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The Tragic Details Surrounding Marvin Gaye’s Death at the Hands of His Father on the 40th Anniversary of His Slaying

As the world sits back and reflects on the life and tragic death of Motown crooner Marvin Gaye 40 years ago, many are shocked to learn that his father shot him in his home a day before his 45th birthday on April 2, 1984.

Gaye’s life was complicated. At one point of his career, he was the shining star of Motown, gifting the world with love ballads like “Let’s Get It On” and “I Want You,” as well as socially conscious anthems such as “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “What’s Going On.” Yet, there were other moments where he grappled with drug addiction, womanizing, and dark demons, evident in songs like “Troubled Man.”

However, on that fatal day, Marvin Gaye was neither.

A Man’s Love For His Mother and A Father’s Jealousy Leads to Death

He was a son intervening to protect his mother from his father—a man of God, who battled his own demons, including a vicious temper that often ended in domestic violence.

The murder happened early in the morning on April 1, 1984, ending the artist’s 25-year career.

Marvin Gay Sr. — his son added an “e” to his surname as he began his career in show business — and Alberta Cooper Gay were married for almost 50 years and had four children born during their union. Rev. Gay was a preacher at at the Hebrew Pentecostal Church in Washington, D.C., and a member of the strict House of God Christian tradition that was adamantly opposed to secular living including music, television, and even make-up and sleeveless dresses for women.

On the 40th anniversary of Marvin Gaye's slaying, explore the story behind the tragic details of his death at the hands of his father.
On the 40th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s slaying, explore the story behind the tragic details of his death at the hands of his father. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac, File)

According to David Ritz, Gaye’s biographer, the father’s rigid way of life was stifling for the creative.

“Living with Father was like living with a king – an all-cruel, changeable and all-powerful king,” Gaye told Ritz. “If it wasn’t for Mother who was always there to console me and praise me for my singing, I think I would have been one of those child suicides you read about in the papers.”

Alberta always believed that her husband never “wanted” or “liked” their famous son, once stating, “He used to say he didn’t think he was really his child. I told him that was nonsense. He knew Marvin was his.”

Adding, “But for some reason, he didn’t love Marvin, and what’s worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either. Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.”

Biographer Steve Turner explored Marvin Gaye’s fraught relationship with his father. Turner highlighted the Gay’s cruelty, which extended to starving his children as punishment and a supposed sacrifice to God.

Turner suggests that Gay’s envy of his son’s achievements, coupled with disapproval of his lifestyle, further marred their relationship and made the already disapproving parent resentful of his child and jealous that he didn’t get the international acclaim that his talented son did.

Gaye’s ex-wife Janis Gaye said that the father also hated that his son was a sex symbol and that women loved how handsome he was.

“He fancied himself as a prophet and message-giver, and then Marvin became hailed as a voice of his generation, and yet Marvin wasn’t living a godly life,” Turner explained. “That seemed so unfair to Reverend Gay. Also, Marvin was very close to his mother.”

Just as much as Alberta loved her eldest son, he loved her. She was one of the people to never give up hope on him during those tough years in the late ’70s when his addiction seemed to get out of hand.

Dark Days of Addiction

Gaye started using cocaine in the 1960s, during the early part of his career, and by the late ’70s started freebasing. Smokey Robinson once said during an interview with DJ Vlad that Gaye had a falling out with him because he would not loan him money to purchase some powder while he was living in Hawaii.

By the early ’80s, Gaye had made attempts to become clean and was making an epic comeback with his hit 1983 song “Sexual Healing” and a tour to promote his catalog.

However, on April 1, the day he was killed, an autopsy shows that not only did he fall off the wagon, but that he had slight traces of cocaine in his system, which may have contributed to the confrontation on that Monday afternoon.

The Confrontation and Fatal Shooting

Gaye was shot twice by his father after the two got into a physical altercation over how his mother was being treated. The singer was living in a Los Angeles home with his parents when he heard the couple arguing.

According to Gay, the father, the argument started because he had asked his wife to locate one of their insurance policies before the “Heard it Through The Grapevine” singer entered the room and attacked him.

He attempted to intervene when he saw his preacher dad shouting in his mother’s face. He said according to Turner’s “Trouble Man” biography, “You can’t talk to my mother like that.”

Alberta said that Gaye got between them and pushed his father down, before beating the senior down.

“Marvin hit him. I shouted for him to stop, but he paid no attention to me,” Alberta said, according to the biography, “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. “He gave my husband some hard kicks.”

Gay confirms that there was a physical altercation with his son.

“He took me from the back and he grabbed me and he slung me to the floor and he started beating me, kicking me. He kicked me everywhere he could kick me,” he said to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.

“He knocked me onto the bed and when I fell, my hand happened to feel the little gun under the pillow,” he said.

When the father got his .38 Special pistol, he shot him twice in the chest. Gaye had given him the gun four months before the incident to keep the family safe. The dad said he shot him in self-defense.

Gaye’s brother and his wife Irene were in the guest house and heard the shots.

Lt. Bob Martin of the Los Angeles Police Department told The New York Times that the incident started around 12:30 p.m. (a biographer places the incident an hour earlier based on interviews from the family) and that the star would succumb to his injuries at 1:01 p.m. at the California Hospital Medical Center. 

Martin said that evidence suggest that the father was lying.

He said the altercation began in an upstairs bedroom and agreed that at some point the father was reportedly pushed to the floor during the scuffle.

Despite this, the officer said there were no signs of head injuries or severe physical trauma and that the mother intervened and separated the two.

Once separated, Gaye talked to his mother while he laid back on his bed. It was then that the father reappeared at the doorway brandishing a gun, firing a fatal shot at point-blank range.

Police arrested the 70-year-old father.

Gay would later confess to the killing a week later, on Monday, April 8, 1984.

“I do know I did fire the gun,” the father said to the newspaper.

“I regret what happened to this moment,” he said, explaining that he thought the gun was loaded with BB bullets or blanks.

“I pulled the trigger,” he continued to detail.

“Ma comes in, she says ‘Marvin’s bleeding.’ I went down the hall and looked,” he remembered, “’Babe,’ I said, ‘call the paramedics.’ “

The father went on to say that the son was doing drugs, causing him to turn into “something like a beastlike person,” who violently beat him.

Bill Gold, the coroner’s spokesperson said at the time, “A small amount of cocaine residue was found in the blood, but no other drugs were detected. This finding indicates the deceased used cocaine at some point in the past, but he was probably not under its influence at the time of his death.”

While multiple sources, even at the time, suggested that Gaye at PCP or angeldust in his system, a judge only upheld the report that Gold’s office rendered.

Gay, Sr. Says The Shooting Was Accidental

“I didn’t mean to do it,” the father said. “I fear God. I respect God. I’m sorry and I regret what happened to this moment.”

He was asked if he loved his son and answered, “Let’s say that I didn’t dislike him.” 

Ironically, Jeanne Gay, Gaye’s sister, said she believed her father wanted to kill his son and had said it multiple times and that her brother “wanted to die.” His brother Frankie Gay believed the same thing.

“I got what I wanted… I couldn’t do it myself, so I had him do it,” the brother wrote in his book “Marvin Gaye, My Brother,” about his brother’s last words that he heard from the guest house.

Adding, “It’s good, I ran my race; there’s no more left in me.”

The Plea Deal and Sentencing

Initially charged with first-degree murder, Gay evaded the conviction through a plea deal agreed to by Superior Court Judge Gordon Ringer. On Sept. 20, 1984, he entered a plea of no contest to voluntary manslaughter.

Consequently, he received a six-year suspended sentence, along with five years of probation, during which he was prohibited from possessing firearms or consuming alcohol. During this ordeal Gay was diagnosed with a brain tumor that deteriorated his health.

Eventually, his condition necessitated relocation to a nursing home. He passed away from pneumonia on October 10, 1998, at the age of 84.

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