Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' still resonates 50 years later
In the summer of 1971, Marvin Gaye’s album "What’s Going On" spoke directly to a country in crisis. Over nine interconnected tracks, the album pleaded for America to heal its many wounds: the war in Vietnam, police brutality at home, protest marches that turned deadly, increasing concerns over environmental destruction. Driven by its sorrowful yet hopeful title track, "What's Going On" became a crossover hit, reaching the top 10 on Billboard's pop album chart and drawing praise for its sophisticated arrangements and socially conscious lyrics.
Today, Gaye’s words sound as relevant as ever, right down to the "picket lines and picket signs."
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, "What’s Going On" continues to speak to a country torn by division and violence. Recent headlines about Black deaths at the hands of police, protest marches, climate change and the storming of the U.S. Capitol have kept Gaye’s album from fading into nostalgia. If anything, "What’s Going On" seems be finding new life and a renewed sense of relevance.
"It’s a war cry, it’s a rallying cry," said Sam Law, a Wyandanch-based activist and founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Yung Hip Professionals. Law, 34, wasn’t born when the album was released, but learned of it through her late father, a guitarist with a love of music and an extensive Motown collection. "Fifty years later," she said, "we’re still fighting for the same stuff."
AMERICA IN 1971
The year Gaye’s album was released, America was coming off more than a decade of upheaval.
The dramatic changes promised by the civil rights movement had not materialized, the peace-and-love vibes of the Woodstock music festival seemed to be evaporating and the nation’s polarization over Vietnam had reached a shocking peak with the 1970 Kent State University protest march that ended with the National Guard shooting four students to death.
"Everything came together in 1969 — just for a minute, everything came together," said Michael Epstein, whose Roslyn nightclub, My Father’s Place, would launch just two years later. "Fashion and art and technology, it was exciting. Movements were being developed, and people were starting to think about ecology. And then it went away in an instant — like a passing wind, it all just went away."
MARVIN GAYE TRANSFORMS HIMSELF
At the time, Gaye was far from a protest singer. As part of the Motown music empire, he had ridden out the 1960s with a string of feel-good R&B tracks that capitalized on his smooth, sweet voice. "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" and "You're All I Need to Get By" — the last two performed with his singing partner Tammi Terrell — were major hits; Gaye scored his first. No. 1 single with "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" in 1968.
Still, current events were seeping into Gaye’s consciousness. The first kernel of "What’s Going On" came from Renaldo "Obie" Benson, of the Four Tops, who came to Gaye with the idea for a song after witnessing a 1969 anti-war demonstration in Berkeley that devolved into violence. The two collaborated on it with songwriter Al Cleveland; Gaye worked hard on the track over several months in a studio at Motown’s Detroit headquarters.
The single debuted in January 1971, a time when protest music was out of fashion and the defiant rock and rollers of the '60s had ceded the airwaves to soft-rock artists like James Taylor, Anne Murray and the Carpenters. "It was all love songs," according to Epstein. "We were in la-la land."
A LANDMARK ALBUM
Nevertheless, "What’s Going On" made an immediate impression. Gaye’s searching vocals — "Don’t punish me with brutality / Talk to me so you can see" — gave the song an arresting urgency, as did the track’s opening snippets of street-corner dialogue, provided partly by two of Gaye’s friends from the Detroit Lions football team, Mel Farr and Lem Barney. The backing band was Motown’s legendary in-house session crew, the Funk Brothers, who would eventually receive their first-ever album credit from Gaye. The song steadily climbed to the top of Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart and peaked at No. 2 on the overall Hot 100 chart — a sign that white Americans were responding, too. Impressed, Motown chief Berry Gordy pushed Gaye to record a full album.
Inspired by the experiences of his brother Frankie, a Vietnam War veteran, Gaye constructed "What’s Going On" as a loose narrative told from the vantage point of a soldier who returns home to a country that appears to be at war with itself. The bewilderment is clearest on "What’s Happening Brother" when Gaye sings, "Are things really getting better, like the newspaper said?" Drug addiction rears its head on "Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky"). One of the album’s biggest hits, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," marks an early appearance of environmental concerns in mainstream popular culture.
"I conscientiously avoided using the word ‘Black’ on the entire record," he later told the Indianapolis Star. "I didn’t want the album to appear to be addressed only to Blacks. I was writing and singing about all people and that’s the audience I’m reaching for."
Released in May 1971, the album met with critical acclaim and instantly transformed Gaye from a silky-smooth Motown crooner into one of pop music’s most eloquent poets.
"Songs such as ‘What’s Going On’ really raised the ability to make music part of a movement," said Fred Brewington, the Lakeview-raised civil rights lawyer whose firm specializes in voting rights, discrimination and police misconduct. "As we go back through the years, we look at [Billie Holiday's] ‘Strange Fruit’ — we know the double meanings of that. Look at Gil Scott-[Heron], who talked to us about the revolution. There was another component to music, of telling the story of the social conditions of the day."
Gaye’s later hits were less political than sensual: "Let’s Get it On" (1973) and "Sexual Healing" (1982) became slow-jam classics, dedicated to innumerable lovers on late-night radio shows across the country. Gaye’s career seemed to be going strong into the 1980s thanks to several high-profile television appearances and a tour to support his Grammy-nominated album, "Midnight Love." News of Gaye’s murder in 1984 — shot to death at the age of 44 by his father — came as a shock to his many fans.
"When you talk to people and you say ‘Marvin Gaye,’ be ready for a whole lot of words," said Ken "Spider" Webb, the longtime DJ from Wheatley Heights who hosts "Soul Town" on Sirius XM. "People don’t say, ‘Isn’t he that guy who…?’ You know what he said in his songs. Only a few of those kinds of people come along to make things hit home and touch people’s hearts that way."
Today, Gaye’s music speaks for him. Generations of performers have been touched by his songs, from contemporaries like Donnie Hathaway, who covered "What's Going On" shortly after its release, to the up-and-coming Nashville singer Devon Gilfillian, who recently covered the entire album. The Oscar-winning jazz musician Jon Batiste (Pixar’s "Soul") said his performance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" — also known as the Black national anthem — at last year’s NBA season kickoff was influenced by Gaye’s famous rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at an NBA All-Star Game in 1983. Motown/UME recently reissued "What’s Going On" in a 50th anniversary deluxe edition that includes single versions, demos and other bonus tracks. When Rolling Stone magazine recently updated its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, "What's Going On" was No. 1, displacing The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the longtime chart-topper.
"Unfortunately, we’re still kind of standing at that point in history," Law, the young activist, said of the eerie similarities between the present moment and the one that birthed Gaye’s most impactful album. "We’re still fighting hate, we’re still trying to find peace. It saddens me that we’re still fighting the same battles. But it’s great to have a blueprint of where we can go from where we left off."
WHO WAS MARVIN GAYE?
During his all-too-short life and career, Marvin Gaye went through many phases — drummer, songwriter for hire, “the Prince of Motown," the king of the slow jam. It was his 1971 protest album “What’s Going On,” however, that turned Gaye into one of pop music's most important figures.
He was born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., in Washington, D.C., in April 1939, the son of a stern preacher and a doting domestic worker. (He added the “e” to his surname later, much like a certain Sam Cook before him.) From the age of 4, Gaye sang in a Pentecostal church and endured terrible beatings from his father; at the age of 17 he dropped out of high school to join the Air Force, but quickly faked mental illness to obtain a discharge. From there, Gaye began working toward a musical career.
He sang with the doo-wop quintet the Marquees until they disbanded in 1960, then moved to Detroit and began working as a session drummer. (That’s Gaye drumming on The Marvelettes' 1962 hit “Beechwood 4-5789,” which he also wrote.) After hearing him sing, Motown kingpin Berry Gordy signed Gaye to his Tamla label. Several solo hits followed, including 1964’s "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” but Gaye did much of his best work alongside the Motown starlet Tammi Terrell. Their voices meshed beautifully on such now-classic duets as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
In October 1967, while performing at a Virginia college, Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms on stage; she was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. Operations followed, but Terrell died of brain cancer in March 1970, a month shy of her 25th birthday. Gaye, devastated by the death of his friend and colleague, grew disillusioned with the music industry.
Nevertheless, he rallied to record the album that would become his masterpiece, 1971’s “What’s Going On.” A protest and concept album at once, it tackled current events — anti-war marches, drugs, police brutality — over nine soulful, jazz-inflected songs that seemed to blend into each other. It was Gaye’s first album to hit the upper reaches of the Billboard Top LP’s chart — it peaked at No. 6 — and transformed the onetime “Prince of Motown” into a pop prophet.
As the years went on, Gaye reinvented himself again, as a singer of erotic ballads like “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing.” The latter, released in September 1982, became the biggest hit of his career and a template for what came to be known as the "slow jam." Decades later, even the song’s ring tone became a platinum seller.
Gaye’s death in 1984 was a sad and sordid shocker: Following an argument at their family home, the singer was shot to death by the father who had abused him in childhood. Gaye’s musical legacy, however, remains undimmed. Posthumous honors included a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’ve never needed to hear applause. I’ve never needed someone to pat me on the back and tell me how great I am,” Gaye told the Detroit Free Press in August 1971. “I’m satisfied when people play the music I write and sing.” — RAFER GUZMAN
COMING SOON: A MARVIN GAYE BIOPIC
Marvin Gaye is getting the biopic treatment with "What's Going On," directed by Allen Hughes, one-half of the Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents"). Dr. Dre and Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine are among the producers.
Since Gaye's widow, Jan Gaye, and Motown Records are on board with the project, the film will have the rights to use Gaye's music, a key component that earlier attempts to bring Gaye's life to screen lacked.
Playwright Marcus Gardley will pen the script. The film will have a reported budget of more than $80 million and is described as a "musical odyssey" rather than a straightforward biopic.
“This is so personal for me,” Hughes told Deadline.com. Hughes has put Gaye's music in projects going back to "Menace," which used "What's Going On" in the trailer. “I've just always connected to him. He’s the artist’s artist, with this ethereal voice that just comes out of the heavens. There have been plenty of great artists, and then Marvin, in his own lane."
The lead role has not yet been cast, but Hughes says he's hoping to find an actor whose voice can blend with Gaye's, whose real vocals will be used throughout the film.
"What's Going On" is currently due out in 2023. — TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE