaced her with a knife after their separation and that he arranged for their then 4-year-old son, Frankie, to be kidnapped to Hawaii. There a beachcombing Gaye became so depressed over the shambles of his personal life that he tried to kill himself by ingesting more than a gram of pure cocaine in less than an hour. “I did some awful things,” he said later. “I became chauvinistic and lived to the depths of degradation. I did music that encouraged the sexual revolution. I never raised myself to the heights of spirituality.”

The struggle between the libidinous (as epitomized by 1973’s lusty “Let’s Get It On”) and the socially conscious (“Save the Children”) sides of Gaye’s musical personality lifted his records above soul standards. For instance, his late ’60s duets with Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) had idealized romantic devotion, even though he insisted they were never lovers. But Terrell died of a brain tumor in 1970, three years after collapsing in his arms onstage, and Gaye withdrew from live performances until 1974.

Concerts were always difficult for him, despite his easy charm. His father’s values seemed to haunt Gaye. “I feel sinful when I swivel my hips to personify this stupid image I have of the reluctant sex symbol,” he said. “I can’t be freaky onstage in peace.” Still, Gaye could never swing to the opposite extreme either. “I don’t think I’m a Christian,” he said. “A Christian is a man who follows Christ, and that takes a hell—I should say heaven—of a man to do. My church is within me.”

Following his own eccentric muse, Gaye refused for much of his career to appear on TV (he said the lights bothered him) and would often show up late for concerts or interviews, if he bothered to appear at all.

A lifelong sports enthusiast, Gaye was a proficient golfer, with a 9 or 10 handicap. In 1970 the 6-foot, 185-pound performer spent a week scrimmaging with the Eastern Michigan University football team in anticipation of a tryout as a running back with his favorite pro team, the Detroit Lions. The tryout never materialized, but a few Lions did do background vocals on What’s Going On.

Escaping his alimony woes, Gaye toured Europe in 1980, where he sipped champagne with Princess Margaret and dined, he liked to joke, on “peasant” under glass. “He was a magical guy,” says Don Cornelius, an old acquaintance and host of TV’s Soul Train. “I don’t think anybody understood him. He was definitely from another place.”

Gaye finally broke the Motown umbilical cord in 1980 after a falling out with Berry Gordy. Around Easter of ’81 a CBS Records executive flew to Belgium and found Gaye “anxious to set things right.” The company bought his contract for almost $2 million. At about the same time criminal charges stemming from the kidnapping of Frankie (who had been returned to his mother) were dropped, creditors were mollified and a repayment schedule for some $2 million in back taxes was set up. Finally Marvin headed for the studio to record Midnight Love.

Buoyed by a new sense of confidence, Gaye regained his sense of humor on returning to California. “If my life story isn’t as exciting as Gone With the Wind,” he promised an interviewer, “I’ll kiss your bottom in Macy’s window.” But his past was not easily shaken. Aside from slipping back into drug abuse, Gaye, when he was shot, still owed Anna more than $300,000 in back alimony, according to his attorney, Howard L. Rasch, and owed “considerable” sums to Janis, the IRS and the State of California. In addition he faced assault and battery charges filed in Los Angeles in February by a woman who alleged that Gaye had beaten her several times. In his final altercation with his father, according to the elder’s attorney, Philip Schreiber, Marvin had inflicted “some evidence of injury” on Marvin Sr.’s head.

Gaye had begun work on a new album tentatively titled Together, You and Me, on which he was planning to introduce the singing of his younger brother, Frankie. “He wanted everything to be beautiful,” says a friend. “He’d sit and look at a tree or watch a bird, and then he’d go and write a song in 10 minutes. He had such total honesty and sweetness. He hated reality, really, the ugliness and pain of it. I think his only real happiness was in his music.”