The Washington Post
Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gayeby Michael Eric Dyson
The best-selling Motown artist of all time, Marvin Gaye defined the hopes and shattered dreams of an entire generation. Twenty years after his tragic death-he was shot by his father-his relevance persists because of the indelible mark his outsized talent left on American culture. A transcendent performer whose career spanned the history of rhythm and blues, from doo-wop to the sultriest of soul music, Gaye's artistic scope and emotional range set the soundtrack for America's tumultuous coming of age in the 1970s. Michael Eric Dyson's searching narrative illuminates Marvin Gaye's stellar ascendance-from a black church in Washington, D.C., to the artistic peak of What's Going On?-and charts his sobering personal decline. Dyson draws from interviews with those closest to Gaye to paint an intimate portrait of the tensions and themes that shaped contemporary urban America: racism, drug abuse, economic adversity, and the long legacy of hardship. Gaye's stormy relationships with women, including duet partner Tammi Terrell and wives Anna Gordy and Janis Hunter, are examined in light of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Dyson also considers family violence in the larger context of the African-American life and how that heartbreaking legacy resulted in Gaye's murder. Mercy, Mercy, Me is an unforgettable portrait of a beloved black genius whose art is reflected in the dynamism of contemporary urban America.
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Mercy, Mercy MeThe Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye
By Michael Eric Dyson
BASIC CIVITAS BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Michael Eric Dyson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Stubborn Kind of Fellow" The Search for a Style
The best-selling Motown artist of all time, Marvin Gaye also transcended the boundaries of rhythm and blues as no other performer has ever done. In 2003, his seminal album What's Going On took the number six spot on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums"-nestled between the Beatles' Rubber Soul and the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. Gaye was the only black artist to crack the top ten from that bastion of white rock and roll.
Twenty years after his death, how can we better understand the true achievements of this genius, the loves that inspired him, and the demons that haunted him until his untimely end?
The world into which Gaye was born in Washington, D.C.-much like the world in which his music would resonate-was torn by racial conflict. The Washington Post that appeared on April 2, 1939, the day of Gaye's birth, printed a brief article about the upcoming congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution-which had just barred opera star Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall. The paper noted that the group still anticipated being received at the White House despite the "late unpleasantness" of the Anderson snub. The Post also included an essay by Louis M. Jiggitts, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In "The South's Problems," printed on the op-ed page, Jiggitts claimed that the relationship "between the races throughout the South is not one of tension: on the contrary, it is one of friendliness, justice, and humanity." Jiggitts argued that regardless of "attempts to prove otherwise, the Negro in the South is not unhappy, but on the whole is more contented than many of those who live in other sections of the Nation." Despite his dishonest sentiments, Jiggitts managed to capture the plight of many blacks, including Gaye's family, when he wrote that poverty "stalks the streets of our greatest cities" and "rears its ugly head in our Nation's Capital."
These same forces of poverty and racial conflict shaped the young Gaye's life. Marvin was the second of four children born to Rev. Marvin P. Gay, Sr., and his wife, Alberta Gay, in a Washington, D.C. housing project. (Marvin added the "e" when he began to sing professionally, to avoid his surname's association with homosexuality.) Marvin's father was a strict Pentecostal pastor who believed in firm discipline and severe corporal punishment to keep his children-including older sister Jeanne, younger siblings Frankie and Zeola-in line. Marvin got the worse of the beatings administered to Rev. Gay's brood: he was rebellious, outspoken, and deeply resentful of his tough treatment at the hands of his father. Alberta often got on her knees and prayed with Jeanne that Rev. Gay would stop beating Marvin. But the beatings continued, often with Rev. Gay increasing the psychological terror by making Marvin wait an hour or more after telling him he would be whipped. As it turned out, Marvin was also a gifted musician and singer who began performing in his father's church at the tender age of two. Since Rev. Gay earned very little as a pastor, his wife was the family's chief breadwinner, working as a domestic in Maryland and Virginia. Nevertheless, he physically and psychologically abused his wife and children.
As they got older, the Gay children were prohibited from enjoying too much camaraderie with the neighborhood children, largely a function of Pentecostal religious practices-for instance, they subscribed to a branch of faith that worshipped on Saturday. Still, Marvin managed to forge relations with a few friends, some of whom would later join him in his local musical adventures in doo-wop groups as a teen. He excelled with his musical gifts, gaining confidence in his vocal abilities and in his skill on the piano and drums. Marvin entered talent contests at junior high school, singing not his father's religious music, but the sweet strains of popular singers like Johnny Ray. He listened to black musical greats such as Jesse Belvin and Nat King Cole, while also admiring the likes of Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. Marvin's early ambition to sing popular standards-rather than R & B-began during this time.
When Marvin entered Cardozo High School, he met other teens who loved music and formed a group that included Reese Palmer, Sondra Lattisaw, James Hopps, Vernon Christian, and Leon MacMickens. As the DC Tones, they sang doo-wop, a fact that greatly displeased Rev. Gay, who looked with disdain on the "boogie-woogie" music. Marvin had become a tall, handsome youth who was polite and painfully shy. He desired to participate in athletics, but his father didn't allow his children a great deal of freedom on the streets. Still, Marvin managed to sneak to matinee shows at the Howard Theater to see black stars like Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, the Spaniels, the Dells, the Platters, and James Brown. Marvin was awed by their fame and freedom and vowed to be bigger than them all.
As Marvin experienced growing tension at home-his father's merciless beatings began to let up, only to increase the psychic terror he imposed-he realized he would never fulfill his artistic potential if he remained in his father's vicious orbit. At 17, a year before graduation, Marvin dropped out of school and joined the Air Force. But the military proved to be as equally disastrous as it was chafing under the brutality of his father. Marvin didn't adapt well to authority, and found himself constantly challenging his superiors. He joined the military in Virginia and underwent basic training in San Antonio, Texas, before going to Cheyenne, Wyoming for further training. He was soon sent to Kansas to peel potatoes for Food Supply, which increased his feelings of humiliation. He began to frequent the nightclubs in the area, and had his first sexual experience at a local black whorehouse. In the meantime, Marvin reported late to duty several times, and otherwise bucked the authority of his commanders. He was arrested one night by the Military Police for being in an "unauthorized area." Finally, after an abysmal record of "continually absent[ing] himself without permission," Marvin was given an honorable discharge less than a year after he joined the Air Force.
Marvin returned to Washington and his family, but he only stayed a few days. He could no longer abide his father's controlling and abusive behavior, and moved in with a female friend, "Peasie" Adams, who was married and living in a nearby apartment. His old friend Reese Palmer from the DC Tones was busy organizing another group, assembled from local singers, and invited Marvin to join them. Their group was named the Marquees. Soon after forming in 1957, they had a meeting with famed singer Bo Didley, who was dating a mutual friend. Didley introduced the Marquees to the Okeh label, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. Palmer had written a song, "Wyatt Earp," and on the strength of his composition, the group was offered a contract from Columbia. Since Marvin was under 21, he needed a guardian's approval to sign the contract. Rev. Gay refused, and forbade his wife from signing, too. Not to be deterred, Reese Palmer forged Rev. Gay's signature, and the Marquees were under contract.
"Wyatt Earp" failed to become a hit, and the group had to seek employment to support their music. Marvin became a caddy for local golf-courses, and took on a second job with Palmer at a Washington commissary, where the duo was eventually fired for singing on the job. In the People's Drug Store, Marvin encountered racism in public for the first time since his days in the military-he was kicked out because it served whites. Although his life in the black ghetto had been shaped by white supremacy, this was Marvin's first face-to-face encounter with the institution of bigotry.
But fate smiled on Marvin and his comrades when they met up with the Moonglows, a famed doo-wop group that came to town for a week-long engagement at the Howard Theater. Marvin managed his way backstage and pleaded with Moonglows leader Harvey Fuqua to listen to the Marquees. As soon as he heard them, Fuqua was convinced of their talent, and Marvin's timing couldn't have been better-the Moonglows were torn by internal discord and were on the verge of breaking up. When the group disbanded, Fuqua hired the Marquees to form the new group Harvey and the Moonglows.
Marvin moved with his musical mates to Chicago, where Harvey rehearsed the group and sharpened their musical instincts and deepened their harmonic vocabularies. It was while he toured and rehearsed that Marvin honed and shaped his trademark background harmonies. After putting them through their paces, Harvey taught the group the Moonglows' old songs, and led his new charges on tours across the nation. Marvin got his first taste of real freedom, and even began to smoke pot and enjoy sex with women he'd meet on the road. One night, the group was busted for possessing drugs, which-along with the change in popular musical tastes in R & B from doo-wop to a harder sound-lead very shortly to their demise. But Harvey, as before, was angling to take Marvin, the most vocally gifted of the group, and use him to land even bigger contacts. Fuqua had already been hired by Leonard Chess, of Chess Records, to help Anna Records, a Detroit label it had been distributing. Anna Records was owned by Billy Davis and his girlfriend Gwen Gordy. The label was named after Gwen's sister Anna. One of Davis's writing partners was Berry Gordy, who started Motown Records in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family.
Harvey and the Moonglows' last shows occurred in 1959 at Detroit's Twenty Grand Club. Fuqua invited Billy Davis and Gwen and Berry Gordy to watch the Moonglows perform. Berry Gordy had already written some hits-including "Reet Peteet" for Jackie Wilson-and Fuqua was strategizing to lure the dynamic songwriter with his musical bait, Marvin Gaye. That night, Marvin met Anna Gordy, who eventually became his first wife, even though she was 17 years his senior. Marvin and Anna shared a passionate, stormy, and complex relationship. At times, their love turned violent, and they engaged in some very public spats and even physically fought each other. Both also were guilty of infidelity, even as they continued to proclaim a strong love.
Later, at the first Christmas party for Tamla, a Motown label, Berry was urged by Gwen (who would later marry Fuqua) to meet the young man whose phenomenal gifts were already creating a buzz. Marvin played "Mr. Sandman" for Gordy, who was immediately impressed by the young singer. In his autobiography, To Be Loved, Gordy determined right there that he wanted Marvin on his label, but he didn't tell him immediately. He didn't know how they'd get along, and he had to keep the upper hand. Eventually Fuqua, without Marvin's knowledge, sold his interest in Gaye to Gordy. Marvin was now a Motown artist. And it was at Motown that Marvin's incredible musical talents, as a collaborator and as a soloist, would flourish.
* * *
To understand Marvin Gaye's majestic achievements, one must grasp a seeming contradiction: he produced his best music in collaboration with others. "The genius of Marvin Gaye is the genius of those of us who were able to collaborate with him and help him to achieve his goals," says Art Stewart, a superb engineer who worked with Gaye on some of his finest recordings. Gaye's collaborations took many forms. He reworked words to a song begun by a fellow lyricist. He completed vocal gestures hinted at by another singer. He tapped into the energy and extended the vibration of another musician. He mapped musical secrets locked in his own soul through the charts of a composer, since he could neither read nor write music. He pried loose deeper dimensions of his sensuality in partnership with sensitive producers. Or he lay prostrate on a couch singing in the studio as an engineer captured an artist exploring his multiple voices. In all of these ways and more, Marvin's art thrived on communal cooperation.
"You can't touch what Marvin did," says Harry Weinger, a Universal/Motown VP whose prodigious scholarship in the company's vaults has produced deluxe editions of three of Gaye's classic albums: What's Going On, Let's Get It On, and I Want You. "But I think I understand why he found it so inviting to work with other people. I love to write, but it's a struggle. If you give me something somebody has already written, I love to edit it; I can work that thing up and make it go. With Marvin, I think his mind was at times distracted, since he was full of so much that he couldn't quite focus. When Leon Ware, for instance, brought him a melody and charts and an idea [for I Want You], it helped him to focus and say, 'I can work with that.'"
Marvin's methods of creation appear to echo Berry Gordy's efforts to harness the musical genius of urban black America. Gordy sought to transform the blueprint of Henry Ford's automobile empire into an ebony musical kingdom. Motown Records Corporation adapted the assembly line as a metaphor for producing hit records. Gordy fixed on elements that made cars and musical careers sleek and appealing: regularity and efficiency of production; mechanical and technical brilliance wed to aesthetic value; the elevation of a system that, with few exceptions, credits the product, not its creators; and an obsessive attention to quality control. In the flawed genius of both Ford and Gordy, the quality of their control was paramount.
But Gaye's outsized talent and ferocious hunger for independence routinely cut against Gordy's formula, especially in his mature artistry. Marvin's career can be divided in many ways-solo efforts versus duets with female singers; the sides he recorded with the legendary team of Holland-Dozier-Holland in contrast to his work for gifted songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield; or his sixties music versus his seventies-era songs. But the simplest way to chart his artistic freedom is to consider the event that separated both territory and time in Gaye's musical universe: the 1971 release of What's Going On, arguably the greatest pop album ever recorded. Before that album, Gaye bitterly fought to abide by his rules. After its release, even though he still raged against the machine, his eccentric path was oiled by the recognition that, at least for a spell, the Zeitgeist rested on his book of musical prophecy. He was Hegel with a downbeat. (Of course, it can't be denied that the seismic shift in Gaye's perception in the culture with that album may at times obscure the compelling work he did before and after his signal achievement.)
Excerpted from Mercy, Mercy Me by Michael Eric Dyson Copyright © 2004 by Michael Eric Dyson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Eric Dyson, named by Ebony as one of the hundred most influential black Americans, is the author of sixteen books, including Holler if You Hear Me, Is Bill Cosby Right? and I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. He is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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I finished in book in 6 days. I'm 21 years old, so its obvious Gaye was before my time. I didn't know too much about him besides some of his greatest hits, but this book did a great job of letting me know what was behind those, as well as other songs in his life. Dyson was able to tie together Gaye's sensuality and sprituality in a way that made it very interesting to read. I feel like I learned a lot about Marvin Gaye in this one book that I wouldn't be able to learn about him in other books written by other people.