Sex, drugs, and rhythm and blues punctuate this tormenting story of one of Motown’s greatest voices.
Turner keeps a keen eye on Gaye’s family throughout his biography, beginning with the family’s roots in Jessamine County, Kentucky, and Gaye’s cross-dressing father. After a brief stint in the US Air Force, notable mostly for encounters with Wyoming prostitutes and an honorable discharge from service, Gaye met his mentor Harvey Fuqua, and his singing career slowly blossomed. Eventually catching up with Berry Gordy and the fledgling Motown label, Gaye’s rise to the top was complicated by racist encounters on tour, a troubled marriage to Gordy’s sister Anna, an illegitimate child (fathered with his wife’s niece), and the untimely death (from a brain tumor) of singing partner Tammi Terrell. Excessive drug use led to paranoid delusions of persecution and increasing financial difficulties (from failure to pay child support to dunning by the IRS). The author balances these depictions of Gaye’s troubled personal life with a measured exploration of his singing career, including the commercial success of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the artistic accomplishments of “What’s Going On.” It all came to a sudden end when Gaye was murdered by his father (following a domestic dispute) in 1984—a tragedy that halted a career still vibrant from the recent successes of the single “Sexual Healing” and the album “Midnight Love.” Turner presents a fair and even-handed account of his subject’s life, neither withholding Gaye’s negative qualities (such as blatant misogyny) nor failing to develop a full picture of his musical genius. A stronger editor would have weeded out a few missteps, such as the author’s bizarre digressions into John Steinbeck’s reactions to Beaumont, Texas, and an empty comparison between Gaye and John Lennon.
A life as haunting as the music, and a biography that comes very close to doing it justice. (16 b&w photos)