What I’ve Been Listening to: Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye’s seminal 1971 album transformed him from Motown’s most successful pop artist to a social singer.

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The clip of Marvin Gaye performing What’s Going On, which I posted on the blog last night, reminded me of his seminal record from 1971. The concept album, which pushed the envelope at the time with lyrics that remain eerily relevant to this day, is one of my favorite records from one of my favorite soul artists. Not only was it broadly acclaimed, it also became Gaye’s and Motown’s most successful record at the time, selling more than two million copies by the end of 1972.

In the spring of 1970, Gaye was in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Your Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, had passed away from brain cancer at the age of 24. His marriage with Anna Gordy, an older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was failing. And Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, had returned from Vietnam, sharing with Marvin the horrors of war he had seen firsthand.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Then Obie Benson from The Four Tops handed Gaye a protest song, What’s Going On, after his band and Joan Baez had passed on it. The tune had been inspired by police brutality against young anti-war protesters in Berkeley, Calif., which Benson had witnessed during a tour with his band. Gaye liked the song and initially had in mind to record it with Motown quartet The Originals. But Benson insisted that Gaye sing the song himself. It would prove to be the channel Gaye needed to express what was going through his mind and plant the seed for an entire album.

When Berry Gordy heard the tune for the first time, he reportedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” He was concerned the song was too political and would not sell. But Gaye didn’t take no for an answer and refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy would change his mind. With the support of Motown executive Harry Balk and company sales executive Barney Ales, the song was released without Gordy’s knowledge.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary

What’s Going On became an overnight sensation and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. Only during the first week, more than 100,000 copies were flying off the shelves. The song also climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Pop Chart and hit no. 1 on the R&B Chart. A stunned Gordy told Gaye he could record whatever music he wanted, as long as he’d finish an album within 30 days. Gaye did not need any further prompting and returned to the studio.

In only 10 days, between March 1 and March 10, 1971, Gaye recorded eight additional tracks for what would become a concept album. Kicking off with the title track, most songs lead into the next and have a similar laid back groove that is in marked contrast to the lyrics. Gaye covered a broad range of “heavy” topics, such as social unrest (What’s Going On), disillusioned Vietnam war veterans (What’s Happening Brother) – a song about his brother Frankie; environmental degradation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)); and the bleak socioeconomic situation of inner-city America (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)). The aforementioned songs are also the album’s musical highlights, in my opinion.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary 2

Reflecting on What’s Going On, Gaye told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. 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 I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Gaye dedicated the album to Marvin Gaye Sr., his strict father and a baptist minister, who had introduced him to singing through church music but also abused him as a child. Throughout his life, Marvin would seek his father’s approval, but whatever he did wasn’t good enough. During an excellent PBS documentary Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, Motown road manager Joe Schaffner explained: “Marvin went to buy his dad a Cadillac. He would send him all kinds of gifts…His father would accept them…But he would never come to grips and say, ‘thank you,’ or smile, or none of that!” Instead, he would tragically become the man who would shoot Marvin to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

What’s Going On was Gaye’s first record to hit the top 10 on the Billboard Top LPs. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the chart for almost one year. The album also became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On. The album was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including best album of all time, as voted by writers on British music weekly NME, and a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

As first reported by Variety in July 2016, another film documentary about Gaye and the making of What’s Going On was planned by Noah Media Group and Greenlight. Production was slated to begin later in the year. Marvin, What’s Going On? was to include contributions from Gaye’s ex-wife Janis Gaye and his children Nona, Marvin III and Frankie Gaye – the first time his family supported such a project. Since I haven’t seen any other reports, I assume the film has not appeared yet.

Here’s a nice collage clip of Mercy Mercy Me.

Sources: Wikipedia; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On” (PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Performing Songwriter Be Heard; Rolling Stone; Variety; YouTube

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