The Murder of a Motown Legend
Updated: Apr 14
On April 1st, 1984, Marvin Gaye tried to play referee in a petty argument between his mother and father over a missing insurance document. His efforts cost him his life only a few short moments later.
To understand Marvin Gaye's death, it's necessary to go back to the formative years of his relationship with his father Marvin Gaye Sr. The elder Gaye was a minister and healer with a Pentecostal Church known as The House of God. The House of God advocates followed a strict code of conduct among its followers. By applying those same religious bylaws, Marvin Sr ruled his household with a heavy hand impacting both his children and wife. The elder Gaye was also a conflicted and complicated man who found difficulty holding down a job for long periods of time. In addition to his religious focus, he was a raging alcoholic and a cross dresser who abused his four children often in the name of religion. Beginning at the age of seven, until well into his teenage years, Marvin Jr’s life consisted of continual psychological torment and brutal whippings. Marvin Jr later said life with his father was like “living with a King. A cruel and powerful king.” Similarly, Gaye’s mother, Alberta, admitted that her husband despised their son. “My husband never wanted Marvin. He never liked him and used to say he didn't think he was really his child. For some reason he didn't love Marvin Jr and what's worse he didn't want me to love Marvin either.”
Oddly enough, Gaye developed his love for singing and performing from his father beginning around the age of five. Marvin Sr began coaching him with piano lessons which were quickly learned by the younger Gaye's keen ear for music. Later, Marvin Jr sang in his father's church choir leading to one of the few stable times in the father and son’s relationship. Moving forward to 1984, Gaye Jr was a 44 year-old music industry veteran experiencing a career comeback after five years of shaky output. His first post Motown album, Midnight Love, was at the top of the charts and he was enjoying the biggest hit of his career with “Sexual Healing” which spent 10 weeks at number one on the R&B singles chart. “Sexual Healing” would eventually become the biggest R&B hit of the 1980s.
By 1984, Gaye was wrapping up his four month tour which proved to be a disaster from its opening on April 18th in San Diego. When the tour began, Marvin Jr was healthy, happy, and relatively drug free. Just a few weeks into the tour he was fueled, almost exclusively, by heavy cocaine binges. The erratic behaviors were increasingly common due to the inability for anyone around him to slow his nonstop drug. During this time, as one would expect, Gaye was becoming increasingly paranoid. Throughout the tour he hired a small army of personal bodyguards and while also wearing a bulletproof vest until the point when he walked onstage. To confuse matters more, in the middle of tour he became positive a hitman was hired to kill him. Further into the tour, he worried about being secretly poisoned by his "enemies". During a stop in Boston, while at a press conference, reporters sat stunned as Gaye revealed he hired famed attorney F Lee Bailey to determine how, why and by whom he had been poisoned during the tour. He further added the story of a mystical potion concocted by activist and comedian Dick Gregory saving his life. After all the drama, Gaye retreated to the large house he purchased for his parents at 2101 South Gramercy Place in Los Angeles. He planned to recuperate for the next nine months before planning his next move. The change of location didn’t alter Marvin Jr’s behavior and the end result was only a new address for the nonstop madness. Marvin Sr, Alberta, and Marvin Jr slept in three joining second story bedrooms at the home - The older couple hadn't slept in the same room together for over 10 years. Marvin's brother, Frankie, and his wife Irene lived in a detached guesthouse. Most of the time Marvin Sr was found in his room swigging vodka while his son was shooting up in his own bedroom. Marvin's mother saw Marvin Jr's condition and how the addiction began to control his life and change his attitudes. Alberta said Marvin would say, “mother this is the last time, I promise.” But, when he was out on the town, Marvin would place calls for drugs and someone would show up with a deliver shortly afterwards. When Marvin Jr was in the mood, he would also call around for women. Sometimes those women would be groupies and sometimes even his ex-wives, Anna and Janice, would visit. His paranoia was now at an all-time high when he decided to purchase an elaborate, expensive security and surveillance system for his parent’s home.
He may have been living a fast and paranoid life, but the cause of his death would’ve been unimaginable at even his height of paranoia. On Saturday March 31st, Gaye's parents were engaged in ongoing petty arguments which set the stage for that afternoon's ugly confrontation. The primary cause of tension was a misplaced insurance policy that continually bubbled up to rehash earlier topics and arguments. Later into the day and well into the evening, Gaye’s father angrily prowled the house and yelling at his wife about the missing insurance documents. He insisted she misplaced or lost the document adding insult to her inability to locate the items. Eventually, the younger Gaye, had enough and told Marvin Sr to leave his mother alone. Surprised and startled Marvin Sr backed away from Alberta, but continued to yell nonsensically throughout the house until he went to sleep that evening. Marvin Sr went to bed angry and woke in the same mood. Around 12:30 PM, Marvin Sr yelled upstairs at his wife who was speaking with Marvin Jr. Marvin exited his room, leaned over the railing, that overlooked the 1st floor of their home, and yell back at his father, “if you wanted to speak to your wife about the missing paperwork then he should come up the stairs and ask her properly to her face.” According to Alberta, Marvin Sr immediately charged upstairs into the bedroom where she was sitting on the bed by her son. Marvin Sr barreled into the room and began yelling at Alberta about the last insurance document. Marvin Jr jumped out of his bed and demanded his father leave. Marvin Sr held his ground and that's when Marvin Jr reportedly pushed his 70-year-old father out of the room and into the hallway - knocking him down in the process. Marvin Jr then repeatedly began kicking and punching his father while he laid on the floor incapable of getting to his feet. Eventually Alberta separated the two men when the senior Gaye calmly walked to his bedroom at the opposite side of the 2nd floor hallway. Minutes later Marvin Sr re-entered his son's bedroom holding a 38-caliber handgun. Marvin Jr had given that gun to his father several months earlier for self-protection against intruders. Without saying a word, he pulled the trigger shooting his son directly in the heart. Marvin's mother, who was standing about 8 feet away from Marvin said, “my husband didn't say anything. He just pointed the gun at Marvin and shot.” The shot entered the younger Gaye’s chest before ricocheting through his right lung, heart diaphragm, liver, stomach, and left kidney before stopping against his left flank. As Gaye laid on the floor, slumped against his bed, Marvin Sr calmly walked toward his son and fired again. This shot penetrated and grazed his left shoulder just below the clavicle. Once Marvin's brother Frankie was aware of the shots, he ran into the main house while his wife called 911. According to Frankie, in his 2003 book, Marvin Gaye My Brother, Gaye was only able to whisper as blood was pouring out of both gunshot wounds. Marvin Gaye Jr reportedly told Frankie, “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.” When paramedics arrived, they demanded to see the gun before entering the house. After scrambling around Marvin Sr's bedroom, Frankie’s wife Irene found the gun under a pillow and tossed it onto the front lawn. By this time nearly 20 minutes had passed since Gaye was shot. As he was rushed to California Hospital Medical Center, 3 miles away, the efforts to resuscitate Gaye were unsuccessful. At 1:01 PM, one day before his 45th birthday, Marvin Jr was declared DOA. Marvin Sr was immediately arrested and held at the Los Angeles County jail on $100,000 bail. Marvin Sr gave the Los Angeles Herald examiner an account that varied slightly from the one his wife relayed. “I pulled the trigger. The first one didn't seem to bother him. He put his hand up to his face like he'd been hit with a BB gun and then I fired again. I was backing towards my room. I was going to go in there and lock the door. This time I heard him say, ‘oh’ and I saw him going down. I do know that I did fire the gun just trying to keep him back off me. I want the world to know it wasn't presumptuous on my part.”
Marvin Sr appeared before judge Gordon Ringer on November 2nd, 1984 for sentencing. Ringer was stoic about the proceedings and said the following about the case. “This is one of those terribly tragic cases in which a young life was snuffed out. Under the circumstances, it seems to be agreed by everybody, including the very able and experienced investigating officers in this case, the young man who died tragically provoked this incident and it was all his fault.”
When asked if he loved his son, Marvin Sr reportedly stated softly, “let's say I didn't dislike him.” Judge Ringer ordered a six-year suspended and five years of probation as penalty for the murder of his son, Marvin Gaye Jr.