Research: What’s goin’ on with Marvin Gaye?

Twenty years after his untimely death at the hands of his father, Marvin Gaye has a secure place in the pantheon of pop music. At least four biographies, a memoir and a score of other works have explored his troubled life and groundbreaking music.

Now comes Michael Eric Dyson to tell us there’s more to the story.

Michael Eric Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson uses Marvin Gaye as a lens through which to view black America in his latest book, “Mercy, Mercy Me.”

Photo by Mark Stehle

“There’s a lot of new information out there about Marvin Gaye—how he made his incredible music, how he put together his albums, how he was an extensive collaborator and what process he went through in order to create the ingenious sounds, harmonies, melodies that we now appreciate,” said the Avalon Professor in the Humanities.

One of the new musical revelations in Dyson’s recently published book, “Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye” (Basic Books, 2004), is that “What’s Goin’ On,” Gaye’s epochal 1971 commentary on the state of the world, was produced in just 10 days. Another is that much of Gaye’s most original work was actually the product of collaborations between him and the writers, technicians, producers and other artists that made up the Motown hit factory.

The book is more than just an examination of Gaye’s music. Dyson, 45, wrote what he called a “biocritical analysis” using Gaye as a lens through which to view African-American society and culture. “I wanted my book to get at some of the issues which Marvin Gaye’s life reflects,” he said.

One of those issues is child abuse. Dyson uses the story of how Gaye’s father physically punished him and his siblings to examine the role corporal punishment plays in black child rearing, all but pleading with his black readers to abandon the practice.

Like many who grew up in Motown’s heyday, Dyson has personal memories of how the music affected him. His earliest memory of Gaye is hearing his song “Can I Get A Witness” at age 6. He credits listening to “What’s Goin’ On” at age 12 with inspiring him to a winning performance in an oratorical contest. “That song calmed me and inspired me at the same time, and it became my favorite song,” he said. “From that moment on, I collected as much information about him as I could.”

Dyson deliberately timed the release of “Mercy, Mercy Me” to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Gaye’s death on April 1, 1984, one day before his 45th birthday. “I wanted to present to a new generation an overview of his extraordinary art and craft, what drove him, what made him amazing and why he continues to be relevant to this younger generation. No less than three rappers are sampling him as we speak,” he said.

Originally published on April 29, 2004