Marvin Gaye's "What’s Going On" Curated

In 1970, Marvin Gaye fell into a deep depression following the death of Tammi Terrell, the singer with whom he had recorded a number of duets that were among Tamla Records’ biggest sellers. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” had hit 19 on the pop charts, while “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” were all in the top 10 in 1967 and 1968.

The final Gaye and Terrell single, “The Onion Song,” only made it to 50 on the pop charts. Tamla, a Motown Records subsidiary, released the single in the US on March 9, 1970, and seven days later Terrell died of a brain tumor at age 24. According to a 2015 Goldmine article about Terrell, “Her relationship with Marvin Gaye was close, but platonic. It is said that Gaye never got over her death; he soon began a downward spiral courtesy of depression and drug abuse.”

What's Going On

Gaye was having other problems, too. He owed the IRS back taxes, a problem that would dog him for the rest of his life. His marriage to Anna Gordy Gaye was rocky, and he often clashed with her brother, Motown founder Berry Gordy, over artistic differences. Gaye was eager to prove his worth as a musician beyond the impressive series of hits he had created for Tamla. He wanted greater control over his creative choices, even though he had reason to be proud of what he had accomplished in his nearly ten years with Tamla. His run of hits, a number of which he cowrote, included “Hitch Hike,” “Pride and Joy,” “Can I Get a Witness,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” and “Ain’t That Peculiar.” His duets with Mary Wells and Kim Weston were also hits, and he charted 12 times with Tammi Terrell. Gaye could sing with the sophistication of Sinatra or Nat Cole or with the gut-bucket R&B conviction of his label mates Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops) and Junior Walker.

The story behind one of Gaye’s biggest hits illustrates the tensions between him and Berry Gordy. In February 1967, Gaye began recording a Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong tune that would take five sessions to complete. Whitfield was producing and made various changes to the track, including adding strings and having Gaye overdub vocals at various points. When Whitfield took “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to Motown’s Quality Control, which decided what songs would be released as singles, the label shot it down.

Whitfield then recorded the song with Gladys Knight & the Pips, and it went to No. 2 on the pop charts in November 1967. However, Whitfield still believed in Gaye’s darker and more complex take on the song, so he pushed for its release, but Barry Gordy again resisted, citing Knight’s recent hit as the reason. A Chicago radio station began playing Gaye’s recording, which Tamla had included on his album In the Groove. Soon, a groundswell built, and Tamla released the song as a single in October 1968. It became Tamla/Motown’s biggest hit up to that point.

In his 2001 book Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and the Last Days of the Motown Sound, excerpted in England’s The Guardian, Ben Edmonds points out that Quality Control had a history of nixing Gaye’s singles. “Pure coincidence? Not likely,” Edmonds wrote. “It leads one to the more probable conclusion that greater forces than the department were at work here. At Motown, there was only one force greater than Quality Control.“ That force was Berry Gordy, and he would be wrong about Gaye on more than one occasion.

Gaye became so frustrated with things at Motown that, after Terrell’s death, he gave some thought to trying out for the Detroit Lions and even bulked up to train with the team. Cooler heads prevailed. Joe Schmidt, the team’s coach, told Gaye, “If I could sing like you, I certainly wouldn’t want to play football.”

Gaye’s decision to try pro football stemmed from Gordy’s refusal, once again, to release a single Gaye had recorded. Renaldo “Obie” Benson, of the Four Tops, had written a song that his own group passed on, so he brought it to Gaye. In 1969, Benson was touring with the Four Tops and had witnessed an altercation between police and anti-war protesters in Oakland. He wrote “What’s Going On,” with help from songwriter Al Cleveland, in reaction to what he saw. The other Four Tops members felt it was a protest song that didn’t fit in with their music. Benson worked to persuade Gaye, whose brother Frankie had served in Vietnam, that the song was right for him. The first time they played it, Gaye was on piano, Benson on guitar. After hearing the rehearsal, Anna Gordy Gaye told her husband, “Marvin, this is a perfect song for you.”

Benson sweetened the deal by offering Gaye a percentage of the songwriting. Gaye went on to justify his cut by making some changes that strengthened the song. “He fine-tuned the tune,” Benson told Edmonds. “He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song. . . . We measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.”

When Gaye entered Hitsville U.S.A., Motown’s studio, on June 1, 1970, he was in the production chair for the first time. He brought a number of musicians and friends with him to augment the work of Motown’s legendary group of session players, the Funk Brothers. Gaye brought in percussionist Jack Ashford, who played vibes in the singer’s touring group, and jazz saxophonists Eli Fontaine and William “Wild Bill” Moore. He asked arranger David Van De Pitte, who had been with Motown since 1968, to handle the string charts he wanted.

“What’s Going On” opens with an urban street scene of friends talking to each other. Two people in the group speaking are members of the Detroit Lions whom Gaye had befriended. With that bit of atmosphere setting, the song itself starts with an alto sax solo by Fontaine, who had been warming up over the rhythm track. Engineer Ken Sands had recorded Fontaine’s warm-ups, and when Fontaine was told his work for the track was done, he said he was just goofing around. Gaye told him, “You goof exquisitely.”

Another chance occurrence would help determine the direction of the single as well as the album that would follow. Gaye asked Sands to play two vocals he had recorded so he could choose the one he would use on the final mix. Sands accidentally played them in tandem. Gaye liked the sound of the double-tracked vocals and kept them.

David Ritz’s liner notes for the four-disc Marvin Gaye: The Master 1961–1984 (1995), described “What’s Going On” as “a wealth of crosscurrents, silky rhythm and blues, string-laden pop, and free-form jazz.” The unique instrumentation, the rich chord progressions, and the complexity of Van De Pitte’s strong arrangement added up to something even more impressive and refined than the urban African-American pop sound that had made Motown so successful. Most important, Gaye got to show his full range as a vocalist, hitting high notes with ease and expressing deep emotion with utter sincerity.

Behind Fontaine’s solo intro, guitarist Joe Messina plays a series of major 7th and minor 7th chords, James Jamerson plays an intricate and melodically flowing bass line, and several percussion instruments weave around the drums to create a densely layered but easy-to-follow rhythm pattern. Gaye sings the now familiar lyrics in an easy but impassioned voice:

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 loving here today, yeah

Gaye harmonizes with himself at points during the verses, and various instruments, including saxophone, vibes, and assorted percussion, percolate through the mix as he sings and the string arrangement gains in power. Gaye goes on to remind us that “We don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer.” The background vocals have a hymn-like quality at points, alternating with a more R&B-flavored approach, which becomes strongest in the call-and-response in the chorus:

Picket lines (Sister) and picket signs (Sister)
Don’t punish me (Sister) with brutality (Sister)
Talk to me (Sister), so you can see (Sister)
Oh, what’s going on (What’s going on)
What’s going on (What’s going on)
Yeah, what’s going on (What’s going on)
Oh, what’s going on

The song’s middle section is a break from the verses and chorus, with the string arrangement creating a backdrop to Gaye’s scat singing, punctuated by percussion, finger-snapping, and voices calling out “Right on!” In the final verse and chorus, the strings become even more urgent and prominent, Gaye’s singing grows more emotionally compelling, and the percussion locks together with even greater conviction and drive. Gaye closes the song with another section of scat singing while Van De Pitte’s backing creates a rich harmonic counterpoint. Throughout, James Jamerson’s bass line bobs and weaves, punching along in a rolling, melodic cadence.

When the session was over, the participants knew they had created something special. As good as Motown’s recordings had been, and as much as they were a pinnacle of R&B-infused urban pop, “What’s Going On” represented a new height in creativity, recording techniques, and inspired playing and singing. “The band knew it, too,” Edmonds would later write. The jazz-trained musicians “often looked down their noses at the pop music Motown hired them to roll out. Not on June 1, 1970.“ Jamerson, who according to his wife rarely talked about his work, told her when he got home that evening that he had played on a classic.

When Gaye excitedly presented “What’s Going On” to Berry Gordy, he was stunned by Gordy’s response. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Gordy told him. Gaye responded that until Gordy released the single and its B-side, “God Is Love,” he would record nothing further for Tamla. Luckily, Gaye had allies. Anna Gordy Gaye liked “What’s Going On.” So did Harry Balk, a longtime record industry veteran who was then working as director of Artists & Repertoire for Motown.

Balk pushed hard for “What’s Going On.” He played it for anyone who came into his office. Gordy was unmoved. “That Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old,” he told Balk. Finally, Motown’s executive vice president Barney Ales, another industry vet, who had joined Motown in 1960, cut the single loose on January 17, 1971. “We needed a Marvin Gaye record desperately,” he told Edmonds. “He made sure that’s the one that was released, because it was the only one we had.”

Ales was soon flying to Los Angeles to meet with Gordy, who was furious the single had been released without his knowledge. By the time Ales’s plane touched down, the initial run of 100,000 singles had sold out, and retailers were asking for more. When Berry Gordy found out “What’s Going On” had sold 100,000 copies in a single day, he suddenly was enthusiastic about what Gaye was doing -- so enthusiastic, in fact, that he wanted an entire album of new songs from the singer, and quickly. In late February, he gave Gaye unrestricted studio time and wagered a substantial sum against an April 1 deadline. If Gaye missed the deadline, he’d lose the bet and owe Gordy a lot of money.

Gaye had, in fact, been thinking about the album that would flow out of his hit single. He had already recorded “God Is Love” as the B-side to “What’s Going On,” but he didn’t have anything beyond a few ideas for the rest of the album. He tapped into the talents at Motown to help him out. Van De Pitte’s arrangements again played a central role, and he collaborated with a number of Motown writers, including Al Cleveland and Obie Benson. He also used talent from an unexpected place. James Nyx, who ran the switchboard at Motown, wanted to be a lyricist, and Gaye worked with him on three of the album’s tracks.

What's Going On

The resulting album is a suite of songs united by themes of world peace, universal love, ecology, and spirituality. What’s Going On, the album, expands upon the title song’s themes, both musically and lyrically. On the album’s first side, songs lock together, segueing into the next track to create a continuous musical flow. “What’s Going On” fades, but the next track, “What’s Happening Brother,” begins with a similar chord progression and arrangement at a slightly altered rhythm. When Gaye begins to sing, the melody changes, and he takes on the voice of a returning Vietnam vet, someone like his brother:

Hey baby, what you know good
I’m just getting back, but you knew I would
War is hell, when will it end?
When will people start getting together again?
Are things really getting better, like the newspaper said
What else is new my friend, besides what I read

Jamerson’s wonderfully fluid bass lines once again provide the backbone for the song, the percussion is rich and exciting, and the choral arrangement, with vocals provided by the Andantes (Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps), gives the song an old-church spirituality. Nearly 50 years after the album’s release, Gaye and James Nyx still capture the plight of the veteran returning home:

Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend
Money is tighter than it’s ever been
Say man, I just don’t understand
What’s going on across this land
Ah, what’s happening brother?
Yeah, what’s happening? What’s happening my man?

“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” slows things down to describe the horrors of heroin addiction (“Well you know, I’m hooked my friend/To the boy who makes slaves out of men”). “Save the Children” is a plea to bring the world back from the brink of destruction, with Gaye reciting each line, then singing it in response. “God Is Love” is one of two songs on the album where Gaye reaches directly to his gospel roots, appealing to us to acknowledge God and love each other in His image.

“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” brings side 1 of the original LP to a close with a song whose message of environmental destruction is even more relevant today. As with the five songs that preceded it, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” uses a variation on the chord progression and string arrangement that “What’s Going On” used to set the tone of the album. Each song has a distinct melody, but Van De Pitte and the other musicians make small changes that keep the first side of the album going as a continuous piece. Bob Babbitt moves into the bass seat on that track and the rest of the album but maintains the groove Jamerson established.

Side 2 opens with a gospel-style piano that moves into “Right On,” a seven-and-a-half-minute epic of Latin soul and jazz that deepens and increases in emotional intensity as it unfolds. Gaye presents short scenes of life’s variety from rich people to poor and of our ultimate responsibility to love and help each other. Van De Pitte’s string arrangement enriches the song while staying true to its rhythmic intensity.

At the five-minute mark, the song shifts abruptly to a slower tempo that returns to the arrangement and melodic themes of the earlier tracks, with Gaye repeating and emphasizing the importance of love as the song returns to its faster pace. It segues into the slow groove of “Wholy Holy,” where Gaye returns to and expands upon the spiritual themes of “God Is Love.”

“Wholly Holy” is the only track on What’s Going On that ends without moving into the song that follows it. Instead, after a brief stop, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” begins with a few simple minor chords on piano by Gaye and a kick drum before moving into a slow funk groove. Gaye sings about urban life, and some of the lines have a startling immediacy nearly 50 years later:

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading

Gaye also sings about his own tax problems, the Vietnam war (“Send that boy off to die/Make me want to holler”), and the sometimes overwhelming difficulty of living a good life. As the song closes, the arrangement changes, and Gaye returns to the melody and lyrics of “What’s Going On.”

Other soul music greats, especially James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, had written songs about the plight of their people and the state of the world. Motown itself had done socially aware music before What’s Going On. Edwin Starr had a hit in 1969 with “War,” and the Temptations had one the following year with “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” No Motown artist, however, had built a whole album around the themes Marvin Gaye addresses in What’s Going On.

Gaye made his April deadline, and postproduction took a few weeks more. Motown’s art department designed a cover befitting a proper album. Edmonds describes most Motown album covers as looking, “. . . like they’d been designed with one eye on the cutout bin.” Gaye insisted that everyone involved with the making of the album be credited in the gatefold. For the first time since they began doing sessions at Motown in 1959, the Funk Brothers were listed as players on What’s Going On.

Tamla/Motown released What’s Going On on May 21, 1971, and it was Gaye’s first album to hit the top 10 on Billboard’s Pop Album charts, reaching number six and staying on the charts for a year. It was also the album that made Motown more than a singles label. Other record companies had realized that their financial future lay in albums since Baby Boomers had a high level of commitment to their music in long form. Motown needed Gaye and What’s Going On to come to that conclusion.

Just as Gaye was finishing What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder released Where I’m Coming From, his first self-produced album. Wonder was also establishing his creative independence from Motown, and, along with Gaye, he would change the label’s course. Beginning with Music of My Mind (1972), Wonder had a new contract that gave him full control over the production of his music. For the remainder of the ’70s, the two songwriters would define the course of Motown and popular music.

I Want You

Gaye’s next album was a movie soundtrack, Trouble Man, but his next two albums, Let’s Get it On (1973) and I Want You (1976), were sexually charged and musically adventurous, continuing his creative streak. Here, My Dear (1978) was an agonizing, confessional album about Gaye’s divorce from Anna Gordy Gaye, flawed but brilliant. Gaye’s final album for Motown, In Our Lifetime (1981), walks the line between the secular and spiritual. It was well received by critics but is even more highly regarded now.

By the time Gaye began recording his final album, Midnight Love, in late 1981, he had moved to Europe and left Motown for Columbia Records. Gaye’s new label released Midnight Love in October 1982, and it sold six million copies worldwide -- his highest-selling album. “Sexual Healing,” the single from the album, won Grammy Awards in 1983 for Best R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Instrumental Performance.

In August, 1983, Gaye moved into his parents’ house in Los Angeles to help his mother recover from kidney surgery. He was also struggling with his own relapse into drug abuse. On April 1, 1984, Gaye intervened in a fight between his mother and father, and his father shot him twice. He died instantly. Marvin Gaye would have turned 45 the next day.

As I was writing this article, I listened to Marvin Gaye’s recordings on vinyl and CD, beginning with his earliest hits for Motown. He is perhaps the most prodigiously talented musician and singer the label has ever signed, able to cross genres with ease. While it’s true that Berry Gordy misjudged Gaye’s talent on a few occasions, he also gave him the room to grow as a musician. Gaye grew enough and became confident enough to challenge Gordy’s authority and emerge with great music. Losing him remains an unthinkable tragedy, but his music remains. What’s Going On is his pinnacle.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com

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