Marvin Gaye was an American musician who gained worldwide fame for his work with Motown Records. He was fatally shot by his father, Marvin Gay, Sr. on April 1, 1984 at their house at 2101 South Gramercy Place in Western Heights in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.
By 1983, Marvin Gaye had re-emerged in the public eye after a European tax exile with the hit song, “Sexual Healing” and its parent album, Midnight Love. For a time, he had also achieved sobriety during his extensive stay in Belgium. Returning to the United States, he embarked on his final grueling Sexual Healing Tour in April of the year. Gaye, who had a profound dislike for touring, returned to cocaine use to cope with the pressures of the road and midway through developed paranoia over an alleged attempt on his life, wearing a bulletproof vest until he was on stage.
When the tour ended in August 1983, Gaye retreated at his parents’ residence at 2101 South Gramercy Place, which he had originally bought in 1975 for himself for $30,500, before selling the home to his parents. Gaye’s main reason for having returned to the United States was to tend to his mother, who was recovering from kidney surgery. Between August and October 1983, family members contended the house was “peaceful” with no other interruptions. By the time Gaye’s father Marvin, Sr. returned from a business trip in Washington, D.C. where he had taken out insurance on his family’s former Washington, D.C. residence, however, Gaye’s sister Jeanne moved out of the house to avoid conflict. For the next six months, the two men struggled to keep their distance. During a conversation with Marvin’s elder sister, Jeanne, he told her that if Marvin laid a hand on him, he’ll “kill him.”
On Christmas Day, 1983, Marvin gave his father an unlicensed .38 Smith & Wesson caliber pistol to help Gaye be protected from would-be intruders and probable murderers. Friends and family members contended that Gaye was often suicidal and paranoid, sometimes wearing three overcoats and putting his shoes on the wrong feet. Before his death, four days earlier, according to his sister Jeanne, Gaye had tried to kill himself by jumping out of a speeding sports car, suffering only minor bruises. Jeanne contended that “there was no doubt [Marvin] wanted to die” and that he “couldn’t take anymore.”
For the following few days, Marvin’s parents had arguments mainly over a misplaced insurance policy document. The day before his death, the arguments spread to Marvin’s bedroom. Angered by his father confronting his mother, he commanded his father to leave Alberta alone; Marvin’s father complied without incident but continued yelling throughout the house. At approximately 11:00 am on April 1, 1984, an impatient Marvin Sr. shouted for his wife about the document. Marvin, dressed in a maroon robe, shouted back downstairs, telling his father if he had something to say, he’d better do it in person. According to Alberta, when Marvin Sr. refused his son’s request, Marvin warned him to not come to his room. However, Marvin Sr. instead charged upstairs to the bedroom to verbally attack Alberta over the document, causing Marvin Jr. to jump out of his bed and once again ordered his father out of the room.
When ordering didn’t work, Marvin Jr., enraged and despondent, reportedly shoved him out of the room in the hallway.
Alberta later told David Ritz: “Marvin hit him. I shouted for him to stop, but he paid no attention to me. He gave my husband some hard licks.” Jeanne Gaye later recalled that it was understood in the family that if one of the children ever dared to strike their father that he would “murder [him or her],”saying her father “made it very clear” and “said so publicly on more than one occasion.” Gaye reportedly followed his father to the bedroom and, according to his mother, kicked him brutally. Eventually, Alberta separated Marvin from his father and returned him to his bedroom.
Minutes afterwards, at around 11:38 a.m., Marvin, Sr. entered his bedroom, returning with the .38 pistol his son had bought him and pointed the gun at Marvin and shot him squarely at his heart, as Alberta later explained to police: “I was standing about eight feet away from Marvin, when my husband came to the door of the bedroom with his pistol. 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 first shot, which proved to be fatal, entered the right side of Marvin’s chest, perforating his right lung, heart, diaphragm, liver, stomach and left kidney before coming to rest against his left flank. Marvin’s father stepped closer after the first shot and shot him, this time, at point-blank range.
Afraid of being shot next, Alberta screamed and ran out of the bedroom, all the while pleading in fear to her husband not to shoot her. According to reports, Gaye’s father hid the gun underneath his pillow. In the meantime, Gaye’s brother Frankie and his sister-in-law, Irene, heard the shots as they lived in a guest house of the mansion. Though Frankie initially thought it sounded like firecrackers, Irene wanted to investigate. Just then, they heard screams from outside and after running out, noticed it was Alberta, who screamed to them, “He shot him! He shot Marvin!”
Frankie ran to the house and carefully walked into the hallway to his brother’s room, not knowing if his father still had the gun, whether his father was still in the room, or if his brother was dead. After walking into Marvin’s bedroom, an emotional Frankie held him as Marvin lay there, dying and bleeding profusely. According to Frankie, Marvin, barely speaking above a whisper, told him, “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.” Irene later went to Marvin Sr., who sat there stonefaced at his bedroom and asked him where the gun was, after the police arrived.
After searching over his bedroom, Irene located it at his pillow. Upon exiting the house, Irene dropped the gun on the lawn. Immediately following this, Marvin Gay, Sr., who had by now taken a seat on the front porch outside the house, waited for the police to arrest him. After Irene and Alberta confirmed that Marvin, Sr. had shot someone, and the police immediately discovered Marvin’s body, police placed Marvin, Sr. under arrest.
The police arrived 20 minutes after the shooting. Gaye was taken out of the house and entered the California Hospital Medical Center. At approximately 1:01 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, Gaye was pronounced dead on arrival. Gaye died on the eve of his 45th birthday. As soon as the news was announced that he was dead, several of Gaye’s neighbors and onlookers paraded around the house, many in stunned shock and silence over Gaye’s death.
Autopsy and funeral
An autopsy was conducted on Gaye’s body shortly after his death. Test results showed that Gaye had elements of cocaine and PCP (or angel dust) in his system. After lawyers misread the coroner’s report, Judge Ronald George determined later during preliminary hearings in the court case that PCP can often invoke violence. When told that the report had only concluded that Gaye had just cocaine traces in his system, the judge said PCP wasn’t a major factor in his decision.
During an interview with the police, Gaye’s father contended that he was scared that something would happen to him and that he only meant to shoot in self-defense, stating he didn’t know the gun had any bullets in it, claiming he thought there were either “blanks or BBs.” When asked if he loved his son, Marvin Sr. reportedly stated in a soft voice, “Let’s say I didn’t dislike him.” Upon being told that his son had died from the shots, Marvin Sr. reportedly wept and sobbed after realizing he had murdered him. Marvin Sr. was held on bond afterwards.
On April 5, 1984, Gaye was given a star-studded funeral at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, attended by over 10,000 mourners, including his Motown colleagues, his two ex-wives, Anna Gaye and Janis Gaye, his siblings, mother and three children. Smokey Robinson and Dick Gregory delivered eulogies, while Stevie Wonder performed “Lighting Up the Candles,’” which was later placed on Wonder’s soundtrack to the film, Jungle Fever and Cecil T. “Sesil J” Jenkins sung “The Lord’s Prayer”.
At the open-casket funeral, Gaye was wearing one of his costumes from his final concert tour, a gold and white military style uniform, with an ermine wrap at his shoulders. The funeral was presided by the Chief Apostle of Gaye’s family’s old church, the House of God. Following the funeral, Gaye was given a burial plot. Under the family’s request, Gaye’s remains were cremated with half of his ashes spread near the Pacific Ocean by his three children and Anna Gaye. Anna Gaye and their adopted son, Marvin III, then kept a small sample of the ashes for themselves.
Marvin left behind no will. As a result, his son Marvin III, 17 at the time, became co-administrator of his estate. At the time of his death, he was struggling financially, as the IRS had asked for $1 million to pay unpaid back taxes, $600,000 to the State of California and back alimony to Anna and Janis Gaye. Royalties from Marvin’s work eventually paid off those debts.
Marvin Gay, Sr. was held at the Los Angeles County Jail on a $100,000 bail. Marvin, Sr.’s accounts of the shooting were printed in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, quoting his words: “I didn’t mean to do it.”
During a check-up at the County-USC Medical Center, a benign tumor was discovered at the base of Marvin, Sr.’s brain. Doctors removed the tumor on May 17, 1984. Despite that development, on June 12, 1984, after reviewing a two-page report, including two psychiatric evaluations conducted by Dr. Ronald Markman, Judge Michael Pirosh ruled that Marvin Gay, Sr. was competent to stand trial.
He appeared in court again on June 20, 1984, where he was ordered to return on July 16, 1984 for a preliminary hearing. His wife, Alberta, posted the reduced bond of $30,000 via a bondsman to secure the ex-minister’s release. Two days earlier, she had filed for divorce, citing she officially separated from him following her son’s fatal shooting on the same day. Looking over documents, the amount of drugs in Gaye’s system, and pictures of Marvin, Sr.’s injuries during his final fight with his son, Judge Ronald George agreed to grant Marvin, Sr. a plea bargain. As a result, Marvin Sr. pleaded no contest to a voluntary manslaughter charge on September 20, 1984. On November 2, 1984, Judge Gordon Ringer sentenced Marvin, Sr. to a six-year suspended sentence and five years probation. During the sentencing hearing, Marvin, Sr., in tears struggling to come up with words, told the court: “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.”
News stations reported on the death almost immediately after it was announced, with one of the most prominent announcements coming from Dan Rather. Eulogies were delivered in American, Asian and European countries. The New York Times ran the story on its front page the day after his death.
Initial reactions to Gaye’s death were naturally shock on the part of many of his peers. Otis Williams of the Motown group, The Temptations, recalled receiving the news while touring with the Four Tops in Australia and said “It was a very dark day that I will never forget as the day I lost a friend.”
Former Motown staffer Janie Bradford and her husband were driving home after listening to radio all day when the announcer announced Gaye’s death. CBS Urban president Larkin Arnold was also reportedly stunned with the news as he had tried to get Gaye in the studio for his follow-up to Midnight Love. Smokey Robinson had received the news from one of his friends on the phone and argued that because it was April Fools Day that it was a sick joke. Robinson then called Gaye’s ex-wife Anna Gaye to find if it was true and she confirmed it before he could ask her, leaving Robinson in shock.
Longtime Gaye admirer Jermaine Jackson recalled sobbing uncontrollably once he heard the news and called Barry White to confirm the story. According to White, Gaye had agreed to do a series of duets with him. Ray Singleton, a former spouse of Berry Gordy’s, received the news from Anna on the phone. Upon the arrival of her son and Gaye’s adopted son, Marvin III, Raynoma told Gaye III to go upstairs and talk to his mother, who then told him the news.
Gaye’s death is listed at No. 8 on VH-1/VH-1 Classic’s 100 Most Shocking Moments in Music.
Recollections of the death from admirers of Gaye included rapper Chuck D and Al Sharpton, who replied that the death came “like a sick, sad joke to all of us.” Berry Gordy, who was overcome with emotion and grief over Gaye’s death, took out full-page ads following Gaye’s funeral declaring that Gaye was “the greatest of his time” and the best recording artist he ever worked with. New wave band Duran Duran dedicated their hit song, “Save a Prayer,” to Gaye during a live concert the day following his death.
Immediately after his death, numerous fans of Gaye stood outside the house at Gramercy Place, placed memorabilia and other items on the lawn, and held vigils there, until the next day, Gaye’s birthday.
Memorials and tributes
Gaye was placed on the cover of Rolling Stone for the third time in a posthumous cover in its May 10, 1984 issue. The issue discussed Gaye’s personal life, his music, and his contributions to Motown and popular music.
In November 1984, Diana Ross released the tribute song, “Missing You.” It appeared on Ross’ album, Swept Away, and later peaked at #1 on the Hot Black Singles chart and placed at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Later, a video of the song featured classic footage of Gaye, including footage of Gaye appearing at Ross’ 1982 concert in Brussels. The following January while hosting the American Music Awards, Ross led an In Memoriam tribute to stars who died in 1984 with Gaye leading the tribute. The Commodores issued the song, “Nightshift,” which was dedicated to Gaye and fellow musician Jackie Wilson, who also died in 1984. The song, featured on their album of the same name, peaked at #1 on the rhythm and blues chart, reached the top ten on the Hot 100, and became a hit in other countries.
Todd Rundgren’s song “Lost Horizon” from his A Cappella album is said to be dedicated to Gaye. Rundgren later performed a medley of Gaye’s hits during concerts and sometimes added “Lost Horizon” to the medley. In 1989, soul band Frankie Beverly & Maze produced the tribute song, “Silky Soul,” taking its melody from “What’s Going On.” The song featured Nona Gaye in the video and later peaked at #5 on the R&B chart. At least two tribute albums of Gaye’s have been released: 1995’s Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye and 1999’s Marvin Is 60: A Tribute Album.
Starting in 1985, there have been annual Marvin Gaye Day celebrations in the city of Washington, D.C., Gaye’s hometown. The day was officiated by then-mayor Marion Barry on the day of Gaye’s 46th birthday. Since then, a non-profit organization has helped to organize Marvin Gaye Day celebrations in the city. In 1986, Marvin’s mother Alberta founded the Marvin P. Gaye, Jr. Memorial Foundation, which is dedicated to those suffering from drug abuse and alcoholism.
It opened a day after she died from complications of bone cancer in May 1987. In 1990, after years of petitions and letters, Gaye was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with one of its most prominent letters written by longtime fan Eddie Murphy. Six years later, in 1996, Gaye posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2006, an old park that Gaye frequented as a teenager, the former Watts Branch Park, was renamed Marvin Gaye Park in his honor. Three years later, in 2009, the 5200 block of Foote Street NE in Deanwood, Washington, D.C., was renamed Marvin Gaye Way.
Since Gaye’s death, fans of the singer have stood around Gaye’s Walk of Fame star to pay tribute and sing songs of Gaye’s in his honor during the week of April 1 through April 5 of each year. Several other fans have paraded around Gaye’s final house in vigils.