Gaye was born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. and added the "e" to imitate Sam Cooke, who did the same; he was born in Washington, DC, son of an ordained minister in the House of God, a conservative Christian sect which takes some elements of Pentecostalism and Orthodox Judaism. The church has very strict codes of conduct and does not celebrate any holidays. Gaye got his start singing in the church choir, later learning to play the piano and drums to escape from his physically abusive father.
After high school, Gaye joined the United States Air Force and then, after being discharged, joined several doo wop groups, settling on the Rainbows, a popular local group in DC. With Bo Diddley, the Rainbows released a single, "Wyatt Earp" (1958, Okeh) and were then recruited by Harvey Fuqua to become the Moonglows. "Mama Loocie" (1959, Chess Records) was Gaye's first single with the Moonglows. After a concert in Detroit, Michigan, Gaye was recruited for a solo career by Berry Gordy Jr. of Motown Records.
As a session drummer, Gaye worked with Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, among other groups, and eventually married Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy's sister in 1961. Gaye released three unsuccessful singles until his fourth attempt, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" (1962) became a minor hit, as were 1963's "Hitch Hike" and "Can I Get a Witness".
"Pride and Joy" (1963) became a smash hit, but Gaye began feeling discontented with the role he felt Motown Records kept him locked in, as a romantic balladeer and crooner, aiming always for chart success in the singles market. Together (1964) was Gaye's first charting album, and included some hit singles. By 1965, he had released 39 Top 40 songs for Motown, many of them duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell. Terrell and Gaye had several massive hits such as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (1967), "Your Precious Love" (1967), "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" (1968) and "You're All I Need to Get By" (1968).
After Gaye hit the charts with his biggest hit, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", Terrell collapsed onstage in Virginia from a then-undiagnosed brain tumor which killed her in 1970. Meanwhile, Gaye's marriage was crumbling and he continued to feel irrelevant, singing endlessly about love while popular music underwent a revolution and began addressing social and political issues.
As a result, Gaye released What's Going On in 1971, becoming one of the most memorable soul albums of the time and memorable for including elements of jazz and classical music, as well as a then-unheard of political and social statements discussing environmentalism, political corruptions and drug abuse, as well as the Vietnam War. Gaye was inspired to write about the war by his brother, Frankie Gay, who had just returned from the front lines. Gordy refused to release the album when he first heard it, though he eventually gave in. The album ended up having three Top Ten singles.
1973's Let's Get It On was a sexually and romantically charged album that was very successful on the charts. Gaye teamed up with Diana Ross for Marvin and Diana and then released I Want You by himself as his marriage finally ended in 1975. As part of the divorce settlement, Gaye agreed to record a new album and remit a portion of the royalties to Anna as alimony; the result was 1978's Here, My Dear, a deeply personal album that was so detailed that Anna Gordy considered suing him for invading her privacy. After a failed single and a rapidly failing new marriage, Gaye moved to Hawaii; tax problems forced Gaye to move to Europe in 1981.
In Europe, Gaye began working on In Our Lifetime, a complex and deep record which wound up ending his relationship with Motown. He signed with Columbia Records in 1982 and released Midnight Love while battling a cocaine addiction. This album included "Sexual Healing", one of Gaye's most famous songs. His refound fame pushed Gaye even deeper into drug addiction and he attempted to isolate himself by moving into his parent's house. He threatened to commit suicide several times after numerous bitter arguments with his father, Marvin Pentz Gay Sr. On April 1, 1984, one day before his 45th birthday, Gaye was shot and killed by his father in an argument, becoming a famous victim of justifiable filicide. After some posthumous releases cemented his memory in the popular consciousness, Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His father died of pneumonia in 1998.
Even before Gaye died, there had already been tributes to the singer. In 1983, the British group Spandau Ballet recorded the single True as a partial tribute to both Gaye and the Motown sound he established. A year after his death (in 1985), The Commodores made reference to Gaye's death in their song Night Shift. And in 1999 the R & B world paid its respects to Gaye in a tribute album, Marvin Is 60.