Q: What’s going on?

A: Marvin Gaye’s 85th birthday

Published April 2, 2024

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby. And they don’t come much realer than Marvin Gaye, who was born on April 2, 1939.

Gaye grew up in a strict, sometimes abusive household in Washington, D.C., where many of life’s pleasures—movies, TV, dancing—were not allowed. But Gaye’s father, a Pentecostal minister, sowed the seeds of that plan’s undoing: he encouraged Marvin and his siblings to play instruments and sing in the church from a young age. Fast-forward to the late ‘50s, after an ill-fated stint in the Air Force, and Gaye’s career would take him from local doo-wop groups to the legendary Motown imprint Tamla Records, where he built a galactic catalog, both as a solo artist and with duet partner Tammi Terrell.

Gaye hit his creative peak in the early ‘70s, even as he reeled from Terrell’s sudden death from a brain tumor at age 24 (which prompted him to briefly give up music and try out for the Detroit Lions, of all things). He struggled with depression and addiction, separated from his wife, and was plagued by financial and tax woes–all while putting out What’s Going On (1971) and Let’s Get It On (1973), which appear on most any critic’s list of the best albums ever.

After two more, less-popular albums in the ‘70s–and a sojourn in Belgium, of all places–Gaye made an early-’80s comeback, culminating in Midnight Love (1982), whose lead single finally won him his first Grammys (see below!). But the renaissance reached an abrupt and tragic end when he was shot and killed by his father during an argument at the Los Angeles home he’d bought for his parents. It was April 1, 1984–the day before his 45th birthday. 

Last week, we learned that Gaye might still have a hit left in him, when a cache of unreleased music popped up in Belgium. But for now we’re content to look at the most enduring hits from his lifetime, as ranked by the number of Spotify streams

1.     Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (1.288 billion streams) The quintessential Gaye/Terrell duet only made it to #19 on the Billboard Hot 100, in July 1967. In fact, they had four other singles that charted higher. But its timeless, feel-good, uptown/gospel vibe make it the only one that, on average, every person in the world has listened to about one-sixth of a time… on Spotify alone. That’s a pretty high mountain!

2.     Sexual Healing (388 million) There’s no denying it: Marvin Gaye was a man who liked to sing about boning down. “Sexual Healing” was recently ranked among the 200 best songs of all time by Rolling Stone (which they seem to redo once a quarter these days, but we digress). It was also the song that finally won Gaye a couple of Grammys. But TimeOut knows its real appeal: Last fall, they called it the sexiest song ever made. Boink in good health, reader!

3.     I Heard It Through the Grapevine (378 million)  One of Gaye’s signature songs, this was one of just three Billboard chart-toppers he released, staying at the summit for seven weeks in 1968… mere months after Gladys Knight’s version hit #2. Romantic betrayal is always a pop-song winner, and this one has been (officially) covered 52 times since Marvin’s, including by Ike and Tina Turner, Elton John, and Amy Winehouse. Honey, honey, yeah.

4.     Let’s Get It On (294 million) It bears repeating: Marvin Gaye was a man who liked to sing about boning down. He must rival Barry White as the singer who’s inspired the most schtupping sessions. Anyway, this pleading 1973 hit was his second Billboard #1 (the third was 1977’s “Got to Give It Up,” lest you wonder). And if you’re training for your next intimate evening, note that its tempo is 82 bpm. You’re welcome!

5.     What’s Going On (275 million) This anti-war song was popular on its original 1971 release, and its lyrics still resonate more than a half-century later. “What’s Going On” was inspired by conversations with his brother Frankie, who had returned from serving three years in Vietnam, and by the events that led to the 1965 Watts riots. Gaye reportedly told a Motown executive, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Clearly, he rebounded.