One of the most gifted, visionary, and enduring talents ever launched into orbit by the Motown hit machine, the career of Marvin Gaye blazed the trail for the continued evolution of popular black music: moving from lean, powerful R&B to stylish, sophisticated soul to finally arrive at an intensely political and personal form of artistic self-expression, his work not only redefined soul music as a creative force but also expanded its impact as an agent for social change.
Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. (in the style of his hero Sam Cooke, he added the “e” to his surname as an adult) was born April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C. The second of three children born to Marvin Sr., an ordained minister in the House of God – a conservative Christian sect fusing elements of orthodox Judaism and Pentecostalism which imposes strict codes of conduct and observes no holidays – he began singing in church at the age of three , quickly becoming a soloist in the choir. Later taking up piano and drums, music became Gaye’s escape from the nightmarish realities of his home life – throughout his childhood, his father beat him on an almost daily basis.
After graduating high school, Gaye enlisted in the U.S. Air Force; upon his discharge, he returned to Washington and began singing in a number of street-corner doo wop groups, eventually joining the (1) Rainbows, a top local attraction. With the help of mentor Bo Diddley, the Rainbows cut “Wyatt Earp,” a single for the Okeh label which brought them to the attention of singer Harvey Fuqua, who in 1958 recruited the group to become the latest edition of his backing ensemble, the Moonglows. After relocating to Chicago, the Moonglows recorded a series of singles for Chess including 1959’s “Mama Loocie”; while touring the Midwest, the group performed in Detroit, where Gaye’s graceful tenor and three-octave vocal range won the interest of fledgling impressario Berry Gordy Jr., who signed him to the Motown label in 1961.
While first working at Motown as a session drummer and playing on early hits by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, he met Gordy’s sister Anna, and married her in late 1961. Upon mounting a solo career, Gaye struggled to find his voice, and early singles failed; finally, his fourth effort, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” became a minor hit in 1962, and his next two singles – the 1963 dance efforts “Hitch Hike” and “Can I Get a Witness” – both reached the Top 30. With 1963’s “Pride and Joy,” Gaye scored his first Top Ten smash, but often found his role as a hitmaker stifling his desire to become a crooner of lush romantic ballads ran in direct opposition to Motown’s all-important emphasis on chart success, and the ongoing battle between his artistic ambitions and the label’s demands for commercial product continued throughout Gaye’s long tenure with the company.
With 1964’s Together, a collection of duets with Mary Wells, Gaye scored his first charting album; the duo also notched a number of hit singles together, including “Once Upon a Time” and “What’s the Matter With You, Baby?” As a solo performer, Gaye continued to enjoy great success, scoring three superb Top Ten hits – “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “I’ll Be Doggone,” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” – in 1965. In total, he scored some 39 Top 40 singles for Motown, many of which he also wrote and arranged; with Kim Weston, the second of his crucial vocal partners, he also established himself as one of the era’s dominant duet singers with the stunning “It Takes Two.”
However, Gaye’s greatest duets were with Tammi Terrell, with whom he scored a series of massive hits penned by the team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, including 1967’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love,” followed by 1968’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” The team’s success was tragically cut short in 1967 when, during a concert appearance in Virginia, Terrell collapsed into Gaye’s arms onstage, the first evidence of a brain tumor which abruptly ended her performing career and finally killed her on March 16, 1970. Her illness and eventual loss left Gaye deeply shaken, marring the chart-topping 1968 success of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” his biggest hit and arguably the pinnacle of the Motown Sound.
At the same time, Gaye was forced to cope with a number of other personal problems, not the least of which was his crumbling marriage. He also found the material he recorded for Motown to be increasingly irrelevant in the face of the tremendous social changes sweeping the nation, and after scoring a pair of 1969 Top Ten hits with “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and “That’s the Way Love Is,” he spent the majority of 1970 in seclusion, resurfacing early the next year with the self-produced What’s Going On, a landmark effort heralding a dramatic shift in both content and style which forever altered the face of black music. A highly percussive album which incorporated jazz and classical elements to forge a remarkably sophisticated and fluid soul sound, What’s Going On was a conceptual masterpiece which brought Gaye’s deeply held spiritual beliefs to the fore to explore issues ranging from poverty and discrimination to the environment, drug abuse and political corruption; chief among the record’s concerns was the conflict in Vietnam, as Gaye structured the songs around the point of view of his brother Frankie, himself a soldier recently returned from combat.
The ambitions and complexity of What’s Going On baffled Berry Gordy, who initially refused to release the LP; he finally relented, although he maintained that he never understood the record’s full scope. Gaye was vindicated when the majestic title track reached the number two spot in 1971, and both of the follow-ups, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” also reached the Top Ten; the album’s success guaranteed Gaye continued artistic control over his work and helped loosen the reins for other Motown artists, most notably Stevie Wonder, to also take command of their own destinies. Consequently, in 1972, Gaye changed directions again, agreeing to score the blaxploitation thriller Trouble Man; the resulting soundtrack was a primarily instrumental effort showcasing his increasing interest in jazz, although a vocal turn on the moody, minimalist title track scored another Top Ten smash.
The long-simmering eroticism implicit in much of Gaye’s work reached its boiling point with 1973’s Let’s Get It On, one of the most sexually charged albums ever recorded; a work of intense lust and longing, it became the most commercially successful effort of his career, and the title cut became his second number one hit. Let’s Get It On also marked another significant shift in Gaye’s lyrical outlook, moving him from the political arena to a deeply personal, even insular stance which continued to define his subsequent work. After teaming with Diana Ross for the 1973 duet collection Marvin and Diana, he returned to work on his next solo effort, I Want You; however, the record’s completion was delayed by his 1975 divorce from Anna Gordy. The dissolution of his marriage threw Gaye into a tailspin, and he spent much of the mid-1970s in divorce court; to combat Gaye’s absence from the studio, Motown released the 1977 stopgap Live at the London Palladium, which spawned the single “Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1),” his final number one hit.
As a result of a 1976 court settlement, Gaye was ordered to make good on missed alimony payments by recording a new album, with the intention that all royalties earned from its sales would then be awarded to his ex-wife. The 1978 record, a two-LP set sardonically titled Here, My Dear, bitterly explored the couple’s relationship in such intimate detail that Anna Gordy briefly considered suing Gaye for invasion of privacy. In the interim, he had remarried and begun work on another album, Lover Man, but scrapped the project when the lead single “Ego Tripping Out” – a telling personal commentary presented as a duet between the spiritual and sexual halves of his identity, which biographer David Ritz later dubbed the singer’s “divided soul” – failed to chart. As his drug problems increased and his marriage to new wife Janis also began to fail, he relocated to Hawaii in an attempt to sort out his personal affairs.
In 1981, long-standing tax difficulties and renewed pressures from the I.R.S. forced Gaye to flee to Europe, where he began work on the ambitious In Our Lifetime, a deeply philosophical record which ultimately severed his long-standing relationship with Motown after he claimed the label had remixed and edited the album without his consent; additionally, Gaye stated that the finished artwork parodied his original intent, and that even the title had been changed to drop an all-important question mark. Upon signing with Columbia in 1982, he battled stories of erratic behavior and a consuming addiction to cocaine to emerge triumphant with Midnight Love, an assured comeback highlighted by the luminous Top Three hit “Sexual Healing.” The record made Gaye a star yet again, and in 1983 he made peace with Berry Gordy by appearing on a television special celebrating Motown’s silver anniversary. That same year, he also sang a soulful and idiosyncratic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game which instantly became one of the most controversial and legendary interpretations of the anthem ever performed; it was to be his final public appearance.
Gaye’s career resurgence brought with it an increased reliance on cocaine; finally, his personal demons forced him back to the U.S., where he moved in with his parents in an attempt to regain control of his life. Tragically, the return home only exacerbated his spiral into depression; he and his father quarrelled bitterly, and Gaye threatened suicide on a number of occasions. Finally, on the afternoon of April 1, 1984 – one day before his 45th birthday – Gaye was shot and killed by the Reverend Marvin Gay, Sr. in the aftermath of a heated argument. In the wake of his death, Motown and Columbia teamed to issue two 1985 collections of outtakes, Dream of a Lifetime – a compilation of erotic funk workouts teamed with spiritual ballads – and the big-band inspired Romantically Yours. (Vulnerable, a collection of ballads which took over 12 years to complete, finally saw release in 1996.) With Gaye’s death also came a critical re-evaluation of his work, which deemed What’s Going On to be one of the landmark albums in pop history, and his 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame permanently enshrined him among the pantheon of musical greats. – Jason Ankeny
(1) According to David Ritz and Steve Turner, Marvin Gaye nerver actually joined the Rainbows. Marvin himself said that he had auditioned to Don Covay but he got turned down. After that humiliation Marvin decided to never do auditions again.
Rhythm and blues singer, songwriter, and producer. Born June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. In his four decades in the music business, Mayfield helped bring a unique racial consciousness to popular music and introduced an innovative sound that greatly influenced following generations of musicians.
Mayfield began singing by the age of seven; he also taught himself to play guitar, led his own gospel and soul group, the Alphatones, and began composing music and writing lyrics before he was a teenager. In 1956, Mayfield moved with his family to the North Side of Chicago, where he met the singer Jerry Butler while performing in a church choir. Butler convinced the 14-year-old Mayfield to join his soul band, then called the Roosters. Two years later, after renaming itself the Impressions, the group scored a No. 11 hit with “For Your Precious Love.”
After Butler left the Impressions to pursue a solo career, the group reformed with Mayfield as its leader. Mayfield wrote the songs, produced the records, played guitar and sang lead. During the 1960s, the heyday of the Impressions, the group brought its potent mixture of gospel, soul, and doo-wop to a total of 14 Top 10 recordings, including “Gypsy Woman” and “It’s All Right.” In 1964, with the hit song “Keep on Pushing,” Mayfield became one of the first R&B singer-songwriters to bring a racial and political consciousness to his music. “Keep on Pushing,” along with other inspirational anthems such as “People Get Ready” and “I’m So Proud,” established Mayfield as one of the pioneers of soul music and as a singular voice of the civil rights movement.
In 1970, Mayfield began a solo career, recording a series of albums and working as a producer for artists like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and the Pips. His most memorable solo project was the classic 1972 funk albumSuperfly, the soundtrack to the hit “blaxploitation” film of the same name. Superfly was the No. 1 album on the pop charts for four weeks and solidified Mayfield’s legacy as one of the late-20th century’s most innovative songwriters and performers.
Though his popularity began to fade in the late 1970s with the rise of disco, Mayfield continued to record hopeful, inspirational music and tour actively in the United States, Europe, and Japan. In 1990, during an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, New York, a lighting scaffold fell on Mayfield; the accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. The amazingly indefatigable musician continued to compose and record music, learning to sing while lying flat on his back and letting gravity create the necessary pressure on his lungs. In 1996, the year after he received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, Mayfield released his final album, New World Order.
In the years following his accident, Mayfield’s health had continued to deteriorate, and in 1998 his right leg was amputated due to complications from diabetes. On December 26, 1999, Mayfield died at the age of 57. A two-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he gained admission with the Impressions in 1991 and as a solo performer in 1999), Mayfield had been living in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Altheida. He had 10 children and seven grandchildren.
His influence on other performers was undeniable. As early as the 1960s, performers like Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye had followed Mayfield’s lead and brought a new kind of social awareness to their music. In the 1990s, he inspired two different tribute albums (including 1994’s All Men are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, featuring Whitney Houston, Elton John, the Isley Brothers, and Aretha Franklin) and his songs were sampled or covered by a host of performers, from rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg, L.L. Cool J, Coolio, and Dr. Dre to singers like Herbie Hancock, Deneice Williams, En Vogue, and Mary J. Blige.
(born August 4, 1901, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.—died July 6, 1971, New York, New York) the leading trumpeter and one of the most influential artists in jazz history. (Click here for a video clip of Louis Armstrong playing “I Cover the Waterfront.”)
Armstrong grew up in dire poverty in New Orleans, Louisiana, when jazz was very young. As a child he worked at odd jobs and sang in a boys’ quartet. In 1913 he was sent to the Colored Waifs Home as a juvenile delinquent. There he learned to play cornet in the home’s band, and playing music quickly became a passion; in his teens he learned music by listening to the pioneer jazz artists of the day, including the leading New Orleans cornetist, King Oliver. Armstrong developed rapidly: he played in marching and jazz bands, becoming skillful enough to replace Oliver in the important Kid Ory band about 1918, and in the early 1920s he played in Mississippi riverboat dance bands.
Fame beckoned in 1922 when Oliver, then leading a band in Chicago, sent for Armstrong to play second cornet. Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was the apex of the early, contrapuntal New Orleans ensemble style, and it included outstanding musicians such as the brothers Johnny and Baby Dodds and pianist Lil Hardin, who married Armstrong in 1924. The young Armstrong became popular through his ingenious ensemble lead and second cornet lines, his cornet duet passages (called “breaks”) with Oliver, and his solos. He recorded his first solos as a member of the Oliver band in such pieces as “Chimes Blues” and “Tears,” which Lil and Louis Armstrong composed.
Encouraged by his wife, Armstrong quit Oliver’s band to seek further fame. He played for a year in New York City inFletcher Henderson’s band and on many recordings with others before returning to Chicago and playing in large orchestras. There he created his most important early works, the Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of 1925–28, on which he emerged as the first great jazz soloist. By then the New Orleans ensemble style, which allowed few solo opportunities, could no longer contain his explosive creativity. He retained vestiges of the style in such masterpieces as “Hotter than That,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Wild Man Blues,” and “Potato Head Blues” but largely abandoned it while accompanied by pianist Earl Hines (“West End Blues” and “Weather Bird”). By that time Armstrong was playing trumpet, and his technique was superior to that of all competitors. Altogether, his immensely compelling swing; his brilliant technique; his sophisticated, daring sense of harmony; his ever-mobile, expressive attack, timbre, and inflections; his gift for creating vital melodies; his dramatic, often complex sense of solo design; and his outsized musical energy and genius made these recordings major innovations in jazz.
Armstrong was a famous musician by 1929, when he moved from Chicago to New York City and performed in the theatre review Hot Chocolates. He toured America and Europe as a trumpet soloist accompanied by big bands; for several years beginning in 1935, Luis Russell’s big band served as the Louis Armstrong band. During this time he abandoned the often blues-based original material of his earlier years for a remarkably fine choice of popular songs by such noted composers as Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington. With his new repertoire came a new, simplified style: he created melodic paraphrases and variations as well as chord-change-based improvisations on these songs. His trumpet range continued to expand, as demonstrated in the high-note showpieces in his repertoire. His beautiful tone and gift for structuring bravura solos with brilliant high-note climaxes led to such masterworks as “That’s My Home,” “Body and Soul,” and “Star Dust.” One of the inventors of scat singing, he began to sing lyrics on most of his recordings, varying melodies or decorating with scat phrases in a gravel voice that was immediately identifiable. Although he sang such humorous songs as “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train,” he also sang many standard songs, often with an intensity and creativity that equaled those of his trumpet playing.
Louis and Lil Armstrong separated in 1931. From 1935 to the end of his life, Armstrong’s career was managed by Joe Glaser, who hired Armstrong’s bands and guided his film career (beginning with Pennies from Heaven, 1936) and radio appearances. Though his own bands usually played in a more conservative style, Armstrong was the dominant influence on the swing era, when most trumpeters attempted to emulate his inclination to dramatic structure, melody, or technical virtuosity. Trombonists, too, appropriated Armstrong’s phrasing, and saxophonists as different as Coleman Hawkins and Bud Freeman modeled their styles on different aspects of Armstrong’s. Above all else, his swing-style trumpet playing influenced virtually all jazz horn players who followed him, and the swing and rhythmic suppleness of his vocal style were important influences on singers from Billie Holiday to Bing Crosby.
In most of Armstrong’s movie, radio, and television appearances, he was featured as a good-humoured entertainer. He played a rare dramatic role in the film New Orleans(1947), in which he also performed in a Dixieland band. This prompted the formation of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, a Dixieland band that at first included such other jazz greats as Hines and trombonist Jack Teagarden. For most of the rest of Armstrong’s life, he toured the world with changing All-Stars sextets; indeed, “Ambassador Satch” in his later years was noted for his almost nonstop touring schedule. It was the period of his greatest popularity; he produced hit recordings such as “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly!” and outstanding albums such as his tributes to W.C. Handy and Fats Waller. In his last years ill health curtailed his trumpet playing, but he continued as a singer. His last film appearance was in Hello, Dolly! (1969).
More than a great trumpeter, Armstrong was a bandleader, singer, soloist, film star, and comedian. One of his most remarkable feats was his frequent conquest of the popular market with recordings that thinly disguised authentic jazz with Armstrong’s contagious humour. He nonetheless made his greatest impact on the evolution of jazz itself, which at the start of his career was popularly considered to be little more than a novelty. With his great sensitivity, technique, and capacity to express emotion, Armstrong not only ensured the survival of jazz but led in its development into a fine art.