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Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On,' at 50, is still a landmark

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Like many Motown artists and music fans, the Temptations' Otis Williams well remembers the first time he heard Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" 50 years ago.

"I first heard little bits and pieces before I actually heard the record," Williams, says by phone from his California residence. "The one day I'm driving down to go to Motown — when Motown was still in Detroit — and the disc jockey says, 'I got a new one by Marvin Gaye. ... You got to check it out.'

"It started playing and I had to pull my car off to the shoulder of the road and appreciated it. I said, 'Wow, this is gonna be something else.'"

"What's Going On" was that and more. Preceded by the title single in January, the album that followed on May 21, 1971, was a masterwork not only in Gaye's career but in music history — affirmed by its No. 1 ranking on Rolling Stone magazine's recent list of the top 500 albums of all time.

It was a sonic and lyrical evolution for Gaye as well as for Motown as a label. The topical nine-song set, produced by Gaye and recorded mostly in Detroit, vaulted the "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" to full-fledged artist status. And with songs that dove deep into social issues such as racial injustice, war, poverty and the environment, the album has prescient staying power that makes it sound as relevant today, in another era of social discord, as when it was released.

"It was a very divine project," Gaye — who was fatally shot by his father on April 1, 1984, a day shy of his 45th birthday — said in an interview at the time. "I'm a great believer in God, and I feel the world is in an awful state. I see the country headed for civil war, in a sense. I knew there was this thing that I wanted to come out and make a statement.

"I think this is my cross to bear. I'm a messenger. I'm like Noah."


Gaye certainly had a lot to say on "What's Going On," partly inspired by his brother Frankie's experience serving in the Vietnam War, which infused the pacifistic pleadings of the title track. Reeling from the death of singing partner Tammi Terrell of a brain tumor in March 1970, Gaye went into seclusion. He explored spirituality in a deeper way, expressed in the album's "Wholy Holy," and expanded his musical influences, often checking out concerts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, whose members would be used on the album.

The title track began with the Four Tops' Renaldo "Obie" Benson, inspired by police brutality he witnessed at a protest rally in Berkeley, Calif., in the spring of 1970, and Al Cleveland. "We had just come from California and we were over at Marvin's house on Outer Drive (in Detroit), and that's where they were working on the song," recalls Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the last of the Tops' original members. "Marvin just sat at the piano and kept plunking, and Obie sat there with him and they just kept working on it.

"Later on, Obie said to me, 'This song we wrote for Marvin, it's a grand song, man. It tells a long and helpful story to the country.'"

Benson later said he first offered "What's Going On" to the Tops, who turned it down because they didn't want to record a protest song. Fifty years later, Fakir says, "I can't remember whether he did or not. I don't remember him offering it to us. I think he just kind of felt like it was a Marvin type song, 'cause he knew Marvin very well."

The "What's Going On" single, recorded at Motown's Hitsville USA headquarters in June 1970, set a sonic template for what was to follow — a smooth, vibey ambience created by the Funk Brothers studio band, accented by a chorus of people talking in the background, including Detroit Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney and the Miracles' Bobby Rogers.

"I'd never played on a record where they keep the tape rolling and tell people to start talking," remembers percussionist Jack Ashford, who came to Motown in the mid-'60s to play in Gaye's live band and subsequently became a Funk Brother. "We were just blown away, man. It was weird. But it seemed like he had some preconceived idea of exactly what he wanted it to sound like." A studio accident by engineers Steve Smith and Ken Sands, meanwhile, wove two different lead vocal takes together, creating a layered effect Gaye employed on the other songs as well.


"What's Going on" topped Cash Box Top 100 and hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. That created momentum, and expectations, for the album to follow. But the mood in Studio A was more inspired than pressured.

"It was his debut (as a producer), but he didn't act like it. He acted like he was accustomed to doing it, he really did," Ashford says. "He was always confident. He told me when he lived before he thought he was a gladiator — he was a funny guy, man."

Longtime Motown executive Shelly Berger, who was managing Diana Ross at the time, remembers "What's Going On" as "like an underground project."

"Marvin was squirreled away, and you would hear things — 'Oh, Marvin Gaye is recording the Detroit Lions,' and you would say, 'Yeah, if anyone's gonna record the Detroit Lions, it's going to be Marvin Gaye,'" Berger says. "You'd hear all these stories bout Marvin and this new album he was working on, but no one really knew what was going on."

Back in the studio, meanwhile, Ashford says: "It was fun. We enjoyed doing what we were doing with it. Of course, we didn't have a clue what was going on with it, lyrically. But it was just cool. It was different in its concept, studio-wise, than what we were accustomed to with the other (Motown) acts."

That concept set off alarm bells at Motown — all the way to the top. "When Marvin wanted to do a protest album, talking about police brutality, the Vietnam War, I was petrified," company founder Berry Gordy once remembered. "But he convinced me. He told me he wanted to awaken the minds of mankind."

Those around at the time maintain it wasn't the subject matter that scared Gordy. "Marvin just took a complete 360-degree turn from the kind of music people were expecting from him," says Miller London, a Motown regional sales manager at the time. Berger adds, "Berry Gordy was not ambivalent about the music. He was ambivalent about the fact that Marvin Gaye was our heartthrob, and (Gordy) was concerned about him getting involved in such a political way. But he was a never ambivalent to the artistry.

"And Marvin talked (Gordy) into it. He said, 'Look, you taught us to go for what our dreams are, so how can you stop me now and say this isn't my dream? My brother's in Vietnam. I see what's happening around me.' And Berry Gordy had to say, 'OK Marvin, we'll put it out.'"


Gaye, however, expressed a different view to biographer David Ritz, saying the label "didn't like it, didn't understand it, and didn't trust it. Management says the songs were too long, too formless and would get lost on a public looking for three-minute stories. ... Basically I said, ‘Put it out or I'll never record for you again. That was my ace in the hole, and I had to play it."

Any concerns proved groundless. "What's Going On" was released to uniformly rave reviews and a welcoming marketplace. It topped the Billboard R&B Albums chart and reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200. Two more tracks — "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" — were also No. 1 R&B and Top 10 on the Hot 100.

"Somehow, some way the music slipped out to radio, and once radio people got ahold of it, it was like, 'Oh, man, this is a smash,'" London says. "We couldn't keep it in stock. It was that kind of a thing. Marvin was never a huge album seller, but this just took off." And, he adds, "What's Going On" "kind of put the company in the album business. Motown was known for having a plethora of No. 1 singles, but it kind of changed the tone of how we looked at putting album projects together."

Stevie Wonder, most notably, was on a similar trajectory — he'd already released the more ambitious "Where I'm Coming From" — and began a string of releases that would establish him among music's leading album artists.

"There were a lot of firsts on that album," including full credits for the musicians as part of the package, Ashford says. "It was a great record for those times, and amazingly it's great for these times — globally. It's like a prediction.

"I'm glad for (Gaye), for his legacy, because he put his heart into that (album). He really did. It's like a calling card. I've heard people say, 'I get up in the morning, I get my coffee and I get Marvin Gaye playing "What's Going On." That's how I start my day.' It's proven to be iconic like that."

What's Going On?

Here are a few ways to celebrate Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" as it turns 50:

• A new lyric video for "What's Going On," along with visual treatments for each of the songs, available via marvingaye.lnk.to/WGOVisualAlbum.

• "What's Going On" is featured extensively during the first episode of documentary series "1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything," now streaming on Apple TV+.

• The Motown Museum is selling special "What's Going On" items, including a T-shirt, knit cap and lapel pin, in person or via websitestores.net.

• Rapper Young Guru is remixing a new version of "What's Going On," slated for release in June.

• Jac Ross has filmed a cover of "What's Going On" for TikTok, releasing May 21.

• The Rockabye Baby album series will release a lullaby version of "What's Going On" on May 21.

• British visual artist Dreph will unveil a "What's Going On" mural on May 21 in Brixton, which also pays tribute to the 1981 Brixton Uprising.

• CNN will repeat its special "What's Going On: Marvin Gaye's Anthem For the Ages" at 11 p.m. Friday, May 28.

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