Marvin Gaye Biographies -
Distant Hoverers and
Up-Close Brotherly Lovers

A confidant, a brother, and others have found much to say in the Marvin Gaye biographies since the Motown singer's death, often in different but still-fascinating ways.

If my summary of his life just isn't enough to keep you satisfied, then the books I review below (in order of preference) should make your days and nights.

Marvin Gaye Biographies -
Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye biographies: Divided Soul cover

By David Ritz, 1985

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Of all the Marvin Gaye biographies out there, this one is the most celebrated. It's not hard to see why.

A lifelong-fan-turned-collaborator, the author's ardor for the artist and his music is palpable. The book title captures Ritz's theme, which stresses Gaye's spiritual and sexual personality split. It's a motif that bubbles up repeatedly and credibly among the events and quotations.

Outrageous, funny, pitiful, acutely self-aware, and highly observant--that's the Marvin Gaye that his own words reveal. Although the author sometimes drapes him in grandeur and aims neon arrows toward his terrible fate, Gaye's statements feel so immediate that you'd think this human was still...being.

Ritz makes this Marvin Gaye bio more than an interview record. His fraternal love for the subject doesn't soften his criticisms or blind him to the artist's "self-created" disasters. Across profiles of familiars and rundowns of major albums, the highly readable chapters offer context and trenchant insights, not just praise and laments.

Some Marvin Gaye biographies consider his life from a distance, in time and space. Ritz began this project before Gaye's death and published it a year after the tragedy. It details the state of the artist's mind, heart, soul, and body.

Even if Gaye had lived to co-write this book, I can't imagine it being more engaging and ferociously honest than it already is.

Marvin Gaye Biographies -
Trouble Man: The Life and Death
of Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye biographies: Trouble Man cover

By Steve Turner, 1998

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Marvin Gaye biographies necessarily talk about his demise as well as his living days. This one zeroes in on the character traits that shaped both.

Steve Turner portrays Gaye as an introverted, initially clean-living homebody. Nothing wrong with being that way (ahem)! When Turner turns to the Motown man's neuroses and sexual needs, plus his father's desires and eccentricities, the Trouble of the title truly emerges.

The epilogue's psychoanalytical leanings remind me of David Ritz's throughout Divided Soul. Turner takes the "soul" part even further with a curious postmortem judgment of Gaye's life.

For the most part, though, the author grounds his book in the "exhaustive research" he conducted about Gaye's personal and musical history. He quotes numerous childhood and satellite figures and cites specific locations, dates, times, and even debts to the penny.

The details can make his approach rather clinical. But Turner offsets this matter-of-fact style with subjectivity that keeps the writing somewhat dynamic. Concise summaries of facts share pages with naturally expressed revelations and perceptive song reviews.

If the prose doesn't make you go, "whoa," some of the photos will, in both good and bad ways.

Finally, unlike other resources I've read, this book presents a "Where Are They Now?" chapter that briefly sketches the fates--also good and bad--of the individuals who accompanied Marvin Gaye along the way.

I recommend this book as a supplement to Ritz's definitive publication.

Marvin Gaye Biographies -
Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons
of Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye bios: Mercy cover

By Michael Eric Dyson, 2004

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You can't really tell from the title, but this book is one of the more academic Marvin Gaye biographies.

Actually, it talks about Marvin Gaye, and it includes biographical facts (frequently on colleagues like Tammi Terrell or Ashford and Simpson). But it's not a simple outline of the singer's life. The author calls it a "biocriticism."

Dyson thoughtfully examines the artist's music-making process, with technical particulars, behind-the-scenes morsels, and abstract reflections. He balances larger cultural frameworks (e.g., corporal punishment in the black community) with the personal point of view of a fan since youth.

The author sure knows how to organize his writing. He segues quite neatly between chapters, and he often distills his ideas into clearer follow-up statements.

If anything, that tidiness makes the psychological, emotional, and sexual perversity of certain Gays (without the "e") that much tougher to read about.

As if trying to pull us back from those uncomfortable passages, the author occasionally inserts himself into the text, claiming he feels "great sadness" while learning about such and such misfortune. He even gets apologetic several times over his forays into "cliché." They're strange and clunky ways to make his essays accessible.

Also peculiar: Random and underused interviewees, like Marvelette Gladys Horton and Arsenio Hall(!). The last chapter also ends abruptly--so much for smooth transitions.

If you're looking for a scholarly treatment of this Motown singer, then this is your book. For more intimate looks at his loves and demons, other Marvin Gaye biographies would be better choices.

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