Family, friends and fans of Marvin Gaye came together Wednesday to pay joyful hommage the late Motown legend and native Washingtonian on what would have been his 75th birthday.
Gaye was shot and killed by his father on the eve of his 45th birthday in 1984, leaving behind a remarkable string of hits -- led by "Let's Get It On," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Sexual Healing" -- that remain pop, funk and soul classics.
"When it comes to DC, there's nothing bigger, nothing better than Marvin Gaye," proclaimed local radio DJ Guy Lambert, emcee of a birthday soiree at Marvin, a bar-restaurant honoring the nearly two years Gaye lived in Belgium.
Spotted in the diverse 200-strong crowd were Gaye's youngest sister Zeola, who sang backing vocals on his 1977 dance hit "Got to Give it Up," and his longtime friend and music arranger Gordon Banks, who on guitar led a lively jam session on Marvin's al fresco stage.
Performing as well were members of Gaye's very first combo, the Marquees, a doo-wop quartet that came together in 1959 in the Washington basement recording studio of pioneering rhythm and blues guitarist Bo Diddley.
"Marvin goes all the way back with us. We used to do talent shows at Dunbar high school and Marvin played drums behind us," recalled Jimmy Falwell, whose own doo-wop group the Velons is still in business after 56 years.
But, Falwell told AFP, "Washington wasn't that good on supporting a lot of the music we were doing at that time. Most artists had to leave Washington to get their success."
Fame awaited the young Gaye at Motown, the Detroit record label founded by Berry Gordy that revolutionized pop music in the 1960s, cranking out hits in the same production-line manner that General Motors turned out cars.
His first solo hit, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," charted in 1962, followed by such songs as "Can I Get a Witness," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and "Ain't That Peculiar."
With his smooth vocal style, Gaye was a perfect fit in duets alongside Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell, with whom he recorded "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing."
In the 1970s, reflecting the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, Gaye's music took a sharp political and social turn with powerful chart-toppers like "What's Going On" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."
But in his private life, Gaye suffered a tortured relationship with his father Marvin Gay (the "e" was added by the son), a fringe-church clergyman in Washington who had no qualms brutally beating his children.
"I hated Washington," Gaye told his biographer David Ritz. "The place filled me with hopelessness. Nothing happened in Washington. It was all government, papers, bureaucrats and bullshit."
Wrestling with drugs, drink and depression, and refusing to pay US taxes in protest at the Vietnam war, Gaye found inner peace in the early 1980s in seaside Ostend, Belgium, where he composed "Sexual Healing," his last big hit.
"It was cold as I don't know what, but it was special," recalled Banks, who was there with him. "Nobody really knew who he was in little Ostend, so he could live without the shroud of being a superstar over there."
The music fell silent on April 1, 1984 when, in the midst of a family altercation, Gaye was fatally shot twice in Los Angeles by his father, who used a .38 caliber pistol his son had given him to ward off intruders.
"I'm really sorry for everything that happened... I'm paying the price now," said the elder Gay at his trial, where he got a six-year suspended sentence after pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter.
Gay died in 1998, aged 84, but not before fathering, by another woman, the last of his five children, Antwaun Carey Gay, who until a few years ago kept his kinship with his famous brother -- who he never met -- a secret.
"The more spiritual part of Marvin is that which I've clung to the most," Gay, 44, as tall and handsome as his lost sibling, told AFP as "Inner City Blues" wafted through the birthday fete.
"Listening to him on the radio at night, it was like, 'That's my brother'," added Gay, an instructional assistant in a Virginia prison.
"And it was kind of a dream (of mine), one day seeing him, hoping that he would embrace me -- and I think he would have."
Elsewhere in Washington, next door to Gaye's old junior high school where he sang in a glee club, a hip younger crowd marked Wednesday's anniversary at a former Baptist church turned contemporary art space called Blind Whino.
"This was his neighborhood. He physically walked these streets," said organizer April Watts, who regularly spins Gaye nuggets alongside modern R&B tunes on her weekend radio show.
"He had the ability to interpret a song unlike anyone else ever did or probably ever will," she said.
"He was a maverick... He made honest music and he was extremely creative. That is his legacy."