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Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" celebrates 40th anniversary
Forty years ago, Marvin Gaye got Motown to release an album unlike any it ever had before.
Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which came out on May 21, 1971, was a flowing socially conscious song cycle about nothing less than the state of the world. While the title track asks broad questions, other songs are more specifically pointed to the environment (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”), urban life (“Inner City Blues Make Me Wanna Holler),” the future (“Save the Children”) and spirituality (“God is Love,” “Wholly Holy”). Motown had gently entered this terrain with individual songs — the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” the Four Tops’ “Still Water” — but this was protest music on a whole other plane.
And it made the company uncomfortable, so much so that founder and CEO Berry Gordy Jr. had to be lobbied heavily, by Gaye and his fellow artists, to release the “What’s Going On” single and its parent album.
The risk was rewarded, however, as “What’s Going On” was an instant hit and enjoys a legacy as one of the finest and most important albums ever created. It’s credited with opening Motown both musically and aesthetically; a rare album produced by the artist himself, it paved the way for others — most notably Stevie Wonder — to do the same.
To commemorate its 40th anniversary, a Super Deluxe Edition of “What’s Going On” comes out Tuesday, June 7, featuring 13 unreleased tracks, a booklet with new essays and rare photos. A July 24 concert at the Hollywood Bowl — featuring Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae and Rickey Minor — will pay tribute to “What’s Going On,” as will a special performance of the album by John Legend and The Roots with the National Symphony Orchestra in May 2012 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. And, of course, Detroit’s Motown Historical Museum continues to house an exhibit dedicated to Gaye.
Here, meanwhile, we celebrate by remembering some of the key facts about arguably the most important musical work to come out of Detroit:
- “What’s Going On” arrived at a time when Gaye, depressed by the 1970 death of his favorite duet partner Tammi Terrell, had been inactive for the better part of a year.
- “What’s Going On,” the album, began with “What’s Going On,” the song, which Gaye co-wrote with Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson. Benson got the idea for the song after witnessing anti-war demonstrations that turned violent while on tour in San Fancisco, but the Tops rejected the idea of the song as too political.
- Gaye planned to give the song, which he recorded in June 1970, to another Motown act, the Originals, but his collaborators convinced him to record it himself.
- The song’s theme was partly inspired by Gaye’s brother Frankie, who was serving in the U.S. military. He told Rolling Stone magazine that, “I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
- The “party” voices at the start of the song included Detroit Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney (Gaye had tried out for the Lions shortly before) as well as Bobby Rogers from the Miracles. They also sang backing vocals during the main body of the tune.
- Motown founder and CEO Berry Gordy, who had worked hard to craft and protect a “great, sexy image” for Gaye, initially didn’t like “What’s Going On,” telling Smokey Robinson that “It’s not commercial. I don’t think they’re going to lay it on the radio ... I’m going to talk (Gaye) out of it.”
- With Gaye unrelenting and other Motown artists and producers voicing their support, Gordy ultimately agreed to release the song, acknowledging in a later interview that, “I wasn’t perfect. I was wrong about that one.” Robinson wrote that Gordy “lost the fight — and lost it like a gentleman. He realized with Marvin, and later with Stevie (Wonder), that these were artists who required freedom. And he gave it to them.”
- In his memoir, “To Be Loved,” Gordy recalled a telephone conversation about the album with Gaye, writing that, “There was no way I was going to try and hold him back ... Marvin’s music is as relevant today as it was then.”
- “What’s Going On” was Motown’s fastest selling single to that point, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B charts and No. 2 on the pop chart.
- Two other singles from the album, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” also topped the R&B charts and hit the pop Top 10 at No. 4 and No. 9, respectively.
- The “What’s Going On” album topped the Billboard R&B chart as well and was No. 6 on the Billboard 200.
- The bulk of the “What’s Going On” album was recorded between March-May 1971 at Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A., and Detroit’s Golden World and United Sound studios, and at the Sound Factory in West Hollywood.
- Rolling Stone magazine named “What’s Going On” Album of the Year for 1971.
- Billboard gave the album a Trendsetter of the Year award.
- Though "What's Going On" has sold more than a million copies -- 1.2 million copies since 1991, in fact — it has never been certified platinum. It was, however, certified gold in 1993.
- In his self-deprecating liner notes for the album, Gaye declared “the fact that people just won’t let us think for ourselves really bugs me!” He then let fans know that, “if you like the artist well enough to buy his or her album, you don’t have to be told how groovy it is, what tunes you should dig, or how great his or her majestic is ... Just because I like ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ and the one that says ‘Save the Children’ shouldn’t influence anyone ... ”
- It ranks No. 6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The title track is No. 4 on the 500 greatest songs list.
- Britain’s New Musical Express named “What’s Going On” the best album of all time in 1985.
- “What’s Going On” was released in a 2001 25th anniversary Deluxe Edition that included a 1972 concert recording from the Kennedy Center.
- It was the first album on which the Funk Brothers, Motown’s band of studio musicians, received credit.
- The singles “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
- In his liner notes for the album, Gaye gave tongue-in-cheek “credit to some good people who, without their help, I could have completed this project a lot faster.”
- Gaye told biographer David Ritz that, “The biggest result of ‘What’s Going On’ had to do with my own freedom. I’d earned it, and no one could take it away from me. Now I could do whatever I wanted.”
- Gaye memorably performed “What’s Going On” as part of the “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever” TV special in March of 1983.
- Gaye dedicated the album in part to his father, the Rev. Marvin P. Gay Sr. It was his father who shot him to death during an argument on April 1, 1984, one day shy of the singer’s 45th birthday.
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