101 Masterpieces: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On
Only one man could make an album about poverty, drugs, and the Vietnam War sound sexy and soulful. That man was Marvin Gaye, and his vision changed the music industry forever. On the 28th anniversary of his tragic death, let's look back at What's Going On.
In November 1970, Marvin Gaye brought Motown Records president Berry Gordy a new song he’d just recorded called “What’s Going On.” Gordy was thrilled. It had been more than a year since Gaye had released his last big hit, “That’s the Way Love Is,” and the singer had been going through a rough patch. During the 1960s, Gaye had achieved great success as a suave song-and-dance man. But in 1967, his singing partner, Tammi Terrell, was diagnosed with a brain tumor after collapsing into his arms on stage. After several unsuccessful surgeries, she died on March 16, 1970, and Gaye was inconsolable. On top of that, he was in trouble with the IRS, his marriage was falling apart, and his only brother was fighting in Vietnam.
Tired of churning out peppy love songs, Gaye co-wrote “What’s Going On” with the hope of taking his music in a new direction. He wanted, in his words, to “touch the souls of people everywhere.” When his boss, Berry Gordy, listened to the new recording, his excitement turned to horror. The song was more than a soulful change of pace; it was a lament depicting the sorrow and futility of the Vietnam War. Over a bed of heavy percussion, street-corner jive, and mellow strings, Gaye sang, “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” The sound and lyrics clashed with Motown’s upbeat attitude, and a startled Gordy knocked it as “the worst record [he’d] ever heard.”
Gaye didn’t flinch. He believed in his music, and he gave Gordy an ultimatum: Release the single, or he’d walk from Motown. After a four-month stalemate, Gordy agreed to put out the song, even though he was sure it would flop.
“What’s Going On” was a hit, reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart. The success opened the door for Gaye to make a full concept album. Now regularly hailed as one of the greatest records ever made, What’s Going On forged new frontiers by folding Latin rhythms, complex vocal harmonies, and politically charged lyrics into long, unorthodox songs. But more importantly, it fulfilled Gaye’s aim to touch people’s souls.
Marvin Gaye always believed his voice was meant to serve a higher purpose. When he was 11 years old, he had recurring dreams about singing for “fields of humanity.” Just what kind of songs he’d be singing was the question. The son of a fiery Pentecostal preacher, Gaye was raised on gospel, but he loved secular music. His father, however, believed that jazz and the blues were the devil’s music, and he wouldn’t allow it in his house. This argument was a source of endless tension, and in 1958, at age 19, Gaye left home to tour with a doo-wop group called The Moonglows. In response, his father disowned him.
After two years on the road, Gaye landed in Detroit, where he signed a recording contract with Motown Records. Before long, he was tangling with another hot-headed father figure, Motown founder Berry Gordy. A former autoworker, Gordy modeled his company on the Ford assembly line. Gordy believed that to create a superstar, all you needed were well-written songs, fashionable clothes, dance lessons, and coaching in etiquette. He meticulously followed this formula, hand-picking everything from the label’s songwriters to its secretaries. By the late 1960s, Gordy’s groundbreaking technique—embodied by artists such as Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, and The Supremes—had turned Motown into a multimillion-dollar empire.
Marvin Gaye helped build that empire, as a solo artist and as part of a duo with Tammi Terrell. But Gordy’s dogmatic approach to making music rankled Gaye. Gordy believed that his artists should adhere to their specific roles, like cogs in a machine, while Gaye wanted to stretch and expand. He wanted to experiment with new styles of songwriting and produce his own records. When Gordy insisted that he remain the tuxedo-clad R&B singer the world knew and loved, Gaye felt locked in a creative stranglehold.
Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
Even after “What’s Going On” became Motown’s fastest-selling single, Gordy had doubts about releasing an entire album of message songs. So he made a bet with the singer: If Gaye could finish his album in 30 days, Motown would release it, and Gaye would gain creative control of his career. If he couldn’t, Gaye would put the tux back on and start singing love songs again.
Gaye accepted the wager. With the clock ticking, he assembled a ragtag creative team. Rather than rely on Motown’s slickest songwriters, he chose underdogs, even co-writing tracks with the company’s elevator operator, a closet lyricist.
Gaye also brought a fresh approach to the protest music of the time. Rather than abstractly discussing unemployment and drug abuse, he made the issues feel intimate and personal by singing about them in the first-person. In “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” he sings about being out of work, and in “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky),” he sings about being addicted to heroin. In addition to providing social criticism, many of the songs reflect Gaye’s religious upbringing. “God is Love” offers the possibility of forgiveness and salvation, while “Save the Children” is a sermon asking listeners to protect the future. At the time, the album’s mixture of gospel and pop was unheard of.
In the studio, the session musicians—longtime victims of Gordy’s controlling ways—embraced Gaye’s to-hell-with-the-company approach. As the singer plied them with food and marijuana, they played freely, building grooves around Gaye’s melodies. The finished album sounded like nothing Motown had ever released.
It didn’t look like anything it’d ever released, either. Instead of featuring Gaye decked out in formal wear, the cover showed his scruffy face staring pensively into the distance. Also, for the first time ever, a Motown album contained printed lyrics—assuring Gaye’s messages would be clear.
When What’s Going On hit the streets on May 21, 1971, critics raved. Billboard named Marvin Gaye the “Trendsetter of the Year,” and Time called his album a “vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite.” Even Reverend Jesse Jackson chimed in, saying, “Marvin is as much a minister as any man in the pulpit.” In the decades since, the album has continued to widen the lyrical and musical scope of R&B, inspiring artists from Stevie Wonder to Lauryn Hill to Kanye West.
Sadly, although the record brought solace and uplift to millions, it was only a brief respite in Gaye’s troubled life. The last 13 years of his life were a mess of cocaine, broken relationships, and money problems. He enjoyed a short-lived comeback in 1982 with the Grammy-winning hit “Sexual Healing,” but physical and mental issues soon forced him to retreat back to his parents’ home. On April 1, 1984, he got into a heated argument with his father, who shot him twice in the chest. Marvin Gaye died instantly, one day shy of his 45th birthday.
While much of Gaye’s music continues to reach new generations of listeners, What’s Going On remains his most lasting achievement—the moment when he fused social consciousness with soul.
What’s Going On:
A Listener’s Guide Off the Cuff
The saxophone intro on “What’s Going On” was a fluke. When saxophonist Eli Fontaine heard the song for the first time, he improvised the riff for fun. When Fontaine then signaled that he was ready for a real take, Gaye told him to go home; they already had what they needed on tape. Fontaine protested that he’d just been goofing around. “Well,” Gaye replied, “you goof exquisitely.”
It Takes Two
During a playback of “What’s Going On,” Gaye wanted to compare two lead vocals he’d recorded. When the engineer accidentally played back both vocals simultaneously, Gaye loved the overlapping counterpoint so much that he applied it to the rest of the album. This self-duet became a hallmark of his style, featured on later hits like “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing.”
On several tracks, Gaye captures the sounds of a street corner with people shouting phrases such as “What’s happening, man!” and “Right on!” Two of the voices belong to Mel Farr and Lem Barney of the Detroit Lions. In return for making them recording stars, Gaye asked to join the team, although he’d never played football. To avoid injuring the Motown celeb, the Lions let him play in a few carefully orchestrated scrimmages, and then blew the whistle on his new career.
Let’s Get It On
To coax passionate vocal performances out of singers, Motown producers used to put songs in uncomfortably high keys. Gaye had been a victim of this for years, and in producing What’s Going On, he found his trademark warm, sensual voice. His inspiration? Lester Young, a legendary, laid-back jazz saxophonist. “I realized that I’d been singing too loud,” Gaye said. “One night, listening to a record by Lester, it came to me: Just relax.”
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine in our ongoing "101 Masterpieces" series. You can get a free issue here.