In honor of what would be Marvin Gaye’s 74th birthday, we are taking a look at the lesser developed side to the amazing artist — his work as a drummer. Check out some of the stories below as we discuss some of his pivotal recordings as a drummer!

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If it weren’t for playing the drums, you may have never heard of the name Marvin Gaye — well, at least maybe not as prolifically on Motown at least. In the early years of Motown Gaye had lost himself as a frustrated student, armed serviceman, dishwasher, and vocalist. By 1959, Marvin was recording as a part of Harvey and the Moonglows on Chess Records, but the group quickly disbanded with Harvey Fuqua and Marvin moving to Detroit to work with Gwen Gordy at Anna Records. While Fuqua continued to write songs, Marvin continued to sing while also being employed for a time at the label as a janitor and office organizer.

It wasn’t until Gaye performed by chance at the house of Berry Gordy that his career started to take a turn for the better. Gordy subsequently signed Marvin to his Tamla label in hopes of developing the young artist’s career. While Gordy and Motown are nearly synonymous with the 360 degree control of their artists, Marvin was different. He refused charm school, any sort of direction, and simply wanted to make a career recording jazz standards. With no agreed upon direction to his career, it was drumming that brought Marvin into the studio first. Recording as a session drummer for hit acts like Martha and the Vandellas (“Dancing In The Street”), the Contours, the Spinners (“That’s What Girls Are Made For”), Little Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, the Marvelettes, and more yielded songs like Motown’s first No. 1 single on the pop charts, “Please Mr. Postman,” as well as Stevie Wonder’s “I Call It Pretty Music” and “Fingertips, Part 2,” among others though he was uncredited on many.

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Though not as well known in the drumming realm as say Benny Benjamin, Marvin Gaye was very much a part of the Funk Brothers legendary recording history. It is even rumored that after Marvin’s debut, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, failed to chart he was working for $5 per week drumming for artists like Jimmy Reed and the Miracles. Now when you listen back to some of Gaye’s later work, you can be sure he was incredibly specific about his instrumentation because not only was he one of the greatest vocalist of all time, but among some of the finest musicians as well.

Check out some of the essential Marvin Gaye recordings from his session drumming days!

Words by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)

 

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