Born Marvin Pentz Gaye, Jr. in 1939 in Washington, D.C., the singer also known as the Prince of Soul was the original panty-dropper. But while Gaye had a smooth, controlled voice that combined with an inherent sexiness for a swoon factor that was simply off the charts, he was far more than a mere sex symbol. He had a depth to his songwriting that was not only extensive and highly reflective of the times, but also imbued with a certain timelessness that makes it just as affecting today.
Originally a session drummer at Motown after the doo-wop group he was in disbanded, Gaye struggled with the label over the direction of his music. Breaking away from Motown's tried-and-true pop-oriented template, Gaye proved to be a groundbreaking and highly influential artist. His breakout 1971 album, What's Going On, deftly captured the war-torn climate of the '70s. The entire album was a dissertation on poverty, drug abuse, pain and politics and is widely acclaimed today as one of Gaye's greatest works.
Leading up to that landmark album, Gaye had hit his stride collaborating with Tami Terrell. Their duet on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" pointed to a unmistakable chemistry, and had such fire, in fact, that rumors of a relationship ran rampant. Both denied the rumors, and for his part, Gaye was married to Anna Gordy at the time, a relationship that later spawned the double album, Here My Dear, a startling personal album about their ill-fated time together.
Gaye's undeniable sensuality is on full display on super-slinky cuts like "Let's Get It On," a song that merits heavy rotation on any amorous playlist. While Gaye eventually earned a Grammy for the appropriately titled "Sexual Healing," his subsequent success was ultimately halted by his tragic downward spiral into drug addiction and emotional despair, a time period that culminated with Gaye being shot by his father on the eve of the singer's 45th birthday, in 1984.
A tragic story of talent, turmoil, triumph and the ever present need to conquer the self, Gaye's tale is marked by his rebellion in all the right moments and the fact that he understood love so fiercely. Gaye was the force, the face and most definitely the voice of black music during his time and continues to be revered as such even today.
February has traditionally been the month when the contributions from, traditions of and historical facts about African-Americans are celebrated. In honor of Black History Month, Backbeat will be celebrating iconic figures in the world of black music.
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