Motown Turns 50 – “What’s Going On?” – Marvin Gaye


Motown celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and in the coming weeks we are going feature some of the labels greatest moments. Today, it’s Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?

Released in May 1971, What’s Going On?  tells the tale of a Vietnam veteran who left to fight for his country, but when he got home, all he found was the same social injustice, racism, suffering and hatred he knew before he left.  The brilliant lyrics deal with everything from God to drugs to poverty to war to taking care of Mother Earth. He was “green” long before it was a fashionable money-making venture.  Gaye’s vocals were smooth and soulful.  The music put you right on the troubled streets of Detroit with a soul that still hasn’t been matched to this day.  It was soul music’s first concept album, and one of the finest ever made.

After his singing partner Tammi Terrell died of a brain tumor in March, 1970, Gaye fell into a 200px-marvingayewhat27sgoingonalbumcoverdeep depression.  He refused to record or perform. After an unsuccessful tryout with the Detroit Lions (yes, the 0-16 Lions), he stumbled upon two songwriters who were working on “What’s Going On?”  He helped them finish the song, recorded it along with a composition of his own called “God Is Love” and the rest of the album took off from there.

When he first heard it, Motown founder Berry Gordy wasn’t a fan of the material and refused to put it out.  He felt its political message was too heavy for radio and he didn’t think it was commerical enough to make money.  Gaye, however, didn’t give in and told Gordy and the other executives that he wanted to express himself in his own way and not by Motown’s version of the hit parade.  Gordy eventually caved and “What’s Going On?” became the label’s fastest selling single at the time staying on top of the R&B chart for five weeks.  The album parked itself on the Billboard Album Chart for over a year and it sold over 2 million copies.  

Released on the Motown subsidiary label, Tamla, What’s Going On? is a masterpiece that you can listen to all day, every day.  “What’s Going On?’ and “Inner City Blues” are two of the greatest soul songs of all time.  “Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky),” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) are as cool as it gets.  “Right On” is funky dunky (whatever that means) and “God Is Love” is as smooth as silk.

While Gaye was off filming a movie, Gordy put together a preliminary mix – called the “Detroit” mix.  That was eventually scrapped and the entire album was re-mixed for release.

It should be noted that this was the first Motown album where the artist was the sole producer and it was also the first to officially recognize the phenomenal backing band, The Funk Brothers.  The nine songs run together making it sound like one long, beautiful trip to soul heaven.  Right on, brother.

MP3: “What’s Going On” (Detroit mix)

MP3: “Mercy Mercy Me” (The Ecology)

MP3: “What’s Happening Brother” (live)

MP3: “What’s Going On” (Rhythm and strings mix)

Marvin Gaye’s Motown page

Motown 50th anniversary website

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