Reji’s father was a high-ranking official in the then famous Punalur Paper Mills. Being an old-fashioned Christian, as far as he was concerned music was something that you sang as devotionals only after the evening prayers and in the church on Sundays. His only goal in life was raising the children ‘properly’ to become officers. But Reji at his age of twelve, desired to learn Carnatic music! It shocked his father like a bomb blast. Has anyone brought up in Kerala’s Marthoma Church tradition ever learned Carnatic music? He had never heard of it! What will the world come to if a true Christian takes to singing ‘Vaataapi Ganapatim Bhaje’ and ‘Paahimaam Shree Rajarajeshwari’? Reji was sternly warned.
After a year or so he thought of another way to learn music. He desired to own a Harmonium. The plus-point was Harmonium comes with music which does not have any devotional ‘lines’ attached to it. But his father mercilessly quelled that desire also. He told him in unmistakable terms that the cursed thing called Harmonium shall not darken his doors.
Many years later when I met Reji in his room in Lala Guda of Hyderabad he was surrounded by piles of music instruments. Different types of Electronic keyboards, Tablas, Dholaks, Harmonium and Guitars literally littered the place. The room walls were plastered with pictures of international music stars. Reji had become a famous Western Guitarist of Hyderabad and an expert in pop music among the aficionados of Western music in Hyderabad. He had learnt everything on his own. What more! He had a Western Music Band of his own!
I became Reji’s friend first and next his roommate. By then his mother and brothers had settled down in United States of America. They had asked him to go to America to settle there. But he had refused. He used to say that America was not the land of his dreams. The identity he loved was that of a Western musician living in India. He accepted the parcels used to come from his brothers now and then, containing valuable audio cassettes of Western Music. Thus he kept on adding to his already formidable collection of western music. We spent marvelous days and nights living and listening to all that music. That was how I came to listen and love the music of all those great Western music artistes that was rarely available in India in those days.
Though we loved to listen to almost all genres of music, we were particularly impressed by the soulfulness and deep emotional highs of Afro American music. Our taste and appreciation covered a vast expanse of music from Aretha Franklin to Nina Simone to Ella Fitzgerald, from Ray Charles to Chuck Berry to Stevie Wonder. But from among them, Reji and I found Marvin Gaye was a particularly unique singer. His Soul Music filling our dark and sultry small room late in the night, transported us to unknown lands that can only be traversed through music.
For more than a century Afro American music has become an inalienable part of everyday American life and its important cultural accomplishment. Its forms are many from the Gospel Music, Blues, Jazz, Rock n’ Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Soul to the current Hip Hop. The early Afro American music had evolved from the songs of the slave labourers, counting African folk traditions as its roots. Through this music the black slaves exchanged their sad tales, preserved the unbroken thread of their tragic history and finally retained and raised themselves as a sane society.
Preponderant majority of Afro American slaves took to Christianity and it was only natural that they brought their rich traditions of music to the Church. Thus an Afro American music that was devotion-oriented took shape and remains alive, truly lively and well to this day. Today this is known as Gospel music. But, increasingly its religious identity is getting eroded and lyrics are being set to music for their sheer artistic enjoyment. Gospel music songs are being released with pure market-orientation. We can cite the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Caesar, James Cleveland, Donnie McClurkin, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Yolanda Adams, Whitney Huston et all are important Gospel singers.
Music that evolved from the depression, the sorrow, the anger, the grinding poverty and yearnings that Afro Americans experienced in their movement against oppression was called the ‘Blues’. Blues songs are great examples to illustrate the saying that ‘deeply moving songs are the saddest’. W.C.Handy, Robert Johnson, Gary Davis and Mamie Smith can be described as the pioneers who developed Blues genre of music. Bessie Smith, B.B.Kings, John Lee Hooker, Diana Washington, Sarah Vaughan are all frontline singers of Blues.
During this development of Afro American music a new tradition of music evolved, that was both creative and capable of expressing diverse emotions. It was a genre that can be rendered with imaginative impromptu elaborations. It was ‘Jazz’. Though it was basically rooted in ‘Blues’, ‘Jazz’ incorporated many types of scores and beats within itself and made extensive use of stringed instruments, brass instruments and drums to elaborate itself. Jazz caught the imagination and the tastes of most Americans. Jazz exponents like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday and Miles Davis became names that were widely popular everywhere. The contribution of these great artistes to American music is immeasurable.
Rock n’ Roll was the result of waves created in the American taste for music in the 1940s by these Afro American traditions of music. It had a fast beat and pattern of music that suited dances. Rock n’ Roll was a form that swayed to two electric guitars, the Lead Guitar and the Rhythm Guitar. Jazz drums also join in to set the trend. In the early stages of its evolution the Double Bass was used for the base. Piano and Saxophone were also played as frontline instruments. In 1950s Electric Guitar took their place. The snare drum always played a fast beat. Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richards were the pioneers of Rock n’ Roll. Elvis Presley, though not an Afro American was considered the King of Rock n’ Roll and was called the ‘White man with the voice of a Black’.
It was also at this point of time the Afro American genre of music called Rhythm & Blues was formed combining the musical features of Gospel music, Blues and Jazz. To this day R & B remains a popular genre of music. Ray Charles, James Brown and Stevie Wonder are the pioneers of R & B. Tony Braxton, Whitney Huston, Mary J. Blige, Maria Carey, Rihanna are all important practitioners of R & B.
Soul Music emerged from R&B genre. Some consider Soul as merely another label for the old and traditional R&B style. Actually it is a new genre of music that evolved with continuous efforts of creative music artistes like Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles who experimented by combining music features of Gospel music and R&B. Both R&B and Soul were set on a creative growth path by the likes of Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandrose, Otis Redding and Lionel Ritchie. Aretha Franklin is by far the best female voice of Soul. But Marvin Gaye has come to be known as the best composer, lyricist and singer of Soul.
When Guardian listed the Top Ten who changed the face of popular music, it listed Marvin Gaye as the fourth. It was R&B which heralded the arrival of Marvin Gaye. From there he changed to the more sensitive and refined Soul music evolving it to his own unique political statement and personal music style. He wrote his own lyrics and music, sang them and produced them. He was equally facile at playing the piano, keyboards and drums. At the same time he had a voice that combined force and sharpness with a sensitively sweet timbre.
His Soul music reverberated as an instrument of social change. Many of his albums strengthened the voices that were against racism (What’s Going On?), for sexual rights (Let’s Get It On) and for strong families (Here, My Dear). Marvin Gaye songs have diverse range from ones with imaginative stories to dance numbers with fast beats. At every stage in his growth ladder Marvin Gaye had demonstrated his personal integrity and his deep emotions. Marvin Gaye’s was a sorrowing heart that found comfort in music. His biographer writes that ‘his music is comforting. His songs are meditations. His music alone was his means of survival.’
Marvin Gaye, the second of three sons of a priest Marvin Pentz Gay, was born in 1939 in Washington D.C. His father was a devout priest of a fundamentalist Christian sect called House of God that had broken away from the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The new church had formed combining the ancient Jewish religious dictates and the religious directions of the Pentecost Church. It prohibits leisure, holidays, festive celebrations, non devotional music and arts for the members of its churches.
Marvin Gaye had started singing in the joint prayers of the church at the age of three. At the age of five he started singing by himself. He received his early training in piano and drums from the church orchestra. Music was an asylum for him from nightmarish family environs of his childhood. His father, as a fierce follower of his religion and very strict disciplinarian, was a habitual critic of everything that his children did. Most of the days saw him beating Marvin black and blue. These travails of his childhood left him confused and agitated throughout his life.
After graduation, Marvin Gaye left home, joined Air Force to serve for some time and returned to civilian life as a musician who sang with road-side bands. Around this time he was introduced to narcotic drugs like cocaine. Slowly he graduated to bigger music troupes like ‘Rain Bows’ and ‘Moon Glows’. When Moon Glows went to Chicago, Marvin Gaye went with them to Chicago and settled there.
In 1961 while singing in Chicago, Marvin Gaye’s pleasantly deep voice and singing style caught the attention of Perry Cardy, the Director of Motown Recording Company, which was the biggest Music releasing organisation in America of those years. In the beginning Marvin Gaye had to be contended playing the drums and the piano for such famous singers as Smokey Robinson. He wooed and married Anna, Perry Cardy’s younger sister. Anna was 17 years older than Marvin Gaye.
When Marvin Gaye got his first opportunity to sing solo, he had to struggle with his throat. The early attempts were all miserable failures. Then the single ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow’ released in 1962 was a moderate success. His next two singles ‘Hitch Hike’ and ‘Can I Get a Witness’ came within Top Thirty of America’s sales list. ‘Pride and Joy’ released in 1963 took Marvin Gaye to Top Ten.
But these successes as a singer of dance numbers did not fill Marvin Gaye with happiness. His love was for light music numbers that overflow with sorrow and soulful emotions. He felt tortured by the pressures exerted by Motown to get him to sing only dance numbers with a fast beat. The cold war between the commercial outlook of the recording company and his own devotion to soulful light music lasted the entire duration of his contract with Motown recording company. Later Marvin Gaye was to remark on this period of trials along these lines: “I did not want to continue standing and shaking my ass. I only wanted to sing good clean melodies perched firmly on a stool.”
‘Together’ was an album of duets he sang with Mary Wells which was released in 1964. That took Marvin Gaye to the top of sales chart. They had together sung many famous duets like ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘What’s the Matter with You, Baby?’ Marvin Gaye achieved great successes with his solos as well. He continued to top the charts. He achieved great fame with his songs like ‘Ain’t That Peculiar?’ and ‘How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You’ that were released in 1965. He topped the charts with 39 albums out of 40 solo albums released by Motown. Most of his songs were written and composed by him.
Many great duet numbers of Marvin Gaye were sung with female singer Tammi Terrel. He had sung many hugely successful hit songs with Tammi including such hits as ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and ‘Your Precious Love’ released in 1967. Their duets like ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’ and ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’ created history. Marvin Gaye was deeply in love with Tammi. But they could not live together as they were both caught up in different marriage tangles. While Marvin Gaye was living in an embittered marriage, Tammy was living in a torturous relationship. Tammy, while participating in a stage show in Virginia in 1967, fainted and fell in the arms of Marvin Gaye. Soon she died of brain tumor. America’s love song duo of undying fame was no more. This separation subjected Marvin Gaye to unbearable emotional pain. That was the time one of his greatest hits ‘I Heard It through the Grapevine’ had released. But Marvin Gaye was in a deep state of depression. He stopped performing on stage drowned himself in drugs.
Marvin Gaye was also drowning in a lot of personal problems as well. His sad marriage was one. He was beginning to feel that the many love songs he was composing to further the commercial cause of his Motown were utterly meaningless efforts in total disconnect with newly awakening politics of Afro Americans in USA. He spent the entire year 1970 in seclusion. But he came up the very next year with the song ‘What’s Going On?’ This famous song of Marvin Gaye very clearly enunciated the parting of ways with the past both in terms of singing style and contents. The very open political call of the song confused the Motown. At first they refused to release it. But it came out nevertheless.
This song changed the face of Afro American pop music. Marvin Gaye had established through this album the emotional uniqueness of Soul music by combining in it Jazz and features of Classical Music. He continued to compose and sing songs that explicitly took up positions against racism, poverty and destruction of environment besides shoring up political struggles. The success of this album also eased the stranglehold of Motown on his fellow Afro American artistes. Singers like Stevie Wonder got the opportunity to advance with their own choice of music. Marvin Gaye had played the drums for many of the early songs of Stevie Wonder who happened to be blind.
Soon Marvin Gaye changed direction again and became more interested in Jazz. He started composing songs dripping with sex and one of his most famous numbers ‘Let’s Get It On’ released in 1973 was the most blatant. Even today it is considered a song that in the annals of American music is considered one that was most explicitly loaded with sex. By far his greatest commercial success, the song expresses the yearning for sex and the restlessness it generates. But it has a unique significance. It heralded the return of Marvin Gaye from songs with political agenda to songs of a very private world. After the release in 1973 of his album ‘Marvin and Diana’ that he sang in the company of the world super star singer Diana Ross, the album ‘I Want You’ of his solo songs was released. I consider this album to be the best by far of Soul music ever released. Everything about it had come out superbly. Every word of it sounds in Marvin’s voice as if it converses from his soul. If you look at it only as a poem, it is again truly the greatest emotional album of poems of love that I have heard so far.
Marvin Gaye spent most of the 1970s in court to fight his case for divorce from Anna Cardy. Motown, seeing that he could not come for recording because of his preoccupation with the case, released the album ‘Got to Give It Up’ consisting of his old songs rendered on stage and it too became a run-away hit!
‘Here, My Dear’, an album released in 1978 after his divorce, spoke of his married life with all his deeply embittered feelings. Anna Cardy sued him for libel asking for a big fortune as compensation as the album had many private details of their failed marriage. Marvin Gaye married Janice Hunter, 18 years younger than him. Though he started working on his next album, he could not complete it. His drug addiction had hit a new high. His second marriage too ended up soon burdensome and painful.
Marvin Gaye fled to Europe in 1981 to escape his many cases of Income Tax default in America. He released his album ‘In Our Lifetime’ from there. Completely different from his other songs, it had deeply philosophical outlook. His relations with Motown came to an end because of the copyright dispute over this new album.
He was continuously in the news for all wrong reasons. His drug addiction was climaxing. His disorderly behavior in public became frequent. In spite of it, the release next year of his ‘Midnight Love’ was a good come back. ‘Sexual Healing’ which was released next was a big hit and confirmed the come back. He made up with Motown in 1983. He joined a stage show celebrating their silver jubilee. But Marvin Gaye’s drug addiction and suicidal tendencies continued.
His life became increasingly lonely. He was getting even more addicted to cocaine. With nowhere to go and unable to stay rooted to anything, he decided to return to his parent’s home where from he had run away from many years before. In reality it was a tragic end to the sincere journey of a great artiste embarking on a search of self through music. It was a desperate last effort to again get hold of his deeply shattered life. But it only led Marvin Gaye to greater bitterness and mental depression. It is impossible for any person to return to the warmth and security of his mother’s womb.
Marvin Gaye’s father was deeply embittered by his son’s non-religious music. He hated his son’s free lifestyle and the huge fame he had achieved. He was on a serial bout of disowning and insulting Marvin. His discussions with Marvin always ended in bitter confrontations. His father was violently abusive totally ignoring Marvin’s mental conflicts and depressions. These confrontations hurt Marvin Gaye. The international music star and the national emblem of black American music reduced to nothing but tears.
On 9th April of 1984, a day before his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye quarreled with his father. His father had started battering his mother for misplacing some business documents. When Marvin tried to interfere, his father’s anger turned towards him. Quarrel became a big fight. The priest, blinded with anger took out his pistol and shot his son. Shot in the shoulder and chest, Marvin Gaye collapsed and never got up again to ask 'whats going on'.
Reji never returned to his father’s home nor stayed there. Later he moved to and settled in America. On 1st April of 2007 he called me from Marvin Gaye Memorial Park in Washington D.C. There he was participating in the week-long Marvin Gaye Memorial Music Festival titled ‘What’s Going On?’ being conducted in the ‘Marvin Gaye Amphitheater’. Drenched in our Hyderabad memories of Marvin Gaye's songs, we both were speechless in deep sadness.