Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
Content warning: domestic physical violence, gun violence, suicide.
Twenty-five years ago today, Marvin Gay Sr. died of pneumonia at the age of eight-four. He was the oldest of thirteen children, a preacher, a husband, and a father of five. He was also a man whose lasting legacy would be defined in a single moment, where he shot and killed his own son.
The incident occurred on April 1, 1984, after the two men got into a heated argument in their shared home, in which Marvin Jr. was defending his mother from the anger of his father about a misplaced insurance policy letter. When Marvin Sr. would not leave his wife, Alberta, alone, Marvin Jr. began attacking him physically, kicking and punching him on the ground repeatedly until Alberta managed to separate the two. At that point, Marvin Sr. returned to his room.
The two men held a strained relationship their whole lives, beginning with Marvin Sr’s frequent physical abuse of all of his children during their upbringing, a pattern which also traces back to Marvin Sr’s own father, who beat him during childhood as well. Jeanne Gay, Marvin’s Jr’s sister, reported that their father had made it very clear his willingness to outright kill his own children should they dare to strike him back.
Marvin Jr. pursued music in various forms throughout his adolescence, and after a brief failed stint in the air force, returned to music as a career path, finding success through a combination of songwriting, session drumming, backup singing, and eventually as a solo artist. It took only a few years for Marvin, known publicly as Marvin Gaye, to become an extremely well-known and respected artist in the music industry, and his immense contributions to motown, R&B, soul, gospel, and funk music are widely acknowledged and revered to this day.
In the years following his enormous commercial success as a musician, Marvin Gaye eventually developed issues with mental health and substance abuse and was particularly beset with paranoia about being shot, a worry that would push him to end one of his tours prematurely, move in with his parents, and spend the majority of his time locked in his room. Gaye would speak often of death and suicide during this time, and tensions between himself and his father would continue to mount.
On Christmas day in 1983, Marvin gifted his father an unregistered pistol, intended purportedly as a measure of protection against intruders.
A few months later, on April 1, 1984, a mere few minutes after their initial altercation, Marvin Gay Sr. returned to his son’s room holding that same gun and, wordlessly, shot him twice in succession.
According to Jeanne, Marvin Jr. had known that this would be the outcome, and intended it. She stated in an interview that by provoking his father, Marvin Sr., “…accomplished three things. He put himself out of his misery. He brought relief to Mother by finally getting her husband out of her life. And he punished Father, by making certain that the rest of his life would be miserable.”
It’s impossible to know if, leading up to that fateful moment, Marvin Gay Sr. had any notion that his son’s fame and success would make killing Marvin Jr. be the most impactful thing he did in his life by far, at least by any cultural metric. But I would guess there’s a good chance it occurred to him at some point afterward, in the following fourteen years, during which he continued to outlive his eldest son.
Photo Credit: singersroom.com
Philip Rienstra (‘21) majored in writing and music and has plans to pursue a career in publishing. They are a recovering music snob, a fruit juice enthusiast, and a big fan of the enneagram. They’re currently living in St. Paul with their spouse, Heidi.