Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Turns 50

Seminal album transformed Motown’s most successful artist to a social observer

Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/ There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today – Ya

Father, father/We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today

It’s incredible to realize these music lyrics that could have come out today instead appeared exactly 50 years ago on May 21, 1971 when Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On. Earlier this month, I was reminded of this seminal studio album when I caught the CNN documentary What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Anthem for the Ages. With Gaye being one of my all-time favorite soul vocalists, it wasn’t a difficult decision to dedicate a post to the 50th anniversary of this remarkable record.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

The following lightly edited background on What’s Going On comes from a previous post I published about the album in April 2017. I thought it’s a perfect fit for this 50-year anniversary commemoration.

In the spring of 1970, Marvin Gaye found himself in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High EnoughYour 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 lyrics 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 catalyst 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.” As a business man, he was concerned a song with such political lyrics 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 as as single without Gordy’s knowledge – a gutsy move!

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 Hot 100 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 encouragement 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).

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 his own son Marvin Gaye to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984 with a gun Marvin had previously given to him for protection.

Time for some music! And what better tune to start than the album’s marvelous title track. The tune ended up being credited to Benson, Gaye and Al Cleveland. The Originals provided backing vocals along with Gaye. Gaye also played piano and box drum. The remaining instrumentation was provided by Motown session musicians The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Save the Children is a haunting track about the failure of current generations to preserve the world for their children. The song was co-written by Cleveland, Gaye and Renaldo Benson. Motown female session group The Andantes sang backing vocals, with instrumentation provided by The Funk Brothers. An excerpt of the lyrics:…When I look at the world/(When I look at the world)/Oh, it fills me with sorrow/(It fills me with sorrow)/Little children today/(Children today)/Really gonna suffer tomorrow/(Really suffer tomorrow)…

Next up: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), the album’s only track that Gaye wrote all by himself. Apart from singing lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano and Mellotron. The Andantes and The Funk Brothers were also featured in this tune. I had not realized what an accomplished musician Gaye was and that he started out as a session drummer. In the CNN documentary, Smokey Robinson noted Gaye backed The Miracles on drums. …Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me/Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)/Where did all the blue skies go?/Poison is the wind that blows/From the north and south and east…

Let’s do one more track: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), the album’s powerful closer. The song about the bleak situation in certain inner cities in America was co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr. In addition to lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano. The distinct bongos were provided by percussionist Bobbye Jean Hall. Once again, the tune also featured The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Check out this lyrical excerpt, which sounds like it could be from a present day song about Black Lives Matter: …Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God know where we’re heading/Oh, make me wanna holler/They don’t understand…

Despite the charged topics it addresses, What’s Going On doesn’t come across as rabble-rousing or preachy. Undoubtedly, much of it has to do with Gaye’s soft and beautiful vocals. I think this quote from Sheila E., which was taken from the CNN film and included in this accompanying story, sums it up nicely: “His melodies were like a voice of cry…(He) talked about the ghetto, talked about injustice, talked about the war. But he wasn’t yelling and protesting.”

Somebody else in the CNN documentary made another observation I found interesting. What’s Going On sounded like a Motown production without following the traditional formula. During the ’60s and early ’70s, that formula generated the Motown sound and one hit after the other.

What’s Going On was Marvin Gaye’s first top 10 album on the Billboard 200. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the mainstream chart for almost one year. It also topped Billboard’s Top R&B Chart, then known as the Soul Chart. The album became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On.

What’s Going On was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the list’s most recent revision from September 2020, the album moved up all the way to no. 1 – a clear sign how relevant the lyrics remain in present-day America! In the UK, the record also topped the 1985 list of NME Writers All Time 100 Albums. What’s Going On was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

In January, Universal Music Enterprises released three new digital collections to commemorate the 50th anniversary, as reported by uDiscoverMusic: What’s Going On: Deluxe Edition/50th Anniversary features the original album, plus 12 bonus tracks, including each of the LP’s original mono single versions and their B-sides. What’s Going On: The Detroit Mix is the album’s original mix, which Gaye cancelled at the last minute to have it redone in Los Angeles. The third release is Funky Nation: The Detroit Instrumentals, which includes 14 tracks Gaye recorded in the late summer and fall of 1971 after What’s Going On had come out.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On”, PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Variety; CNN; uDiscoverMusic; YouTube

11 thoughts on “Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Turns 50”

  1. Wahrscheinlich einer der ersten schwarzen Protestsongs und gleich auch Startpunkt des ersten schwarzen Konzeptalbums. Auch heute noch eine wunderbare Mischung in der alle Elemente zum grossen Drama drin sind – mit einem gigantischen Outcome.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a backdrop this was released against… I want to catch that PBS doc on him. The songs are so smooth but they had teeth…just a great sound and great statements…it had everything. Great album.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Clearly a seminal album and unfortunately, all too relevant as I can no longer keep track of which black men have been killed by police in any given week here in good old US of A. Social policy aside and ranking it as an album, I know that not everybody takes the Rolling Stone rankings seriously. But recently they made this the Number One album of all time and dropped “Sgt. Pepper” to number 22. To which I can only say – really?

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    1. Clearly, the times they are a-changing. In the era of Black Lives Matter, lines like “Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God know where we’re heading” and “Inflation no chance/To increase finance/Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die” sadly look more relevant than “We’re Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/We hope you will enjoy the show” or “I read the news today, oh boy/About a lucky man who made the grade/And though the news was rather sad/Well, I just had to laugh.”

      While I primarily look at the list of whether or not an album is included, less the specific ranking, as a Beatles fan, I have to agree 100% with you that no. 22 looks a bit measly, considering what a masterpiece the album is.

      By comparison, it’s interesting to me how well “Pet Sounds” held up at no. 2. I find Sgt. Pepper far superior! Also, Kanye West at no. 17? Hm…

      At least with “Abbey Road” (no. 5) and Revolver (no. 11), The Beatles got two of their other gems in the top 20.

      Like

      1. No question that Gaye’s album is more relevant. But that’s beside the point. That’s not what the list is about at all. I don’t know if ‘Pepper’ should still be number One. But not being in the Top Ten or 15? Travesty IMHO.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. We will unofficially squeeze it in at 9.5. Ironically it may have dropped because sometimes it feels more like a museum piece. It’s great but with few exceptions it doesn’t rock. But as to impact! Hell, the whole world was listening to it at the same time. Never before or since. Everything is before or after that album. Can’t say that about ‘Pet Sounds.’ Make that number 22. Or 52. Or 82.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes. I do like the Beach Boys. And I guess that album has been quite influential. But I never have and never will put them in the same league as Beatles or Stones or any of those. Back to where we started though, I’ll have to back and listen to “What’s Going On.”

        Liked by 1 person

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