He quit high school before graduation and joined the Air Force, only to be discharged. "My discharge was honourable", Marvin said, "although it plainly stated, 'Marvin Gay cannot adjust to regimentation and authority.'"
Marvin abandoned a place in his father's church choir to team up with Don Covay and Billy Stewart in the R&B vocal group, "the Rainbows". In 1957, he joined the "Marquees", who recorded for Chess Records under the guidance of Bo Diddley. The following year the group was taken under the wing of producer and singer Harvey Fuqua, who used them to re-form his doo-wop outfit, the Moonglows. When Fuqua moved to Detroit in 1960, Gay went with him and Fuqua soon joined forces with Berry Gordy at Motown, and Marvin became a session drummer and vocalist for the label.
In 1961, Marvin Gay married Berry Gordy's sister, Anna and was offered a solo recording contract. Renamed Marvin Gaye, with an "e" on the end of his name, he began his career as a jazz balladeer, but in 1962 he was persuaded to record some R&B, and notched up his first hit single with the confident "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow", a Top 10 hit. This record set the style for the next three years, as Gaye enjoyed hits with a series of dance-flavoured songs that cast him as a smooth, macho, Don Juan figure. He scored again in 1963 with "Can I Get A Witness," which hit No. 22 on the Billboard pop singles chart. Later that year, the single "Pride And Joy" hit No. 10, but Gaye was already feeling the strain of Motown's insatiable commercial aims. He also continued to work behind the scenes at Motown, co-writing Martha And The Vandellas' hit "Dancing In The Street", and playing drums on several early recordings by Little Stevie Wonder. In 1965, Gaye dropped the call-and-response vocal arrangements of his earlier hits and began to record in a more sophisticated style. The striking "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" epitomized his new direction, and it was followed by two successive R&B number 1 hits, "I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Peculiar". His status as Motown's best-selling male vocalist left him free to pursue more esoteric avenues on his albums, which in 1965 included a tribute to the late Nat 'King' Cole and a misguided collection of Broadway standards.
To capitalize on his image as a ladies' man, Motown teamed Gaye with their leading female vocalist, Mary Wells, for some romantic duets. When Wells left Motown in 1964, Gaye recorded with Kim Weston until 1967, when she was succeeded by Tammi Terrell. The Gaye/Terrell partnership represented the classic soul duet, as their voices blended sensually on a string of hits written specifically for them by Ashford and Simpson, including "Your Precious Love" (No. 5 in 1967) and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (No. 8 in 1968). Terrell developed a brain tumour in 1968, and collapsed onstage in Gaye's arms. Records continued to be issued under the duo's name, although others allegedly took Terrell's place on some recordings.
Through the mid-60s, Gaye allowed his duet recordings to take precedence over his solo work, but in 1968 he recorded "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", a song originally released on Motown by Gladys Knight And The Pips, although Gaye's version had actually been recorded first. With its tense, ominous rhythm arrangement, and Gaye's typically fluent and emotional vocal, the record represented a landmark in Motown's history as it became the label's biggest-selling record to date. Gaye followed up with another number 1 R&B hit, "Too Busy Thinking 'Bout My Baby", but his career was derailed by the eventual death of Tammi Terrell in March 1970.
Devastated by the loss of his close friend and partner, Gaye spent most of 1970 in seclusion. The following year, he emerged with a set of recordings that Motown at first refused to release, but which eventually formed his most successful solo album. On "What's Going On", a number 1 hit in 1971, and its two chart-topping follow-ups, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues", Gaye combined his spiritual beliefs with his increasing concern about poverty, discrimination and political corruption in American society. To match the shift in subject matter, Gaye evolved a new musical style that influenced a generation of black performers. Built on a heavily percussive base, Gaye's arrangements mingled jazz and classical influences into his soul roots, creating a fluid instrumental backdrop for his sensual, almost despairing vocals. The three singles were all contained on "What's Going On", a conceptual masterpiece on which every track contributed to the spiritual yearning suggested by its title.
Paradoxically, he continued to let Motown market him in a traditional fashion by agreeing to collaborate with Diana Ross on an album of duets in 1973 - although the two singers allegedly did not actually meet during the recording of the project. The break-up of his marriage to Anna Gordy in 1975 delayed work on his next album. "I Want You" was merely a pleasant reworking of the "Let's Get It On" set, albeit cast in slightly more contemporary mode. The title track was another number 1 hit on the soul charts, as was his 1977 disco extravaganza, "Got To Give It Up". Drug problems and tax demands slowed his career, and in 1978 he fled the U.S. mainland to Hawaii, in a vain attempt to salvage his second marriage. Gaye devoted the next year to the "Here My Dear" double album, a bitter commentary on his relationship with his first wife. Its title was ironic: he had been ordered to give all royalties from the project to Anna as part of their divorce settlement.
With this trouble behind him, Gaye began work on an album to be called "Lover Man", but he cancelled its release after the lukewarm sales of its initial single, the sharply self-mocking "Ego Tripping Out", which he had presented as a duet between the warring sides of his nature. In 1980, under increasing pressure from the Internal Revenue Service, Gaye moved to Europe where he began work on an ambitious concept album, "In Our Lifetime?". When it emerged in 1981, Gaye accused Motown of remixing and editing the album without his consent, of removing a vital question-mark from the title, and of parodying his original cover artwork. The relationship between artist and record company had been shattered, and Gaye left Motown for Columbia Records in 1982. Persistent reports of his erratic personal conduct and reliance on cocaine fuelled pessimism about his future , but instead he re-emerged in 1982 with a startling single, "Sexual Healing", which combined his passionate soul vocals with a contemporary electro-disco backing. The subsequent album, "Midnight Love", offered no equal surprises, but the success of the single seemed to herald a new era in Gaye's music.
He returned to the USA, where he took up residence at his parents' home. The intensity of his cocaine addiction made it impossible for him to work on another album, and he fell into a prolonged bout of depression. He repeatedly announced his wish to commit suicide in the early weeks of 1984, and his abrupt shifts of mood brought him into heated conflict with his father, rekindling animosity that had festered since Gaye's adolescence.
On April 1, 1984, in his parents Los Angeles home, Marvin physically attacked his father for verbally abusing his mother. Gay Sr. responded by shooting his son, once in the shoulder, the second to the chest - using a gun that Marvin himself had given him four months earlier - thus putting to rest a bitter, life-long father and son struggle. Marvin Senior was arrested, tried and convicted, but was sentenced to only six years probation after a judge ruled the case "self defence". He died of pneumonia in 1998.
Motown and Columbia collaborated to produce two albums based on Gaye's unfinished recordings. "Dream Of A Lifetime" mixed spiritual ballads from the early 70s with sexually explicit funk songs from a decade later, while "Romantically Yours" offered a travesty of Gaye's original intentions in 1979 to record an album of big band ballads.
Although Gaye's catalogue is often thought of as a quartet of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", "Sexual Healing", "What's Going On" and "Let's Get It On", his entire recorded output signifies the development of black music from raw rhythm and blues, through sophisticated soul to the political awareness of the early 70s, and the increased concentration on personal and sexual politics thereafter. Gaye's remarkable vocal range and fluency remains a touchstone for all subsequent soul vocalists, and his "lover man" stance has been frequently copied as well as parodied.
On June 19, 2007, Hip-O Records reissued Gaye's final Motown album, "In Our Lifetime" as a two-disc set.
In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Marvin Gaye at number 6 on their list of the Greatest Singers of All Time, and placed him at number 18 on their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. He was also ranked at number 20 on VH1's list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. That same year, Marvin Gaye earned $3.5 million and took 13th place on Forbes Magazine's 'Top-Earning Dead Celebrities' list. His hit duet with Tammi Terrell, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", was voted a Legendary Michigan Song in 2011.