- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

Yes, they’re the great pretenders — the long, variegated parade of R&B; hopefuls who have tried in vain to succeed Marvin Gaye as the Prince of Soul.

Mr. Gaye, the D.C. native who became the leading male solo star of Detroit’s legendary Motown Records, was killed by his father, a Pentecostal minister, 20 years ago yesterday on April 1, 1984.

A shocking, painful and inexplicable human tragedy, the loss of the singer the day before his 45th birthday left a void in soul music so large that nobody has been able to fill it in 20 years.

Mr. Gaye was hardly the first R&B; star to die before his time. Sam Cooke was murdered in 1964 in circumstances hard to reconcile with the dignity of his life. Otis Redding’s plane crashed in 1967, killing him and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays. Donny Hathaway committed suicide in 1979. Jackie Wilson died ailing and all but abandoned in 1984.

Managing to cheat death, some stars had other crosses to bear. Teddy Pendergrass, perhaps Mr. Gaye’s nearest rival in the ‘80s, was left a paraplegic following a car crash in 1982 at the peak of his career. Al Green, Mr. Gaye’s leading rival during the early ‘70s, left secular music for the ministry in 1974 after a former girlfriend attacked him with a pot of hot grits.

The arrival of MTV in 1981 with a format that initially snubbed R&B; only made it harder for would-be heirs to the Gaye legacy. The music was being made, but record buyers, now equipped with a new way of viewing their favorite artists, just weren’t hearing it.

But even the new medium couldn’t defeat Marvin.

Ravaged by cocaine addiction, hounded by the IRS and struggling to cope with the after-effects of two failed marriages, he continued to make music. In 1982 he turned out the Grammy-winning “Sexual Healing;” his smooth three-octave tenor caressing its saucy lyrics of redemption at the peak of ecstasy. The single reached No. 3 on the pop charts (and No. 1 R&B;).

Then the music stopped.

Ever since, the pretenders to the throne, from old-school crooners to latter-day wannabes, have been lining up. One way or another, they’ve all missed the mark.

Jeffrey Osborne, whose formidable baritone powered the ‘70s band LTD, tried his hand with the syrupy 1982 hit, “On the Wings of Love.” Its 1986 follow-up, “You Should Be Mine,” more commonly known as the “Woo Woo Song,” sold well, though its title elicited giggles rather than thoughts of amour.

Freddie Jackson and Peabo Bryson also found brief success in the mid-1980s, with the ballads, respectively, “You Are My Lady” and “Feel the Fire,” but their popularity had waned by the end of the decade.

The ‘90s would bring Usher, Kenny Lattimore, D’Angelo, Ginuwine and Baltimore’s platinum-tressed Sisqo with his “Thong Song” in 1999. Within months, though, Sisqo was out of the loop, either because of rumors about his sexuality (fueled, in part, by what Ebony magazine called his “RuPaul-esque wardrobe”), or simply because record buyers realized he wasn’t “the one.”

Today when stardom is measured by the votes of TV viewers rather than talent, the prospect of a Gaye successor seems more remote than ever.

If this sounds like the rant of a baby boomer, so be it. Marvin Gaye voiced our collective social conscience with “What’s Going On,” his career defining masterpiece. He kept us dancing with a string of hits such as “Got to Give It Up.” He epitomized romance with a host of duets with his singing partner Tammi Terrell (who would die from a brain tumor after collapsing on stage in Mr. Gaye’s arms) and with solo works such as “Distant Lover,” and the smooth and seductive “After the Dance.”

Somehow “Feelin’ On Yo Booty” (from R. Kelly’s 2000 CD “TP-2.com”) just isn’t the same.

Yes, Mr. Gaye made a song praising the libido of his second wife, Janis Hunter, tagged with a title that can’t be reprinted here. But “whatever he sang, he still came from the church,” says Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. “Marvin had the incredible talent to bring together the spiritual with the profane. There was always an element of class.”

In his essay “The Tortured Soul of Marvin Gaye and R. Kelly,” Mr. Neal compared the two artists. “There’s a darkness about R. Kelly that’s akin to Marvin Gaye,” Mr. Neal says, referring to Mr. Kelly’s current legal debacle stemming from his reported sexual trysts with teenage girls. “Still, when we think about Marvin Gaye, we think about the struggle of the civil rights era…When you think about R. Kelly, you somehow think about the worst elements of hip-hop — plus the pornography elements.”

Yet perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope. “Although Kelly’s marketing team usually presented him as a cross between a thug and a blaxploitation lover man, his musical identify was pure gospel and soul,” writes Craig Werner in the recently published book “Higher Ground: Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and the Rise and Fall of American Soul.” “When Kelly finished with the gangsta posing and bedroom boasting that scared most of the older generation away from his albums, he revealed himself as a sensitive storyteller who understood the connection between the romantic and the spiritual.”

David Ritz, who penned the 1985 biography “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye” and co-wrote “Sexual Healing” with the superstar, has a somewhat different take on an heir apparent to Mr. Gaye.

“Others will be inspired, but I don’t see it as a matter of taking Marvin’s place,” Mr. Ritz says in a phone interview, mentioning a current crop of singers that includes Maxwell, D’Angelo, the up and coming Van Hunt and even ‘80s standout El DeBarge.

“We each contain a part of God’s voice, and Marvin had a very powerful part,” explained Mr. Ritz, who also co-wrote “Howling at the Moon,” former CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff’s much-publicized new record biz memoir. “One of the amazing things about [Marvin] was his ability to turn pain into beauty and chaos into clarity.”

At Motown, Marvin Gaye was notorious for his lack of punctuality. “But Marvin was always worth the wait,” writes soul icon and label mate Smokey Robinson in Rolling Stone’s current issue celebrating “The Fifty Greatest Artists of All Time.” (Mr. Gaye is ranked No. 18, two places behind Sam Cooke.) “I suppose in a way, I’m still waiting for Marvin,” Mr. Robinson writes.

Perhaps we all are.

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