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The dark side of Motown from Marvin Gaye’s murder to abuse and drug addiction

Motown was one of the defining sounds of the swinging sixties, bringing music that has stood the test of time and been loved for generations.

But behind the hits was a dark reality of abuse, drug addiction and even murder.

Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father who had abused him for years, The Jackson 5 were allegedly subject to horrific abuse by their father and Temptations singer David Ruffin was said to be violently abusive to fellow Motown star Tammi Terrell, who also suffered at the hands of James Brown.

Here we look at the dark side of Motown and uncover the truth behind all those catchy tunes.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father

Marvin Gaye was one of Motown’s most famous artists, with tracks like Let’s Get It On and Sexual Healing still regarded as classics five decades on.

But before he found fame Gaye had a shockingly difficult upbringing, which would then lead to his tragic end.

Gaye was shot and killed on April 1, 1984, a day before his 45th birthday.

The gunman was his father, Marvin Gaye Senior, and he died in the family home.

The father and son are said to have gotten into a fight the night he died and Gaye Snr said he was afraid of his son.

marvin gaye
Gaye said his father abused him growing up

Gaye Jnr’s brother Frankie claimed his final words were: “I got what I wanted….I couldn’t do it myself, so I made him do it.”

Gaye Snr, a retired minister, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years of probation.

When Gaye Jnr was a child his father was very strict with him and his siblings, subjecting them to violent beatings.

The singer would later say: “By the time I was 12 there wasn’t an inch of my body that hadn’t been bruised and beaten.”

The Jackson 5

jackson 5
The Jackson 5 were a huge success

The Jackson 5 were a band of brothers and their success would kick-start the career of a young Michael Jackson.

The band’s massive success hid their horrific upbringing at the hands of their violent father Joe Jackson.

Joe, who died in 2018, would beat them with a belt buckle or the cord of an electric kettle.

One of his preferred punishments was making them spend hours carrying cinder blocks from one side of their garden to the other.

Before their fame they were not allowed to play with other children and had to rehearse for five hours a day after school.

The dark side of Motown from Marvin Gaye's murder to abuse and drug addiction
Michael Jackson and his father Joe

If they got a dance step wrong, Joe would beat them.

Michael was said to be so terrified of his father that he would vomit and faint in his presence.

Jackson would of course grow up to have problems of his own.

He has been accused of sexual abuse against children on numerous occasions, which he always denied and his estate has continued to strenuously deny since his death in 2009.

The Supremes

Mary was an original member of The Supremes alongside Diana Ross and Florence Ballard
The Supremes were a huge hit

The Supremes were the biggest girl group of Motown, famed for hits including Baby Love and Come See About Me.

Diana Ross was the biggest success story of the group and forged a mega successful solo career.

But the other members had less than happy endings.

Florence Ballard had a tragic life and died young in 1976 when she was just 32-years-old.

The singer was just 15 when her father died and she was raped at the age of 17 by a friend.

florence ballard
Florence Ballard (left) met a tragic end

Ballard drank heavily, which caused conflicts in The Supremes, the band she had formed with her childhood best friend Mary Wilson and later Ross.

Wilson later said: “The rape ate away at Flo’s insides…. She was scared for the rest of her life.”

Ballard had a failed solo career and suffered financial problems, later ending up on benefits.

At 32 she died suddenly of coronary thrombosis.

Ross later told Sounds: “There was something inside of her that was just pulling, that she wasn’t able to handle.”

The band was hit by further tragedy in February 2021 when Wilson died suddenly at the age of 76.

Mary Wells

The dark side of Motown from Marvin Gaye's murder to abuse and drug addiction
Mary Wells in the sixties

One of the saddest stories of Motown is perhaps that of Mary Wells.

She was one of the label’s early stars, achieving the first number one Motown song with My Guy.

At age 17 Wells married Motown background singer Herman Griffin, who allegedly cheated on her with a prostitute.

According to the book Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Griffin also made Wells get two abortions for the sake of her career.

They divorced in 1963 and the following year, just two years after My Guy’s success, Wells walked away from Motown.

Unfortunately, her career suffered for the decision.

mary wells dead
Mary died of cancer in 1992

In 1966, Wells married Cecil Womack from The Valentinos, but she later cheated on him with his own brother Curtis.

Wells struggled with depressed and attempted suicide in 1977.

She also battled an addiction to heroin.

Her years of heavy smoking meant her voice was reduced to a whisper and she could no longer perform, which left her struggling for money.

In 1990 Wells was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.

Wells would die from the cancer on July 28, 1992 after suffering from a bout with pneumonia.

Tammi Terrell

The dark side of Motown from Marvin Gaye's murder to abuse and drug addiction
Tammi Terrell has one of the saddest stories in Motown

Tammi Terrell was known for her hits with Marvin Gaye, including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and You’re All I Need to Get By.

The singer had a tragically short life and died at the age of just 24.

Terrell had a relationship with James Brown, who was violent towards her.

She later got into a relationship with The Temptations singer David Ruffin, who also beat her.

Marvin GAYE and Tammi TERRELL
Tammi and Marvin Gaye

Ruffin allegedly bashed her head with a hammer and hit her in the face with a motorcycle helmet.

In October 1967 Terrell fainted on stage and fell into Gaye’s arms.

She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour.

Terrell continued to work, but by 1970 she was confined to a wheelchair and weighed just 93 pounds.

She had also lost her eyesight and her hair.

Terrell died on March 16, 1970, just a month shy of her 25th birthday.

The DeBarges

The dark side of Motown from Marvin Gaye's murder to abuse and drug addiction
DeBarge in 1983

Motown family The Debarges suffered so many tragedies that some regard the family as “cursed”.

The DeBarge family had three music acts — the band Switch, the group DeBarge and solo artist Chico DeBarge.

Bobby DeBarge, who was in Switch, was addicted to heroin and was sentenced to five years in prison in 1988 for drug trafficking.

He contracted HIV in the 1980s, and died of AIDS complications in 1995 aged 39.

It was also alleged that Bobby’s father, who died in 2009, abused his wife.

In 1986 El DeBarge pleaded no-contest after a woman said he “pulled her hair, dragged her to the floor, and hit her” when she refused his advances.

El received a $200 (£144) fine plus 200 hours of community service.

Paul Williams

The dark side of Motown from Marvin Gaye's murder to abuse and drug addiction
Paul Williams from The Temptations

Paul Williams was one of the founding members of The Temptations, who are known for songs including My Girl.

In his early career he was known for being one of the only members of the band who didn’t drink, and encouraged his bandmates to stay healthy.

But his health problems changed that, and he turned to drink to cope with the debilitating pain of sickle cell anaemia.

He was rumoured to drink two to three fifths of a bottle of Courvoisier a day.

The dark side of Motown from Marvin Gaye's murder to abuse and drug addiction
The Temptations

Otis Williams previously told Descreet News: “Things got so bad that his stamina, his respiratory system started fading on him.”

He eventually had to leave The Temptations as his health problems worsened.

On August 17, 1973 Williams took his own life.

*If you’re struggling and need to talk, the Samaritans operate a free helpline open 24/7 on 116 123. Alternatively, you can email [email protected]org or visit their site to find your local branch

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