Motown tunesmith helped shape R&B for a generation
Grammy for his international megahit "Sexual Healing"(1982)
One of the most important artists to come out of Motown, Gaye first wrote songs for other artists including “Beechwood 4-5789” (1962) for The Marvelettes and “Dancing in the Street” for Martha and the Vandellas, then cut his own compositions like the classic hits “Hitch Hike,” “Pride and Joy, “Let’s Get It On” and the Grammy-winning “Sexual Healing,” Breaking new ground with his 1971 concept album What’s Going On, which included the antiwar titletrack, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Bluesԗand earned him Rolling Stone’s “Album of the Year” designation. Gaye also had hits penned by other songwriting legends including “Ain’t That Peculiar” (Smokey Robinson), “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) (Holland-Dozier-Holland),” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong), and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” among the songs written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson that became duet hits for Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Gaye had originally been a member of the late 1950s R&B vocal group the Marquees, which later replaced departed members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group The Moonglows and became Harvey and the New Moonglows. The group was led by Harvey Fuqua, who introduced Gaye to Motown founder Berry Gordy, who eventually signed him to the label. At Motown he also recorded duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Diana Ross, and earned the titles “Prince of Motown” and “Prince of Soul.” But with What’s Going On he took on political and social issues like the Vietnam War, drugs, inequality, the economy and the environment while incorporating jazz, pop and classical music styles. None other than Smokey Robinson called it his favorite album of all time, and Gaye followed it with recordings that influenced both the quiet storm and new-soul genres.
His songs have been covered by such varied artists as James Taylor, Brian McKnight, Kate Bush, Michael McDonald, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and The Strokes. His name has been mentioned in numerous Top 10 hits, and his recordings have been sampled by the likes of Kanye West and Mary J. Blige. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and is also a member of the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. Other prestigious honors include the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the inclusion of What’s Going On in the National Recording Registry.
From childhood, Gaye had a troubled relationship with his father, and he died tragically in 1984 after being shot by his father during an altercation at home.