Thirty five minutes and thirty eight seconds of creative brilliance is the best way to describe Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album.
May 21, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of this epic opus being released by Tamla Records, a subsidiary of Motown Records. This album remains one of the most prophetic pieces of music to ever be recorded. The nine song offering is a song cycle into the thought process from one of soul music’s best statesmen. And just to think it may have never seen the light of day without the continuous pressure Marvin Gaye placed at the feet of Motown Records president Berry Gordy.
In early 1970, Gaye was coming off a severe battle with depression after the death of his duet partner and dear friend Tammi Terrell. He vowed to never perform or record again. As a result, he made the decision to switch careers temporarily by trying out for the National Football League’s professional team, the Detroit Lions. After failing to make the team, he came back into contact with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Obie Benson from the popular group, The Four Tops. The three of them collaborated on the now famous tune “What’s Going On?” The song was written for the Motown collective, The Originals, but Cleveland and Benson clamored for Gaye to perform the song.
A few months later, Gaye agreed to perform the song and the recording turned out better than any of them imagined. At the end of the 1960s, Gaye began to get the urge to change the direction he was going in as an artist and musician. The world was changing around him and he felt the desire to speak on the atrocities going on here in the United States and abroad. From the correspondence he was receiving from his brother serving in Vietnam, Gaye’s desire became stronger to produce an album centered on the topics of urban gentrification, environmental transgressions, military unrest, unemployment crisis and the rampant police brutality spreading across neighborhoods of color.
After recording “What’s Going On” Gaye yearned to have the song to be released as a single, but Berry Gordy fought vehemently against it. Gordy feared that it would ruin Gaye’s image of being a sex symbol and the trademark Motown sound. Intense discussions ensued and Gaye refused to release anymore music until Gordy had a change of heart. By the end of 1970, Gordy finally wilted under the pressure and allowed for the song to be released as a single. The single was released in January 1971 and received critical acclaim. It was overwhelmingly embraced by the masses of music fans.
Feeling the momentum from the success of “What’s Going On,” Gaye returned to the studio with his creative juices flowing and he was able to finish the entire album in a remarkable ten days during the month of March. Only a genius of his stature could complete an eponymous album in such incomparable fashion. The album was constructed from the viewpoint of a Vietnam War veteran coming home to a place that had changed drastically for the worst. Gaye accomplished this vision in a sublime manner by depicting the widespread afflictions and providing a soundtrack to inform the listener of what was happening during that time in history.
What’s Going On featured the legendary Funk Brothers playing instruments on all of the songs and the Andantes singing the background vocals as well as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra provided musical accompaniment on a few of the songs. Bassists, James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt, guitarist, Joe Messina, saxophonist, Eli Fountain, and percussionist Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s contributions stand out on songs such as “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and “Save the Children.”
This album was a far cry from the music Motown was known for and it allowed all of the musicians involved to push beyond their creative limits. The elements of jazz improvisation and classical musical arrangements gave the sound a certain texture and high quality, which set in motion the next progression in Soul music. In essence, it helped to redefine what Soul music was and developed a template for other artists to follow in the coming decades.
The album’s second song “What’s Happening Brother” was co-written by James Nyx, Jr. and Gaye. It begins with a man returning home from fighting in the Vietnam War only to discover that his world is vastly different from what it used to be. The song was dedicated to Gaye’s younger brother, Frankie, who was returning home from a three-year stint in Vietnam.
The third song “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” was co-written by Gaye’s then wife, Anna Gordy and Elgie Stover. The song touches on the topic of heroin addiction.
“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”:
The fourth song “Save The Children” was released as a single in the UK, but not in the United States. It peaked at #41 on the UK Singles Chart and it dealt with having love for the children coming up in the next generation. The song was co-written by Al Cleveland and Obie Benson.
“Save The Children”:
The fifth song “God Is Love” was recorded during the same time as “What’s Going On” during the summer of 1970. It was one of the few songs that Gaye expressed his faithfulness to the Lord and it marked a return to the gospel tradition that molded his musical upbringing. He dedicated the song to his father.
“God Is Love”:
The sixth song “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was the only song written solely by Gaye on the album. It delved into the heavy issue of environmental transgressions. It featured Gaye playing the piano, Paul Riser orchestrating the strings section, and a saxophone solo by Wild Bill Moore.
“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”:
The seventh song “Right On” featured a Latin soul sound that stood out from the rest of the album. The song was co-written by Earl DeRouen and Gaye. It spoke about the divisions between rich and poor among other issues that separate mankind from reaching our full potential.
The final two songs from the album “Wholy Holy” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” also featured the writing talents of Al Cleveland, Obie Benson and James Nyx, Jr. “Wholy Holy” was another religious ode by Gaye and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” gave a staggering account of daily life in the ghettos of the United States and how difficult survival was for many families.
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”:
The single “What’s Going On” peaked at #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart for five consecutive weeks and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. The next two singles to be released from the album were “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Both “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” peaked at #1 on the Billboard R&B Chart for two weeks. “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
The lyrical content speaks volumes on the vast talents of Gaye. It showed that he was much more than a handsome face who could sing only love and pop friendly songs. His accurate descriptions of the world over haunting, infectious harmonies and melodies gave the world a glimpse inside of his prodigious mind. The album peaked at #6 on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart and remained at #1 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart for nine straight weeks. It stayed on the Billboard Pop Album Chart for over a year and sold more than 2 million copies by the end of 1972.
This album would be the introduction of another version of Marvin Gaye. It would become his crowning achievement and one of the greatest albums in the history of recorded music. Countless recording artists have sampled and re-recorded songs off of this soulful masterpiece showing its staying power and unquestionable effect on popular culture.
In 1999, the British newspaper Guardian/Observer named it as the “Greatest Album of the 20th Century.” In 2003, the album was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. That same year, What’s Going On was ranked #6 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine placed “What’s Going On” at #4 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
What’s Going On stands among the privileged few in the pantheon of classic albums from any era. The proof is in how timeless the lyrics and music have become to newer generations. Simply put, thank you, Marvin Gaye.