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Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

| March 31, 2017 | 16 Comments

The spring of 1970 was a dark time for Marvin Gaye. His beloved duet partner Tammi Terrell had died after a three-year struggle with a brain tumor. His brother Frankie had returned from Vietnam with horror stories that moved Marvin to tears. And at Motown, Marvin was stymied in his quest to address social issues in his music.

While he was pondering his next move, a song fell in his lap that would provide a channel for all his sorrow and frustration.

The initial idea for “What’s Going On” came to Four Tops member Obie Benson when he was in San Francisco in 1969.

“They had the Haight-Ashbury then, all the kids up there with the long hair and everything,” he told MOJO. “The police was beating on the kids, but they wasn’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what was going on. ‘What is happening here?’ One question leads to another. ‘Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas?’ And so on.”

Benson shaped his tune with fellow Motown writer Al Cleveland, then pitched it to the Four Tops. But they weren’t interested in a protest song. Obie played a rough version to Joan Baez, who also passed. He then brought it to Marvin Gaye, who loved it, saying it would be perfect for the Originals, a Motown vocal quartet he was producing.

Benson disagreed, giving Marvin an ultimatum. “I finally put it to him like this: ‘I’ll give you a percentage of the tune if you sing it, but if you do it on anybody else you can’t have none of it.’”

Marvin agreed, then set about earning his writer’s percentage of the song. “He definitely put the finishing touches on it,” Benson said. “He added lyrics, and he added some spice to the melody. He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song. He made it visual. He absorbed himself to the extent that when you heard the song you could see the people and feel the hurt and pain. We measured him for the suit, and he tailored it.”

Marvin was so thrilled by “What’s Going On” that he tracked down Berry Gordy while the boss was on vacation. “I was in the Bahamas trying to relax,” Gordy recalled in a Motown documentary. “He called and said, ‘Look, I’ve got these songs.’ When he told me they were protest songs, I said, ‘Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?’”

All Motown artists went through a finishing school that taught them to carefully avoid controversial topics in both their interviews and music. But since day one of his tenure at the label, Marvin Gaye was a rebel. He’d come to blows with Gordy over lesser things. He wasn’t about to back down now.

To record “What’s Going On” and the concept album around it, Marvin drew from the full arsenal of local talent, from house arranger David Van De Pitte to the Funk Brothers. Paying for the sessions himself, Marvin drafted in extra players, including several Detroit Symphony members and two friends from the Detroit Lions football team to add street chatter.

The record was full of innovative arrangements (Van De Pitte said, “My first thought was that it was never gonna fly, because this is not like anything else that’s been done at Motown before”) and happy accidents. One example: the yearning sax figure that opens the record. Session man Eli Fontaine was warming up over the track, when Marvin stopped the tape and told him he could go home. “We’ve already got what we need,” the singer said. Fontaine replied that he was just goofing around. “Well, you goof exquisitely,” Marvin said.

A more significant accident was the counterpoint lead vocal, which became one of Marvin’s stylistic trademarks.

“That double lead voice was a mistake on my part,” engineer Ken Sands told Ben Edmonds. “Marvin cut two lead vocals, and wanted me to prepare a tape with the rhythm track up in the middle and each of his vocals on separate tracks so he could compare them. Once I played that stereo mix on a mono machine and he heard both voices at the same time by accident. He loved it.”

Quality Control, the Motown board that passed inspection on all prospective singles, gave “What’s Going On” a thumbs down (at the company, only Stevie Wonder defended the song). Berry Gordy tried to block its release, calling it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” But while Gordy’s interests were being drawn to the solo career of Diana Ross and motion pictures, “What’s Going On” slipped out.

It was an immediate sensation, catching on at radio in several major cities, and selling over a 100,000 copies in its first week. It went to #2 on the Billboard Pop Chart (and #1 on the R&B Chart) and paved the way for the landmark album. Beyond any chart position, the song has become a timeless spiritual anthem.

As Marvin once said of it, “To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return. I had myself in that frame of mind. People were confused and needed reassurance. God was offering that reassurance through his music. I was privileged to be the instrument.”

—By Bill DeMain

From Performing Songwriter Issue 94, June 2006

Category: Behind The Song

Comments (16)

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  1. maurice says:

    One of the best songs of the era from one of the best, most important albums of the era…or any era. Gaye was a genius, but a man in deep pain. Seriously abused and beaten as a child, he took every loss very hard and empathized with the pain of others like it was his own. He understood oppression and unfairness and put that wisdom into the song and the whole album. Another great artist who suffered emotionally, got into drugs and died young — no, murdered, shot by his own father.

    But I mean really a great artist, from his earliest hits to the bitter end, Marvin was a creative force, a singer of excellence, a magnificent Soul Brother. Marvin, we remember you and we miss you.

  2. Barbara says:

    I love the song n didn’t realize how it happened so so glad it did I can listen to it n it still relates to the things going on n the world wish he was still here young folks don’t know real music its heart breaking

  3. Byron Jordan Sr says:

    I bought this project on cassette tape. My mother had my brothers & sisters on a road trip to Chattanooga TN and I began to play it. The lyrics were so strong and the lingering of the end of one track and the intro to the next track. Made it seem like one song with different levels that would go full circle. And before you knew it, you were back to the beginning again.
    I played that cassette non stop all the way down & back to Chicago, and not once did anyone want me to turn it off. I don’t remember anyone talking the whole time will were on the road. Four boys & Two girls with Two adults, and I listening became so in tune to the world’s problems, they became my problems too as a child.

  4. Tom says:

    After coming home from 20 months in Vietnam in 1970 I enrolled in a small college in Southern Utah. My speech class required a dramatic reading for the final grade. Without hesitation I read What’s Going On from the perspective of a Vietnam Veteran who had asked the question many times while I was in country. 45 years later the words Marvin sang still haunt me.


    I love the way each song goes into the other without stopping, beautiful melody as well as a prolific meaning.

    a tragic lost to the music world he was.

  6. mark says:

    this album is a masterpiece that will always be heard. it was gayes ultimate work, he never matched it. listen to every track on a great system and you will hear sounds that he must have said to himself i hope this gets really heard. it is high art. treasure it.

  7. Paul Duncan Leitch says:

    This is probably one of my all time favorite albums. Hearing Marvin Gaye’s performance is great. I enjoyed hearing the album around 1972-1974. Just listening to it uplifts my spirits —like a great, modern hymn.

  8. Dilip says:

    This song has had such a profound effect on me, I’m glad to say. Its a true spiritual anthem for our times, even though it was first conceived in the 1960s. Songs like this help us celebrate our shared humanity.

    I am an Australian songwriter, and with similar sentiments in mind and out of greatest respect for Marvin Gaye, and another songwriter of great spiritual anthems – Curtis Mayfield, I wrote and recorded a song called “Our Humanity” which Id like to share with other lovers of sincere songs that try to tap into that deep well of humanity.

    Jah Bless !!

  9. Eve Jankowski says:

    I am so glad the song slipped out. It sends a powerful message. I am so thankful to Stevie Wonder for supporting it. Too bad some people still don’ t realize today that war is not the answer. For Marvin it hit close – his own brother fought in Vietnam. It brings me to tears to think about the pain and shame that Marvin lived through. He never experienced any warmth, any love from his father. Violence and abuse dominated their relationship. RIP, Marvin. No more pain for you on this planet filled with evil. I am sure God is all the Love and Comfort you need.

  10. Randy C says:

    I am glad “What’s Going On” slipped by Berry Gordy. This is my all time favorite album. One of the most interesting things is the lyrics throughout the album can still be applied to the world today. I can’t really explain why but whenever I get stressed or extremely upset, I can listen to this album and a calm will come over me. This album did fit the times of the 70’s but even more for today’s times. I thank everyone involved in supporting Marvin with this masterpiece.

  11. Sam says:

    You are living in the world and have not heard Gaye’s “What’s going on”. Think buddy, there is something going on and you are un-blindly closing your eyes.

  12. Ajay says:

    Wow, this sends waves of joy through my body. I love this song and the story behind it completes the artwork for me. Marvin “was privileged to be the instrument” and I was privileged to have experienced the emergence of some exceptional and timeless music in the sixties.

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