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What's Going On


Marvin Gaye
What's Going On

Motown Records


After some several days of reflecting and pondering and general thought (which is very unusual), I still can’t think of any non-complimentary things to write about myself.  And I ain’t gonna write no general information type stuff either, so I guess I’ll just give credit to some good people who, without their help, I could have completed this project a lot faster.  More about them later.  And anyway, if you like the artist well enough to buy his or her album, you don’t have to be told how groovy it is, or which tunes you should dig, or how great his or her majesty is.  I mean the fact that people just won’t let us think for ourselves really bugs me!  Now just because I like “Mercy Mercy Me” and the one that says “Save The Children,” shouldn’t influence anyone.  And you shouldn’t have to pay any special attention to the lyric on “Flyin’ High In The Friendly Sky” just because I think you ought to.  It’s ridiculous.  While I’ve got you reading, I’d like to first give thanks to my parents, The Rev. & Mrs. Marvin P. Gay, Sr., for conceiving, having and loving me.  And special thanks to my wife Anna for buggin’ me into working…or else I wouldn’t do nothin’ I guess but test shade trees.  Thanks also to Elgie and Kenneth Stover who are certainly instrumental in provoking my thought process.  Moreover, tho, I got to thank my wife for that too.  Then thanks to Gwen Gordy Fuqua for just being nice to me, and that’s hard to do.  Hi Sua, Doe Simms and Wardell, and thanks to Lem Barney and Mel Farr for singing background on “What’s Going On.”  Right on brothers!  Thanks too to James Nyx, a gentleman and a scholar (which I’m apparently not).

Here are some people I love, so I dedicate this album to Mrs. Alberta Gay, Mr. Marvin P. Gay, Sr., Anna Ruby, Gordy Gaye, Marvin Pentz Gaye III, Mike Cooper, Frankie Gay, Paul and Gerald Comedy, Zeola “Sweetsie” Gay, Mable Jean Gay, Clarence Paul, Aunt Zeola, Parisee Monyel, Harvey Fuqua and George Maximillian.

Find God: we’ve got to find the Lord.  Allow him to influence us.  I mean what other weapons have we to fight the forces of hatred and evil.  And check out the Ten Commandments too.  You can’t go too far wrong if you live them, dig it.  Just a sincere and personal contact with God will keep you more together.  Love the Lord, be thankful, feel peace.  Thanks for life and loved ones.  Thank you Jesus.

Marvin Gaye

Written by Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye & Renaldo Benson

Written by James Nyx & Marvin Gaye


Written by Marvin Gaye, Anna Gaye & Elgie Stover

Written by Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye & Renaldo Benson

Written by Marvin Gaye, Anna Gaye, Elgie Stover & James Nyx

Written by Marvin Gaye


Written by Earl DeRouen & Marvin Gaye

Written by Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland & Marvin Gaye

Written by Marvin Gaye, James Nyx, Anna Gaye & Elgie Stover

All selections published by and © 1971 Jobete Music Co., Inc. (ASCAP), except * published by and © 1971 Jobete Music Co., Inc./Stone Agate Music (BMI). All Rights Reserved. Lyrics reproduced by kind permission.

And about the job of putting this son-of-a-gun together:

Orchestra Conducted & Arranged By: David Van dePitte (Fastest Pen Alive)

Copying: Mrs. David Van dePitte (A very thrifty move, Dave)

Background Voices: 
The Andantes, Mel Farr, Bobby Rogers, Elgie Stover, Lem Barney

The Musicians:

Guitars: Joe Messina, Robert White
Drums: Chet Forest
Tambourine & Percussion: Jack Ashford
Vibes & Percussion: Jack Brokensha
Soprano Saxophone: Larry Nozero
Baritone Saxophone: Tate Houston
Celeste: Johnny Griffith
Tenor: George Benson
Piano: Marvin Gaye
Alto Saxophone: Angelo Carlisi
Bongos & Conga: Eddie Brown, Earl DeRouen
Flutes: Dayna Hartwick, William Perich
Bass: James Jamerson
Trumpets: John Trudell, Maurice Davis
Solo Work: Eli Fountain (Alto Saxophone), William “Wild Bill” Moore (Tenor Saxophone)
Trombone: Carl Raetz
Violins: Gordon Staples, Zinovi Bistritzky, Beatriz Budinszky, Richard Margitza, Virginia Halfmann, Felix Resnick, Alvin Score, Lillian Down, James Waring
Violas: Edouard Kesner, Meyer Shapiro, David Ireland, Nathan Gordon
Cellos: Italo Rabini, Thaddeus Markiewicz, Edward Karkigian
Harp: Carole Crosby
String Bass: Max Janowsky

Produced by: MARVIN GAYE

Recorded by: Lawrence Miles, Art Stewart, Joe Atkinson & James Green

Mixed by: Lawrence Miles

Art Direction: Curtis McNair

Graphic Supervision: Tom Schlesinger

Front & Rear Cover Photography: Hendin

Montage Photography: The Gaye and Gordy Family Archives

What’s Going On was originally released on Tamla 310, May 21, 1971.  Three singles were issued: “What’s Going On” / “God Is Love” (Tamla 54201, 1/21/71), “Mercy, Mercy Me” / “Sad Tomorrows” (Tamla 54207, 6/10/71) and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” / “Wholy Holy” (Tamla 54209, 9/71).

Reissue Producer: Amy Herot

Executive Reissue Producer: Candace Bond

Remastered by Gavin Lurssen at the Mastering Lab, Los Angeles, CA.

Consulting Engineer: Lawrence Miles

Essay by David Ritz

Tape Archive Manager: Georgia Ward

Reissue Coordination by Dana Smart

Photos from the Motown Archives, American Stock Photography and the collection of Cliff Badowski


By David Ritz

This is sacred music.

From the opening riffs of the kicked-back alto sax, sounds flow like a sensual stream of consciousness.  Marvin’s mellow yet melancholy, relaxed yet remorseful.  The contradictions are part of the pull, essential to the charm.  For all his sincere complexity, Marvin’s message is startlingly clear: love before it’s too late.

Nearly a quarter-century after this extraordinary suite of songs was recorded, it still stands as a monument, a masterpiece that has grown in stature.  The issues raised are more relevant today than ever; and the sheer pleasure of listening to these thirty-five minutes of flawless music affords a satisfaction, a heavenly high, that has only intensified with time.

What’s Going On enjoys a unique position in and out of its time frame.  Written from a distinctly African-American point of view, the work evokes an era, directly responding to what was happening at the end of the sixties, one of the most tumultuous decades in American history.  But it also transcends those issues by drawing upon a powerful spiritual base.  Beyond that, the songs project the extremely personal vision of its creator, an artist deeply divided between body and soul.  The music reflects similar crosscurrents, strands of rhythm-and-blues, silky pop and biting avant-garde Jazz.

The private and professional lives of Marvin Gaye – the forces which led to his undertaking a work of this nature – were dramatic.  He was not a happy man.  His childhood had been difficult.  He learned the Bible and the joys of sanctified music in a store-front church in which his father, a scholarly but violent man, presided as a charismatic preacher.  The Christian sect with which the Gays (Marvin added the “e” later) were affiliated was as eccentric as its name, a combination of quotes from the Old and New Testaments, Isaiah and First Timothy, The House of God, the Holy Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, the House of Prayer for All People.  The church was a bizarre mixture of orthodox Judaism and Pentecostal Christianity.

“We follow Biblical instructions,” Bishop Simon Peter Rawlings told me in the early eighties when I was researching a book on Marvin’s life.  “And the Bible does not ask us to celebrate Jesus’ birth or the Crucifixion.  Christmas and Easter are holidays that some might even view as pagan, and we feel obligated to ignore them.”  At the church’s central sanctuary in Lexington, Kentucky, I noticed that the pulpit was adorned with a large Star of David; I heard how the congregants follow Old Testament dietary laws, celebrate the Jewish Day of Atonement by remaining in prayer for twenty-four hours, and eat unleavened bread on Passover.  The women were dressed in white, the male hierarchy evident, the dogma stern – no dancing, no movies, no secular music.  Yet in spite of its puritanical rules, the church fascinated Marvin.  “I loved my father’s religion,” he told me.  “At a very early age, I realized I was born into a very rootsy church and found it exciting.  The idea of tarrying thrilled and fascinated me.  That’s where you wait for the Holy Ghost, where you repeat over and again, ‘Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus,’ until the spirit arrives.  It can take minutes or hours.  Later I’d understand that it was similar to the way Eastern religions use mantras.  We were tapping an energy force in the universe.”

Sexual energy, however, was another matter.  Mixed messages were given to Marvin at an early age.  Masturbation and premarital sex were considered sinful.  Reverend Gay did not hesitate to beat his children with a belt, often for minor infractions.  At the same time, he knew and loved the Bible, passing out that love to his eldest son Marvin and Marvin’s three siblings (an older sister and a younger brother and sister).  The singer’s childhood, in Washington D.C., was painful and confusing.

Marvin rebelled.  He incurred his father’s wrath by breaking his father’s rules.  He sang in church, but he also sang on the streets.  And it’s not surprising that in 1959 at age 19 – after an abortive stint in the Air Force and some subsequent gigs with Bo Diddley – Marvin left home for good.  He headed out with Harvey Fuqua’s Moonglows, a vocal group whose sublime blend left an indelible mark on Gaye’s musical mind.  This was the twilight of the Golden Age of Doo-Wop, and Fuqua had to scramble to survive – first to Chess Records in Chicago and then to Detroit where he married one of Berry Gordy’s sisters, Gwen, while Marvin married another, Anna, a woman seventeen years his senior.  This was the start of Motown, the company which Marvin both loved and resented.

A small company modeled on assembly line production, Motown sought to mold its artists.  Marvin Gaye could not be molded.  For the first several years, he resisted attempts to turn him into a rhythm-and-blues artist.  He thought little of his dancing ability.  “I never wanted to shake my ass on stage,” he said.  His models, instead, were cool crooners like Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.  He wanted to sing while seated on a stool.  He yearned to be his generation’s Nat King Cole.  He tried, and he failed.

His forte was to be found in autobiography, in the conflicts and passions of. his own life.  His first hit reflects this fact.  He wrote “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,” a statement about Marvin himself.  In a career marked by ironic twists and unexpected turns, Gaye made it by doing what he sought so long to avoid – hot dance music.  In 1963, he cracked the Top Ten pop chart with “Pride and Joy,” another self-penned self-reflecting piece about what was then his happy marriage.

As the Motown machine started to crank out hits in unprecedented numbers, Marvin had his share.  He boycotted the label’s charm school – Marvin had loads of natural charm – he fought with the producers, bucked the system and still turned out smashes.  He worked well with Smokey Robinson on “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar”; Holland-Dozier-Holland produced “Can I Get A Witness” and “You’re A Wonderful One”; and his series of duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and especially Tammi Terrell were highly successful.

In an era – and a company – where producers produced with absolute authority, Marvin was treated differently, deferentially.  “It was thrilling to have Marvin sing one of my songs,” said Smokey Robinson.  “He’d change it, he’d interpret it, he’d actually improve the thing as if he himself had written it.”

After the initial triumphs of Marvin, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Miracles, the Supremes, Four Tops, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder in the early to mid-sixties, the second phase of Motown’s best-selling saga was ushered in by the brilliant producer Norman Whitfield.  Whitfield owned the last half of the sixties.  He pumped new life into the post-David Ruffin Temptations, eliciting fiery vocals from Dennis Edwards on “Cloud Nine” and “I Can’t Get Next To You.”  He drafted Edwin Starr into “War.”  And pushed Marvin Gaye as Gaye had never been pushed before.

Both fiercely independent men, Whitfield and Gaye nearly came to blows in the studio.  Marvin claimed Norman’s arrangements were too high for his voice, forcing him to strain and limiting his capacity to interpret.  Whitfield had precise ideas about how his songs should sound.  No matter, the acrimony turned into both high art and serious commerce in the form of their greatest creation, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”  The tune, written by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, had already been a huge Motown hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips; Gaye’s version was actually recorded before Gladys’ but issued afterwards, in October 1968.  Phenomenally, only a year after Knight’s salty rendition, the same song, revamped by Gaye, sold nearly four million copies, at that point far and away the biggest hit in Motown history.

“Bearing down on every word,” wrote critic Dave Marsh, “making each syllable count, Gaye explored ‘Grapevine’ as if the song were a lost continent of music and emotion, as if the plotters in the song were his true and personal demons, had in fact scorched his identity all but out of existence… In those three and a quarter minutes, Marvin Gaye earned his independence from Motown.”

Other Whitfield/Gaye hits would follow – “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” “That’s The Way Love Is,” “The End Of Our Road” – but Marvin would never be the same.  “Grapevine” turned him into a superstar.  That meant no more producers.  He could do as he pleased.

“It felt like I’d finally learned how to sing,” Marvin told me about preparing for What’s Going On.  “I’d been studying the microphone for a dozen years and suddenly I saw what I’d been doing wrong.  I’d been singing too loud, especially on those Whitfield songs.  It was all so easy.  One night I was listening to a record by Lester Young, the horn player, and it came to me.  Relax, just relax. It’s all going to be all right.”

Marvin needed to reassure himself, but the late sixties weren’t a reassuring time.  Tammi Terrell’s sickness and eventual death in 1970 had a severe impact on Gaye’s psyche.  His marriage to Anna had started unraveling and, even more, he was growing concerned that the songs he sang – written and produced by others – lacked meaning.  In the burgeoning youth-and-protest movement sweeping the country, he identified with the hippies.

“I dug the hippies,” Marvin told me in the early eighties.  “I completely identified.  They had the guts to tell the establishment to shove it.  They had the imagination to dress differently, think differently, reinvent the world for themselves.  I loved that.  I also loved their pot.”

Beyond social rebellion, there was the troubling fact of Vietnam.  Marvin never went to war, but his brother Frankie did.  In searching for subject matter, Marvin wisely chose to cast himself in the role of someone he knew intimately; he made Frankie the main character of What’s Going On, projecting himself into the soul of his sibling, a man returning to America after the nightmare of war.

“The death and destruction I saw in Vietnam sickened me,” Frankie told me.  “The war seemed useless, wrong, and unjust.  I relayed all this to Marvin and forgave him for never writing to me while I was over there.  That had hurt, because he was a big star and none of my buddies believed he was my brother.  ‘Wait,’ I told them, ‘He’s going to write me back and prove it to you.’  He never did.”

Frankie and Marvin never enjoyed an easy relationship.  Also a gifted singer, Frankie’s talent threatened his brother.  For a short period, Frankie sang background for Marvin who otherwise did little to advance his sibling’s career.  (Gaye exhibited similar ambivalence toward Janis, his second wife, who also wanted to perform.).  Despite Marvin’s mixed feelings about his brother, Frankie’s persona was perfect for expressing the sorrows of a war-torn America.

“I know this sounds strange,” Frankie added during our interview, “but I think that Marvin was always envious of my war experience.  He saw it as a manly act that he had avoided.  It’s even stranger because while Marvin was always my hero, I was his hero.  I really believe he wanted to be me.”

Manliness was definitely on Marvin’s mind when he wrote What’s Going On.  During this same period, he befriended Mel Farr and Lem Barney, all-pro starters for the Detroit Lions football team.

“Marvin was depressed just before What’s Going On,” Mel Farr told me.  “He’d been holed up in his house for a long time.  We convinced him to get out and play ball.  Marvin was a guy who needed exercise.  It lifted his spirits and made him feel better about himself.  At first it was simply fun, but then Marvin got very serious.  He went from 170 to 195 pounds, ran six miles a day, worked with weights and became convinced he was actually going to make the team.  His goal was to play pro ball for the Lions.”

It never happened.  Marvin was a good athlete who harbored delusions of grandeur.  He also toyed with professional boxing, another way to bolster his sense of masculinity.  Sexual identity was always a problem with Marvin.  He worried about being too sexy – “I don’t want to be a sex symbol,” he said – or not sexy enough – “but I don’t want to be seen as a wimp,” he added.

Yet in creating What’s Going On, he put sex aside.  Stronger issues were surfacing.  For all his need to be perceived as sexy and strong, his need to preach was even greater.  There were instances where he saw himself as the minister his father wanted him to be.  The end of the sixties was one such time.  Just as he was an eccentric artist, he would become an eccentric preacher, a pop preacher, a soul-singing prophet prepared to warn his people, to warn all people, that they were heading in the wrong direction.

Marvin decided to change.  He altered his clean-cut image by growing a beard.  He threw out his suits and ties and lived in sweatsuits and jogging shoes.  He refused to perform.  He refused to follow Berry Gordy out to Los Angeles.  He stayed in Detroit where he shunned interviews.  He would not work with other producers.  From now on, Marvin would produce himself.  Whatever the Motown marketing department thought of his work didn’t matter.  “What mattered,” said Marvin, “was the message.  For the first time I really felt like I had something to say.”

And a different way to say it.  The title song, “What’s Going On,” seduces you softly, catching your ear and quickening your pulse with a loping Latin-tinged groove that’s deliciously subtle, blues-based, jazz-wise and intimate.  Immediately you hear more than one Marvin; the singer shadows himself with his own voice, employing an overdubbing multi-track technique which provides a background of self-styled harmonies, a kind of inner-dialogue that gives the piece an introspective tone.  The spoken voices preceding the singing are Marvin’s neighborhood pals – Lem Barney, Mel Farr, Elgie Stover, Bobby Rogers of the Miracles – exchanging hip salutations.  Partying, wanting to know what’s happening, what’s going on.

“One day after Lem, Marvin and I played golf,” Mel Farr remembered, “we went back over to Marvin’s house on Outer Drive in Detroit.  We’d hit the ball especially good that day and we were all feeling good, sitting around and kibitzing, when I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’  Marvin said, ‘You know, that’d be a hip title for a song.  I think I’ll write it for the Originals.’  He started fooling at the piano and when we dropped by to see him the next day he was still fooling with it.  ‘That’s not for the Originals, Marvin,’ we told him.  ‘That’s for you.’”

In truth, Marvin didn’t initiate the music himself.  As was often the case, he relied on others to help him break his frequent writer’s block.  The title song, “What’s Going On, was composed by Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops and Al Cleveland.  Obie’s version of the song’s origins differs from Mel Farr’s.

“We argued over the credits,” Benson told me.  “Marvin was funny about credit, but it basically came down like this: I gave Marvin one third of the song to sing and produce it.  Naturally, he put his own touches on it, being the master that he is.  But all the music was already there.”

Except for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” which he wrote alone, Marvin composed all the songs in the suite with others.  The major work, though – the narrative and thematic backbone of the piece – belongs to Marvin.  He simply needed help getting started.

Gaye had Barney, Farr and company singing background.  “Later on,” Mel Farr told me, “Motown convinced Marvin to re-record ‘What’s Going On’ with a group of professional background singers.  But it didn’t sound as natural as the original, and Marvin stuck to his guns.”

The title song contains a simultaneous question and answer.  While Marvin wants to know what’s going on – what’s the madness in this country all about? – he’s also prepared to tell just what is going on.  He paints a political picture in which America’s a land of “picket lines and picket signs,” a place of chaos and “brutality.”  Somehow we’re transported from the confines of the party to the broader confusion of society.  Yet even when the preaching starts – “War is not the answer/Only love can conquer hate” – when Marvin addresses mothers who have lost sons in a war no one understands, he retains his relaxed party groove, making the message all that more accessible.  His sympathy with protesting hippies is clear – “Everybody thinks we’re wrong/But who are they to judge us/Simply because our hair is long.”  When he poignantly sings, “Father, father, father, we don’t need to escalate,” he refers to both his heavenly father and his biological father with whom he fought so bitterly.  “Brother, brother” is dedicated to all brothers, black brothers and white brothers, brothers-in-arms, and, of course, to Frankie, Marvin’s flesh-and-blood brother.

“What’s Happening Brother” is Frankie’s homecoming, the return of the Vietnam vet.  He’s back in the neighborhood, slipping into slang, “Hey, baby, what’cha know good?” wondering about the local ball team’s chances of winning the pennant, ready to go dancing and return to a normal life.  The problem, though, is economic, the same problem that, over two decades later, still plagues minority neighborhoods: “Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend/Money is tighter than it’s ever been.”

The distance between financial despair and psychological escape is short, the trip taken by “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky),” a semi-sarcastic take on the then-current United Airlines’ ad campaign.  The subject is drugs, with all its heightened pleasures and deadly pain.  The song contains Marvin’s penchant for self-pity and, in his own words, “self-destruction.”  “I’m hooked,” he sings, “to the boy who makes slaves out of men.”  In a double entendre, “boy” refers to heroin, which was not Gaye’s drug of choice, although he may well be expressing concern over his own growing dependency on pot and cocaine.  Whether personal or not, the song is a compassionate inside look at addiction sung with almost alarming beauty and sensuality.  Like Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower” played by Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington, “Flyin’ High” is an artistic recreation of drug-induced euphoria, leaving the straightest listener dreamy and high.

“Save The Children” is the emotional centerpiece of What’s Going On, the point of Marvin’s deepest despair and most fervent exhortation.  He starts by asking a series of questions in a speaking voice filled with melancholy: Will all the flowers fade?  Can the world be saved?  Is humanity destined to die?  Can we save ourselves?  Can we save our children?

Marvin believed the Bible.  Although he was a sophisticated reader whose interests included Islam and Buddhism, he never lost his childhood sense of fundamentalist Christianity.  The Book of Revelations told him that the end was imminent; his own instincts said the same thing.  As time passed and his personal problems compounded, so would his pessimism.  At this point, however, he still managed a bit of optimism.

“I respect the Eastern religions,” Gaye affirmed.  “Their philosophies are beautiful and wise.  They’ve taught me to root myself in the present.  I also believe in reincarnation.  We’re destined to return and repeat our mistakes if we don’t grow toward God in this form.  But my own beliefs come down to two simple points.  One, believe in Jesus, and two, expand love.  Both points, you see, are really the same.”

Affirmation of those points are most clearly articulated in “Save The Children.”  He speaks the words, “Let’s save all the children,” and then answers himself in song, pleading, “Save the babies!  Save the babies!”  In the transition between the plainly spoken “children” and impassioned cry of “babies,” Marvin imbues his suite with great spiritual vitality.

The rhythm quickens.  The preacher lets loose, calling his sermon “God Is Love.”  “Don’t go and talk about my father,” sings Marvin, who’s seemingly thinking back to his youth when his schoolmates mocked his own eccentric father.  Father is also God; “God is my friend, Jesus is my friend,” Gaye exclaims before listing the family members – father, mother, sister, brother – who must be loved.  God loves us “whether or not we know it,” says the singer, “and He’ll forgive all our sins,” reinforcing his notion of traditional Christianity.

I once asked Marvin whether the cruel behavior of his own father ever turned him against the church.

“One of the reasons I love my family,” he replied in an especially forgiving mood, “is because he offered me Jesus.  He made Jesus come alive for me, and that’s reason enough to be grateful to him for the rest of my life.  It’s not about this church or that church.  Almost all churches are corrupt.  My church lives within my own heart… When we don’t follow Jesus’ example and turn to exploitation and greed, we destroy ourselves.  That’s what ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ is about.”

“Mercy Mercy Me” catalogues ecological nightmares – “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas…fish full of mercury…radiation underground and in the sky” – sung over a groove so smooth, so light, the message becomes a soothing mantra.  Mother Earth is anthropomorphized.  “How much more abuse from man can she stand?” asks Marvin.

“Right On” takes something of a left turn.  An example of how Gaye stretches the boundaries of traditional pop composing, the song is essentially an inner-monologue, a fascinating form Gaye will further explore in Trouble Man, Here, My Dear and In Our Lifetime.  Wild Bill Moore’s bristling tenor provides a hot counterpoint, creating a mood of smoldering frustration.  Gaye contrasts poverty and wealth, caring and indulging.  Characteristically autobiographical, he describes his own condition with irony.  “I am selfish,” Marvin once confessed to a European reporter.  “I’m certainly self-indulgent.”  Self-recrimination seems to be the attitude as he sings about “those of us who live a life surrounded by good fortune and wealth” and “those of us who got drowned in the sea of happiness,” an especially apt description of the contradiction surrounding Marvin’s life in the seventies, a decade marked by Gaye’s professional triumphs and personal failures.

“Right On” leaves off with love, a return to the theme of the suite and the subject of “Wholy Holy,” a pun only on paper.  We’re back in church, back to the sort of message which Marvin’s father would have had no problem delivering – “Jesus lived a long time ago, said he would return/He left us a book to believe in/In it we’ve got a lot to learn.”  The emphasis is on unity – “People, we got to come together” – and, once again, the feeling is forward-looking, hopeful.  “Holler love across the nation,” Marvin cries.  “We proclaim love our salvation.”

The music and meanings in What’s Going On crisscross between the flesh and the spirit, the material and the metaphysical.  It’s not surprising, then, that Gaye chooses to conclude with a trip back to reality, a tour of the ghetto.  From the out-of-rhythm ethereal “Wholy Holy,” we slide back into the neighborhood for “Inner City Blues,” a bongo backbeat keeping ominous time, the sense of despair everywhere – “Make me wanna holler/the way they do my life.”  The suite concludes where it began, on the streets, in the confused hearts of the oppressed, a territory of “trigger happy policing” where “panic is spreading.”

And although the ghetto was a basic landscape for Gaye – as it was for Curtis Mayfield, whose music during the same period was also luminous – Marvin turns rage into beauty and rearranges anger into art.  Unlike the rappers who would appear in the eighties – artists whose fiery rebelliousness Gaye would have undoubtedly endorsed – Marvin remained a romantic, transforming emotional pain into musical pleasure.  While What’s Going On stimulates the mind, it never ceases to please the ear.  At thirty-five minutes, the work seems much longer, even exhaustive; its emotional range is vast, its aesthetic satisfactions enormous.

When the record came out, everything about it seemed different.  The cover showed a bearded, distraught Marvin standing in the rain, the pathetic fallacy of nature reflecting his sorrow.  For the first time on a Marvin Gaye album, lyrics were listed along with personnel.  “I should have given special mention to James Jamerson,” Gaye told me, referring to Motown’s virtuoso bassist.  “That’s how much he grooved the thing along.”  There was also a spread of family pictures, adding to the personal nature of the project.  Meanwhile, the Motown family had strongly divergent views about the record.

“From Jump Street,” Marvin claimed, “Motown fought What’s Going On.  They didn’t like it, didn’t understand it, and didn’t trust it.  Management said the songs were too long, too formless, and would be lost on a public looking for easy three-minute stories.  For months they wouldn’t release it.  My attitude had to be firm.  Basically I said, ‘Put it out or I’ll never record for you again.’  That was my ace in the hole, and I had to play it.”

In his memoirs, Smokey Robinson describes a conversation he had with Berry Gordy about What’s Going On:

“I don’t like it,” said Berry.  “It’s not commercial.  I don’t think they’re going to play it on the radio.”

“Look man,” Smokey told him, “all the writers and artists love it.  We think it’s brilliant…”

“I’m trying to talk him out of it,” Berry said.

“That’s like trying to talk a bear out of shittin’ in the woods.  Marvin ain’t budging.”

Smokey called the album “the single greatest record ever made by anyone.  It was also funky as the devil.  It took our company out of the age of the producer into the age of the artist.  It made musical history.”

“The album,” Smokey quoted Marvin as saying, “wasn’t done by me, it was done by God.”

Robinson went on to defend Gordy.  “People have pointed to this episode as an example of Motown stifling its artists,” Smokey wrote.  “The truth is that Berry, though he was the boss, lost the fight – and lost it like a gentleman.  He realized with Marvin, and later with Stevie, that these were artists who required freedom.  And he gave it to them.”

On several occasions Wonder has testified as strongly as Robinson on behalf of What’s Going On, calling it his favorite album, the one that inspired his phenomenal series of self-produced seventies albums.

The critics were caught by surprise.  In Rolling Stone, Vince Aletti admitted he had underestimated Gaye.  Time devoted two columns to the work, quoting Jesse Jackson as saying, “Marvin is as much a minister as any man in the pulpit.”  The Time critic went on to say, “Gaye weaves a vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite in which Latin beats, soft soul and white pop, and occasionally scat and Hollywood schmaltz, yield effortlessly to each other.  The overall style…is so lush and becalming that the words – which in themselves are often merely simplistic – come to the listener like dots from a Seurat landscape.”

Despite Motown’s fears, the record was a resounding hit.  Between February and October of 1971, three of its songs – “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” – hit the Top Ten on the R&B and Pop charts.

“The biggest result of What’s Going On,” Marvin told me, “had to do with my own freedom.  I’d earned it, and no one could take it away from me.  Now I could do whatever I wanted.  For most people that would be a blessing.  But for me – with all my hot little games – the thought was heavy.  They said I’d reached the top, and that scared me ‘cause Mother used to say, ‘First ripe, first rotten.’  When you’re at the top there’s nowhere to go but down.  No, I needed to keep going up – raising my consciousness – or I’d fall back on my behind.”  Then he paused before adding, “When would the war stop…the war inside my soul?”

That war would not stop until his tragic demise.  But in the dozen years that remained in his life, Gaye would create a treasury of great work, though none as memorable – nor as universally acclaimed – as What’s Going On.

Within a year of the album’s release, its songs were being sung by others.  Aretha Franklin, who adored Marvin’s music was among the first.  On Franklin’s classic Amazing Grace double gospel album from 1972, she takes “Wholy Holy” where it belongs – to church.  Her version is spectacular.  Since then many other covers have been recorded – Diana Ross’ “Save The Children”; versions of “What’s Going On” by Donny Hathaway, Cyndi Lauper and Weather Report; Robert Palmer’s “Mercy Mercy Me,” Sly and Robbie’s “Inner City Blues” – proving that Marvin’s portrait of an era has transcended its time.

“Marvin’s deep,” Miles Davis told a writer just after What’s Going On came out.  “He’s one cat I’d like to catch up with.  I’d like to make a record with him.”  (Marvin felt the same way, but it never happened.  “We both have such big egos,” Marvin said about Miles, “it’d be hard to fit both of our egos in the same room.”  Actually Gaye did start a song called “Ditty For Miles” that remained incomplete and unrecorded.

In early 1972, interviewed by Ben Fong Torres for Rolling Stone, Marvin described how he conceived “every bit of the music” for What’s Going On.  Insecure about his ability to read or write music, Gaye expressed ambivalence towards David Van dePitte, the man who scored the suite.  Marvin admired Van dePitte enormously, but worried he would claim credit for the suite.  “I’m gonna learn to write music,” Gaye promised.  “Why?  Because I want all the credit.”

He got all the credit.  For all Van dePitte’s marvelous orchestrations, everyone sees What’s Going On as a product of the mind and heart of Marvin Gaye.

By 1971 standards, What’s Going On was a radical work.  Its jazz underpinnings, unconventional song tracks and biting political commentary were anything but business as usual.  In contrast, James Brown’s message songs like “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)” were anthems of self-reliance and, in some sense, conservative.  Brown was a patriot; Gaye was not.  Marvin also dispelled the notion that pop and gospel didn’t mix by invoking whole prayers in the center of his suite and calling out to Jesus.  Jesus was not mentioned in pop songs.

Gaye broke the rules, destroyed the theories, went his own way.  He re-defined soul music, expanded popular music, even influenced avant-garde jazz musicians like Gato Barbieri.  He shocked Motown by proving that an artist whose career had been built by other producers could eventually produce himself, a lesson learned not only by Stevie Wonder but Michael Jackson.

“He’s our John Lennon,” Janet Jackson recently said about Gaye.  “The longer he’s gone, the more young people appreciate his art.  What’s Going On was a work of genius far ahead of its time.”

For our time, Marvin is more alive than ever.  Like so many other fans, I’ve listened to What’s Going On hundreds of times, never tiring of its beauty.  But hearing it today, on a hot summer afternoon in the middle of Los Angeles twenty-three years after its release, Marvin’s music carries an urgency that’s both frightening and reassuring – frightening because the problems he pointed to have gotten worse; reassuring because his angelic voice sounds even more mellow, his songs resonating with the eternal hope of sweet salvation.

[David Ritz, whose lyrics include “Sexual Healing,” is the biographer of Marvin Gaye (Divided Soul, Da Capo Press), Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles and Etta James.  His current novel is Take It Off, Take It All Off!  Ritz won the 1993 Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award for Rhythm & The Blues, written with Jerry Wexler.]


© (P) 1994 Motown Record Company, L.P. An Original Sound Recording made by Motown Record Company, L.P., 6255 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028-USA. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.

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