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Soul Tragedy: Marvin Gaye Was Fatally Shot By His Father With A Gun He Gave Him For Christmas

Icons | December 21, 2019

CIRCA 1974: Soul singer Marvin Gaye plays piano as he records in a studio in circa 1974. (Photo by Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Marvin Gaye's murder, at the hands of his own father when Gaye was just 44 years old, was a shocking loss. His diverse catalog included hard-hitting soul ("I Heard It Through The Grapevine"), seductive jams ("Let's Get It On," "Sexual Healing") and a full-length era-embodying masterpiece (the 1971 album What's Going On).

But fame and family sometimes work against each other in ways that are difficult to fathom. Marvin Gaye and his father, Marvin Gay Sr., give us perhaps the greatest example of this difficult push and pull. While other celebrities and their families might fight over money or the drastic changes that occur through the glorified vortex of fame and fortune, Marvin Gaye and his father battled over much darker demons.

Gaye, who added the E for his stage name, was shot and killed by his father, using a revolver that Gaye gave him for Christmas. This is the story of one of the bleakest deaths in celebrity history. 

The Most Difficult Of Beginnings

Marvin, his mother, and son (pinterest)

The rags-to-riches celebrity story has become a cliche, but there was nothing cliche about the agonizing childhood Marvin and his siblings endured at the hands of their father. Things got off to a bad start when Marvin Gay Sr. married Marvin Gaye’s mother, Alberta, who already had a child of her own. Marvin Gay Sr. refused to “raise another man’s child,” so Alberta’s first son Michael was sent to live with Alberta’s sister. 

Marvin Gay, Sr., was an American Pentecostal minister and a disciplinarian. He would test his children’s knowledge of bible passages and savagely beat them if their answers erred. 

Marvin Gaye Takes The Brunt

Despite a hellacious childhood Marvin made himself into something great (wcyb)

Gaye was one of four of Gay Sr.’s children, but for whatever reason, young Marvin was the one who took the worst of the beatings. According to his sister, Jeanne, starting at the age of seven until his teenage years, Gaye’s life was an unending series of “brutal whippings.” Marvin himself likened growing up in his father’s house to “living with a king, an all-cruel, changeable, cruel and all-powerful king."

Coming Down From On High

Gaye won his elusive Grammy not long before his untimely death (udiscovermusic)

Marvin Gaye’s unbelievable achievements are well documented. He became the sound of Motown and became one of the few artists to transcend the crazy high of the genre. Despite such success, Gaye’s difficult childhood came home to roost in the form of drugs, alcohol, depression, and tax evasion.

Forced to leave the country in order to avoid jail time, Marvin’s life fell apart just one year after winning his first Grammy, for the unforgettable classic “Sexual Healing.” After falling into financial, emotional, and psychological hardship, Gaye ominously moved in with his parents.

Gay Senior’s Many Foibles

Father and killer (angularjsdevelopment)

Although he brutally enforced a strict moral code on his children, Gay Sr. battled with alcohol, infidelity, and his own sexual hangups -- it turns out the brutal minister was a closet cross-dresser. Sr. also harbored extreme jealousy toward his son’s rampant success. When the son moved back into the father's household, a confrontation was inevitable. 

A Lost Insurance Policy And A .38 Caliber Revolver

A tragic end for one so talented (thevintagenews)

The fateful incident occurred on April 1, 1984, when Gay Sr. began ranting and raving at Gaye’s mother over a lost insurance policy. Eventually, Marvin challenged his father, demanding he leave his mother alone. Unfortunately, that only stoked Gay Sr.'s rage. The elder man climbed the stairs to continue berating his fleeing wife, Alberta.

Gaye decided enough was enough and physically challenged his father. According to Alberta, "Marvin hit him. I shouted for him to stop, but he paid no attention to me. He gave my husband some hard kicks." That’s when Gay Sr. collected the revolver that his son had given him for Christmas and shot Gaye twice.

Alberta watched her husband kill her son, "I was standing about eight feet away from Marvin, when my husband came to the door of the bedroom with his pistol," said Alberta. "My husband didn't say anything, he just pointed the gun at Marvin. I screamed but it was very quick. He, my husband, shot – and Marvin screamed. I tried to run. Marvin slid down to the floor after the first shot." 

The great Marvin Gaye’s last words were very telling, “I got what I wanted…I couldn’t do it myself, so I made him do it.”

A Suspended Sentence And Great Regret

Gaye and his children (pinterest)

Gay Sr. plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and somehow Judge Gordon Ringer only gave him a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation. Perhaps he saw that the damage to Sr. was already done.

At his sentencing, he expressed sorrowful remorse, “ "I didn't mean to do it. If I could bring him back, I would. I was afraid of him. I thought I was going to get hurt. I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm really sorry for everything that happened. I loved him. I wish he could step through this door right now. I'm paying the price now." Marvin Gay, Sr., died in a nursing home in 1998 of pneumonia. 

Tags: Marvin Gaye

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!