Marvin Gaye: Murder of a Popular Soul Singer

Marvin Gaye was once known as the “Prince of Motown.” For almost a quarter-century, his music entertained millions, evolving as the times changed. Then, his career and life ended abruptly.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C. His father was a preacher in the Hebrew Pentecostal Church. A strict disciplinarian, he enforced his moral code on his four children (two boys and two girls) and stepson with physical brutality. For a man of the cloth, the senior Gay embraced an odd moral code, as he was a hard-drinking cross-dresser. It seemed everyone in their D.C. neighborhood knew about the cross-dressing, which subjected young Marvin to bullying at school.

As Marvin entered his teenage years, his relationship with his father worsened, who often kicked him out of the house. In 1956, when he was seventeen, Marvin dropped out of high school and joined the United States Air Force. Military service didn’t suit him, mainly because his superiors gave him, like many of his peers, only menial tasks. He received a “General Discharge” in 1957.

Marvin Gaye in 1966 (Public Domain)
Marvin Gaye in 1966 (Public Domain)

Gaye began working in music after his brief stint in the Air Force, adding the ‘e’ to the end of his family name. It took several years, but he began to find success in 1962 as co-writer of “Beechwood 4-5789,” a hit for the Marvelettes. He recorded several successful duets with Tammy Terrell and sang the National Anthem during Game 4 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. He had his first number-one hit in 1968 with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

The Murder of Marvin Gaye

Success had a dark side for Marvin Gaye. Like many others before and after, he had trouble dealing with the fame he sought and developed a drug habit. He managed to get sober while sojourning in Europe as a tax exile. But he returned to the United States in 1983 for what would be his final concert tour. Under the stress of touring, he returned to abusing cocaine as a coping mechanism. When the tour ended in August 1983, Gaye moved into his parents’ home to nurse his mother, who had undergone kidney surgery.

Marvin Gaye in 1973 (Billboard)
Marvin Gaye in 1973 (Billboard)

By March 1984, Gaye and his father clashed constantly. Everything boiled over on Sunday, April 1. Marvin Sr. began berating his wife, Alberta, because he was upset about a missing insurance policy. Gaye intervened, ordering his father out of his mother’s room. When that didn’t work, he physically attacked his father. Alberta separated the two men, and Gaye returned to his room.

Minutes later, however, Marvin Sr. entered Gaye’s bedroom with a .38-caliber pistol, pointed it at Gaye, and shot him twice, one bullet piercing his right lung, heart, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and left kidney. Hearing the shots and screams, Gaye’s brother, Frankie, who lived in a guest house on the property, ran to the house and carefully walked the hallway to his brother’s bedroom. He held Gaye as he rapidly bled to death. Frankie said Marvin made a disturbing statement in a voice barely above a whisper. “I got what I wanted…I couldn’t do it myself, so I had him do it…it’s good, I ran my race, there’s no more left in me.”

Marvin Gaye's death certificate (State of California)
Marvin Gaye’s death certificate (State of California)


On September 20, 1984, Marvin Gay, Sr. pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Judge Ronald M. George agreed to the plea bargain based on the injuries Marvin Sr. sustained in the altercation and the levels of cocaine and PCP in Gaye’s system revealed by the autopsy. On November 2, Judge Gordon Ringer sentenced Marvin Gay, Sr., to a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation. He died on October 10, 1998, at age 84.

Marvin Gay, Sr., in court (The Palms Weekend)
Marvin Gay, Sr., in court (The Palms Weekend)

You can read more about the life of Marvin Gaye in Divided Soul: The Life Of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz and Mercy, Mercy Me by Michael Eric Dyson.

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