The triumph and tragedy of Marvin Gaye
New biography explores singer's 'Art, Loves & Demons'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- You have to start with the voice.
Marvin Gaye's voice was a remarkably versatile instrument, sometimes gossamer, sometimes guttural, always expressive and emotional.
It could sound angrily bereft ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine"), fatalistic ("That's the Way Love Is"), rapturous ("You're All I Need to Get By"), carefree ("Too Busy Thinking About My Baby"), sadly perplexed ("What's Going On"), cold-hearted ("The End of Our Road") and -- perhaps most famously -- meltingly, yearningly erotic, as on one of the most celebrated love-man songs ever, "Let's Get It On."
Away from the voice, there was the face, handsome and matinee-idol smooth, and the sheer talent. Gaye was a fine drummer, a terrific pianist and a natural arranger, multiplying his vocals to summon forth the doo-wop bands and gospel choirs of his youth. His vocal mannerisms have been widely influential: Listen to a Michael Jackson "hooo!" and you're hearing Marvin Gaye.
And yet, as Michael Eric Dyson observes in his new biography, "Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye" (Basic Books) -- or, as Dyson calls it, a "work of bio-criticism" -- Gaye was a troubled man.
His father, a Pentecostal preacher, beat him; an uncle sodomized him, according to the book; he had two messy marriages and lost his great singing partner (and romantic interest, according to Dyson's sources), Tammi Terrell, to a brain tumor; and he was forever torn between sex and God, a duality that emerged triumphantly in his music but sent the singer into a maelstrom of drug abuse.
He was a flawed genius.
"As the son of a preacher ... he was deeply imbued with the love ethic. ... Love God and love your neighbors," says Dyson, himself an ordained clergyman as well as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The socially conscious album "What's Going On," Dyson observes, "was as complete a sermon as you hear in church."
And yet, given his strict upbringing, Gaye was caught in a "sturm und drang ... singing the devil's music," Dyson says. "That tension -- that yearning and desire -- all that's attributable to the stormy passions [of his youth]."
Making it look easy
Author Michael Eric Dyson sees Gaye's life as symbolic of greater forces.
Dyson sees Gaye's life as symbolic of many struggles, particularly those of the African-American male. With the unearthing of old recordings and new information about the singer, as well as the 20th anniversary of his death in April, Dyson believed the time was right for a discussion of Gaye's legacy.
"I wanted to look at the way he made music, how he applied his craftsmanship, what were his motivating passions and the demons with which he struggled," says the author, who's also written books exploring the impact of Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Gaye made music look easy, Dyson says. Indeed, the singer who became a jewel in Motown's crown originally wanted to be a balladeer, singing standards in the mold of Frank Sinatra.
"He could range across a number of genres within pop music with a facility, an ease that undermined the appreciation of his achievements," he says.
But there was little room for a black crooner in early '60s America, Nat King Cole the exception (and he had his own racial battles to fight). So Gaye was drawn into R&B.
Still, Gaye's creativity could not be put in a box, not even in the Motown assembly line to which Gaye was tied more closely than most: He was married to Anna Gordy, Motown founder Berry Gordy's sister.
"Gaye was rebellious," says Dyson. "He wrote an album about his ex-wife -- 'Here, My Dear' -- who was the boss' sister, to fulfill the [financial] terms of his divorce. Now, that's rebellious."
Going to extremes
Gaye's 1971 album, "What's Going On," addressed social concerns with brutal honesty.
Gaye also famously pushed to have the 1971 album, "What's Going On," put out his way or no way at all.
The song "What's Going On" addressed social concerns head on -- rare for Motown -- and had a loose, jazzy feel that departed from the Motown sound. Gordy disliked it and put it on the shelf. In response, Gaye told the company "he wouldn't record another note until the company put out his single," Dyson writes.
Finally, in January 1971, the song was quietly released. It became a smash.
Now the label begged for an album. Gaye gave them one, but only after Motown agreed to give him creative control. What emerged was a masterpiece -- the album ranks in Rolling Stone's top 10 greatest albums of all time -- all the more amazing for being recorded in 10 days.
Even as Gaye grew as an artist, Dyson observes, he was giving in to drug use. To an extent, Dyson blames Gaye's addiction on his abusive upbringing and the singer's determination to escape the pain.
"There was a desire to leap beyond the parameters of the flesh," Dyson says. "It was drugs or spirituality. Marvin could go to either extreme, and he pursued them with vigor."
Gaye was slain 20 years ago this past April. He had made a comeback with the song "Sexual Healing" and found some peace in Europe. With his mother ill, however, Gaye returned to the United States to stay with his parents. He blew his money on dope; his father drank 100-proof vodka. "A chemical maelstrom was waiting to descend," Dyson says.
In the end, Gaye was killed by his father, shot by his own gun -- a weapon he'd given his father for safety -- the day before his 45th birthday. It is a death fit for a Greek tragedy.
If Gaye had lived, if he had somehow escaped ill fate, Dyson says he believes he would still be changing music.
"I suspect he would have recreated himself in the kind of ways others have," he says. "He would have made a tremendous standards album. ... He would have found a way to remain relevant."