You’ll find all the artists in this Rock ‘n’ Roll Storytime at Tupac’s ‘Thug Mansion.’ In the song describing the coolest version of heaven ever, Tupac consecutively mentions all three artists:
“Seen a show with Marvin Gaye last night,
It had me shook, sippin’ peppermint schnapps
With Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke.”
Tupac drank peppermint schnapps?! That’s the same thing I was sippin’ while on our 7th grade youth group ski trip to Sugar Mountain. Man, it’s like we were the same person in 1992!
But Tupac’s not the only one to memorialize Marvin, Jackie and Sam through song. Van Morrison gives his best interpretation in ‘Jackie Wilson Said,’ Sam Cooke’s final words are immortalized in Har Mar Superstar’s ‘Lady You Shot Me’ and The Commodores pay tribute to both Marvin and Jackie in ‘Nightshift.’
There’s another common thread among the trio – all three shot straight to the top….wait, no.
All three were shot…with guns.
Though only two died from their gunshot wounds, the third had one of the more bizarre rock ‘n’ roll deaths.
So let’s examine the crazy lives and tragic deaths of these influential R&B and soul singers, starting with Mr. Excitement, Jackie Wilson.
Jackie Wilson was known for his ridiculous operatic voice and dance moves which earned him the name “Mr. Excitement.” As inspiration for James Brown & Michael Jackson’s groove, Jackie was known as “The Black Elvis.”
Jackie lived a hard life. Apparently he started drinking at the age of 9, was in correctional facilities before dropping out of high school, and became a father by the age of 17. Jackie realized the only way out was music, so Mr. Excitement made a name for himself.
Album covers weren’t the only place to find little Jackies. As the eternal ladies’ man, Jackie was a father of 10 by the time of his death.
Speaking of, in 1961 Jackie was shot twice by a jealous lover while stepping out on her with Sam Cooke’s ex-girlfriend. To keep Jackie’s image clean to the public, his label said he was trying to stop an obsessed fan from killing herself by using his body as a shield. But Jackie didn’t die! He only lost a kidney and his spirit went ‘Higher & Higher.’
Jackie’s legacy probably would have been stronger if he died there. Instead he kept up with his hard living ways but struggled to keep up with the musical times. But a dwindling fan base didn’t stop Jackie from performing, at least not until one fateful day in 1975.
While sound checking ‘Lonely Teardrops’ before one of Dick Clark’s shows, Jackie reportedly sang the lyrics, “My heart is crying” and fell to his knees. The audience, and even his band, thought it was just part of the performance.
It turns out his heart was literally crying…because Jackie was having a heart attack.
He then fell into a coma.
Not to gain consciousness for eight months.
Only to enter into a semi-conscious state.
Only to die NINE years later after being an eggplant for most of it.
As tragic (and drawn out) as Jackie’s death was, we’re just getting started.
Spotify modestly starts his biography with “Sam Cooke was the most important soul singer in history.”
Hard to argue with that. Sam’s first single, ‘You Send Me’ became the first major crossover hit for a black artist, skyrocketing Cooke’s status in the music industry.
But Sam wasn’t just a pretty face and a great voice that only mildly threatened white culture in the early ‘60s, Sam was a business man. He realized early on that the real money was in publishing and producing, so he started his own label and wrote all of his major hits.
A soulful singer with a soft voice, Sam didn’t overpower the audience, though that doesn’t mean he lacked energy. And a lot of Sam’s energy went to the ladies.
But Sam was a smart cocksman who preferred no-strings attached sexual encounters. He’d been known to warn other artists the dangers of fooling around with fans so he stuck with the safest sexual encounters possible: prostitutes.
Unfortunately prostitutes aren’t totally consequence-free. Like when they steal your stuff when you’re in the motel shower.
Unfortunately for the whole world, this happened to Sam. And while in pursuit of his stuff and the prostitute, wearing nothing but a jacket and one shoe, Sam Cooke busted into the hotel manager’s room thinking this was where the thieving hooker was hiding. After a heated argument with the manager, a 33-year-old Sam Cooke was shot dead, uttering his last words, “lady, you shot me.”
While we lost Sam Cooke way too soon, his music, pioneering business sense and spirit left a mark on the world. Surrounded by segregation and desperate for social change, Sam used his abilities to drive the dialogue. Songs like ‘Keep Moving On’ and ‘Chain Gang’ shared his vision, but his moving ‘Change Is Gonna Come’ was posthumously his most impactful song which became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement.
Shortly after Sam’s untimely death artists like Otis Redding and The Supremes honored his life and work by recording his music, but this trend continues today. For example, The-Dream released a tribute album called I Am Sam just last year:
Speaking of influence, Marvin Gaye is “one of, if not the greatest artist to walk the face of the earth…one of the twelve musical disciples.” At least that’s what he thought of himself.
Before he became every white person’s version of foreplay, Marvin was greatly influenced by both Jackie & Sam, seeing both perform while growing up in D.C. Marvin was able to expand upon their contributions to R&B and soul while adding a healthy dose of funk, jazz, sexuality AND social change.
But nothing was ever easy with Marvin.
From his strained relationship with his abusive father, an extremely strict Pentecostal preacher… to his disdain for authority – he dropped out of high school, was discharged from the US Airforce, and constantly challenged Motown’s assembly line format. He once said, “Motown wasn’t about art. It was about hits.” When you look at his work a whole, it’s easy to see Marvin’s troubled history and evolution as an artist.
Dubbed the “Prince of Motown,” Marvin had a prolific career with the label recording 16 albums in 20 years, but success didn’t necessarily come easy for Marvin. Marvin was frustrated he wasn’t taking off as quickly as his label mates, and his original goal to be the Black Frank Sinatra didn’t work for Motown, or with audiences.
So he began to show off one of his strengths – hanging with the ladies.
While the duets elevated his stature, Marvin still didn’t feel like he was getting the respect he deserved.
Motown continued to push him and singing partner Tammi Terrell to record and perform, despite the fact she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and on one occasion collapsed in Marvin’s arms while performing. So, Marvin became even more disenfranchised and went into a spiral.
He began working out with the East Michigan University football team, gained 30 pounds and tried out for Detroit Lions.
There were two problems. Marvin wasn’t a pro athlete and the coaches feared they might get sued by the true powerhouse in the city, Motown.
So Marvin went back to Motown. Though he was disillusioned with the Motown machine and their insistence to keep churning out records and singles, he knew they were his key to success, and the lifestyle he had worked for.
While Marvin’s disdain for Motown was enormous, he was even more fixated on social turmoil from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
“With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”
So like Sam Cooke, Marvin used his voice to speak out and landed his first #1 album and true masterpiece:
For his follow up Marvin wrote & performed the score to Trouble Man, a Blaxploitation film, because that was the thing to do at the time:
Let’s Get It On, his next album, was inspired by his future wife Janis and would cement his legacy as the sensual lover.
Again, there were two problems.
Janis was nearly seventeen years younger than 33-year old Marvin. We’ll let you listen to this Winger song while you do the math.
Marvin was already married, to a woman seventeen years his senior. Oh, I’m sorry! Did we forget to mention Marvin was married to Anna Gordy, the older sister of Berry…the founder of Motown and Marvin’s boss?
By the mid-‘70s Marvin’s marriage to Anna was beyond repair and she filed for divorce and custody of their “adopted” son, Marvin Gaye III. Quick timeout to talk about Marvin the Turd.
According to Motown press releases Baby Gaye was biologically born to Anna and Marvin. Later on it was said he was adopted by Anna and Marvin.
More recently it’s been confirmed that he was fathered by Marvin but born to Denise Gordy, Anna’s cousin…who was seventeen at the time of the baby’s birth. Sounds like we’ve found Marvin’s lucky number!
Back to Anna and Marvin’s divorce. At this point Marvin was an international superstar and Anna wanted her proper compensation. So he cut a deal where he would give Anna the proceeds to his next album.
Assuming by Anna’s $5 million invasion-of-privacy lawsuit and the fact that the songs explicitly called her out, she wasn’t a fan of Here, My Dear.
I think the inside cover art speaks for itself:
And this album came out on Anna’s brother’s label…
The late ‘70s weren’t easy for Marvin who was living beyond his means. He was notorious for making poor financial decisions and his scornful album didn’t sell well. But it was Marvin’s love for cocaine that did him in.
“I consider myself a connoisseur. I’m passionate about good cocaine…my attitude has always been, whenever good blow is around, buy it, regardless of price.”
Marvin also didn’t think he needed to share with Uncle Sam, forcing him into a three-year European tax evasion exile where he continued to run from his problems until he hit rock bottom.
Luckily Marvin was saved. CBS bought out his contract with Motown, paid off Anna, Janis and Uncle Sam. So with his legal issues fixed, Marvin returned to show the US how to get its groove back:
Marvin also showed the world he wasn’t done when ‘Sexual Healing’ was released – on his seventeenth album – providing his comeback and earning him his first Grammy award. And to prove there was no bad blood, Anna was his date to the Grammy’s that night.
So it was a happy ending for Marvin.
Following his United States comeback tour – where he kept a preacher in one hotel room and his drug dealer in the other – Marvin moved in with his mom and dad due to “cocaine related paranoia.” A typical argument turned deadly when Marvin was fatally shot by his own father. Robbing the world of another amazing talent.
Even with their untimely deaths and rock ‘n’ roll antics with underage girls, booze, and drugs, these artists helped shape music as we know it. In particular, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye were instrumental in using their voices and talents to help push social change. Their messages are just as relevant today as when they were written. This is usually where we end with one last snarky, inappropriate joke to tie everything up. Nah. Not this time. These men deserve better than that.
This has been Rock ‘n’ Soul Storytime.
Don’t forget to check out this Storytime’s playlists.
Jackie Wilson Said: https://open.spotify.com/user/1237741119/playlist/0eZYUbqddzymFZL8b2bi5W
Showcasing the wide range of talent for each artist as well as their mentioned tributes.
Bring It On Home To Me: https://open.spotify.com/user/1237741119/playlist/4jd3n6C6Yag91ttjJfav4l
A collection of songs covered by other artists, especially the title track. It’s a little repetitive since many artists covered the same Sam & Marvin songs; at some point it feels like you’re seven hours into this.