Marvin Gaye displays his genius: What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye - 1970 (

Marvin Gaye – 1970

In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say … I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.

Marvin Gaye


On May 21st, 1971, one of the best albums of all time was released (number 4 in my personal top 50), Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Going On, a soul classic of unparalleled beauty.

Marvin Gaye in 1970

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell 1967 (

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell 1967

In 1970 Marvin Gaye had the world at his feet, but was deeply unhappy. He didn’t make the music he wanted, felt trapped in a marriage he didn’t want to be in, heard horror story after horror story from his brother Frankie who served in Vietnam and the singing partner he absolutely adored, Tammi Terrell, had recently lost her battle with her brain tumor. And a new drug, cocaine, had entered Gaye’s life, which seemed to fuel his latent paranoia.

He was depressed, didn’t want to perform anymore and was seemingly on his way to say goodbye to music altogether. In January 1970 Motown had released his latest album That’s The Way Love Is, but Gaye refused to promote the album.

During the ‘home’ period he grew a beard, started dressing differently and took some serious steps towards an entirely different career. During the spring he tried American Football in earnest, training with professional teams, befriending players, but ultimately didn’t proceed (taking the advice of a coach).

What’s Going On, the song

Right about that time a new song by The Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson suddenly fell into Gaye’s lap. On May 15th, 1969, Benson had witnessed police brutality up close on “Bloody Thursday”, a protest opposing the Vietnam war, that, thanks to the insane reaction instigated by governor Ronald Reagan, had gotten totally out of control. Benson: “I saw this and started wondering ‘what was going on, what is happening here?’ One question led to another. Why are they sending kids far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own kids in the street?”, the conception of the song What’s Going On. After the music and lyrics had been written, The Four Tops didn’t want to record it. The song was given to Gaye, who subsequently changed parts of the music, melody and lyrics, making the song even better.

Bloody Thursday May 15th, 1969 - Berkeley, California (

Bloody Thursday May 15th, 1969 – Berkeley, California

On June 1st, 1970, Gaye started the recording of What’s Going On at the Hitsville U.S.A. studio, which he paid for out of his own pocket. The session included some people he had picked himself, which was unique, as the standard recording unit for all Motown artists were The Funk Brothers. Luckily, Motown bass legend James Jamerson was present as well. He was plucked from a bar for the recordings and played his parts lying on the floor, as he was too drunk to stand or sit. During the warming up for the session, saxophone player Eli Fontaine played a riff, that was promoted to be the opening riff to the song.

The double lead vocals on the song happened by accident. Engineer Ken Sands: “That double lead voice was a mistake on my part. 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.”.

In the autumn of 1970 Motown boss Berry Gordy was on holiday on the Bahamas where Gaye tracked him down and played him the new song. His reaction: “Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?”. Combining politics and social criticism with music was not the way in which Motown worked. Also, Gordy was sure that no-one wanted to hear this old fashioned sounding song Gaye had just recorded.

The song was put before Motown‘s Quality Control Department, the panel that signed off on all output released by the label. The song was rejected. Gaye was furious and threatened to go on strike. Luckily, the song ended up in the hands of Harry Balk, an executive in the creative department of Motown, and he loved the song. He couldn’t understand the song’s rejection and contacted the head of the sales department and together they decided to go against the label and secretly press 100,000 copies of the single. On January 17th, 1971, they sent the single to the radio stations linked to Motown. Just four days later all 100,000 copies were sold out and an order for the next 100,000 had been received. It was the best and fastest selling single in the history of Motown.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

What’s Going On, the album

Gordy had to be contrite, Gaye had been right all along. Gordy wanted an entire album, but Gaye was irritated. Gordy had bluntly refused to release the song, and now he dared ask for more? The story goes that Gordy managed to entice Gaye by making a bet, whether or not Gaye was able to come up with a complete album within 30 days. Gaye was given carte blanche, which meant he was able to produce his own music, something Gaye had wanted for quite some time.

In March 1971 the album is recorded in 10 days at the Snakepit, the name for studio A at the Hitsville U.S.A. studio. Gaye produced the music by playing along with the musicians on the actual studio floor instead of behind the mixing board.

On April 5th the album was mixed. It’s not entirely clear what happened next, either Gaye had an epiphany or Motown‘s reaction was lukewarm, but on May 6th the album was remixed. This version was used for the album. Once again, the Quality Control Department wasn’t convinced, but this time Gordy insisted the album was released. So, on May 21st, 1971, the eleventh Marvin Gaye album was released: What’s Going On. And the 30 day bet? Gaye had won.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On - Gatefold cover (

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On – Gatefold cover


The album broke with many traditions at Motown, it was the first Motown album:

  • that had a gatefold cover
  • that had the names of all musicians and other contributors printed on the cover (in the rush of the moment Gaye had forgotten to include the names of the engineers involved with the album)
  • that had its lyrics printed on the cover
  • that featured a mellotron
  • that was a concept album
  • that featured songs segueing into one another, giving the illusion that the album was one big organic suite
  • whose cover was compiled by the performing artist himself
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On - Outtake (

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On – Outtake


The pictures on the front and back of the album cover were shot by Jim Hendin in the backyard of the Gaye residence, where Marvin lived at the time with his wife Anna Gordy and their son Marvin III. The pictures were a bit of a rush job, as Gaye was still very busy with the music. It rained and Gaye wasn’t shot wearing the generic Motown costume. It was the first time Gaye appeared on a cover donning a beard.


The album was a huge success. It would remain in the charts for over a year. It was the bestselling Motown album to date. But it was an artistic smash as well, quickly being dubbed Motown‘s Sgt. Pepper, a somewhat short sighted comparison. Even though it was meant as a compliment, it completely falls flat because of the completely different outlooks of both albums and, to be fair, the superiority of the music on What’s Going On.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On Live (2019 album) (

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On Live (2019 album)


Just based on the opening song alone, this album is a mandatory buy. The title song with its long history, where Gaye had fought for with all his heart. A classic opener.

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 lovin’ here today, yeah

© 1971 Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

The next song maybe interprets the zeitgeist even more accurately. Gaye’s brother Frankie had spent his military tour in Vietnam and his stories had affected Gaye deeply. It had inspired him to do what he could do best, tell the story through music. What’s Happening Brother? tells the tale of a Vietnam veteran returning home.

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

© 1971 Marvin Gaye – What’s Happening Brother?

Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) is a song about a junkie: “I know, I’m hooked my friend / To the boy, who makes slaves out of men”. The following Save The Children is a plea for a better world, especially for the children and to “Save the world that is destined to die”, a first ecological reference.

God Is Love is a tribute to Gaye’s faith in God, the Creator. It seamlessly segues into Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), a beautiful, moving call to save the earth, a theme that found its way on a lot of albums during the first years of the 1970s.

Mercy, mercy me
Things ain’t what they used to be, no

Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east

Oil wasted on the oceans
And upon our seas, fish full of mercury

Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying

What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

© 1971 Marvin Gaye – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

Right On is the longest song on the album and is a great funk jam with Latin influences and passionate, gospel/soul vocals by Gaye: “Love can conquer hate everytime”, followed by Wholy Holy which shares its theme with God Is Love: “People got to come together”.

The closing Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) mentions poverty, inflation, desperation and war:

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading
They don’t understand
Oh, make me wanna holler
They don’t understand

© 1971 Marvin Gaye – Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

The last verse starts with “Mother, mother”, just like the first words on the album. The circle has been completed.

Musically, What’s Going On possesses and indescribable beauty, that can’t be put into words. Gaye sings his heart out, but not in the way he used to. It’s less poppy, more jazz, more feeling and definitely more conviction. It’s blatantly obvious this was the music he wanted to make.

It has been a favorite for decades and will probably remain so for decades to come. Every time I hear something new, different and I am genuinely moved by Gaye’s sincerity and his heavenly voice. This album belongs in every album collection. A milestone of modern music.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On - The singles (

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On – The singles


Four singles were culled from the album:

  • What’s Going On
    (released on January 20th, 1971)
  • Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
    (released on June 10th, 1971)
  • Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
    (released on September 16th, 1971)
  • Save The Children
    (released on November 11th, 1971)
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On - Back cover (

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On – Back cover


Songs written by Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland and Renaldo “Obie” Benson, unless stated otherwise.

  • What’s Going On
  • What’s Happening Brother (Marvin Gaye, James Nyx Jr.)
  • Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) (Marvin Gaye, Anna Gordy Gaye, Elgie Stover)
  • Save The Children
  • God Is Love (Marvin Gaye, Anna Gordy Gaye, Elgie Stover, James Nyx Jr.)
  • Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (Marvin Gaye)
  • Right On (Marvin Gaye, Earl DeRouen)
  • Wholy Holy
  • Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) (Marvin Gaye, James Nyx Jr.)

In 2001 a Deluxe Edition was released with many extras, including the so-called Detroit Mix (the April 5th, 1971, mix) and the very first concert Marvin Gaye staged after Tammi Terrell’s passing, on May 1st, 1972, at The Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington, D.C. |In 2019 that concert received a standalone release entitled What’s Going On Live, as it was the first and only time the entire album was played live.

Marvin Gaye and James Jamerson (

Marvin Gaye and James Jamerson


Marvin Gaye was responsible for vocals, background vocals and the production. He was helped by:

  • Marvin Gaye – piano, Mellotron on Mercy Mercy Me, box drum on What’s Going On
  • Johnny Griffith – celeste, keyboards
  • Earl Van Dyke – keyboards
  • Jack Brokensha – vibraphone, percussion
  • Joe Messina, Robert White – guitar
  • James Jamerson – bass on What’s Going On, What’s Happening Brother, Flyin’ High, Save The Children, God Is Love, Sad Tomorrows
  • Bob Babbitt – bass on Mercy Mercy Me, Right On, Wholy Holy, Inner City Blues
  • Chet Forest – drums
  • Jack Ashford – tambourine, percussion
  • Eddie “Bongo” Brown – bongos, congas
  • Eli Fountain – saxophone on What’s Going On
  • Wild Bill Moore – saxophone on Mercy Mercy Me
  • Earl DeRouen – bongos and congas on Right On
  • Bobbye Hall – bongos on Inner City Blues

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

The orchestra was directed by David Van De Pitte, who was also responsible for the arrangements. The orchestra members played violin, viola, cello, double bass, harp, flute, saxophone, trumpet, oboe and trombone.

Background vocals

Besides by Marvin Gaye himself, background vocals were provided by The Andantes (Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, Louvain Demps), Mel Farr (Detroit Lions), Charlie Sanders (Detroit Lions), Lem Barney (Detroit Lions), Dave Bing (Detroit Pistons), Bobby Rogers (The Miracles), Elgie Stover and Kenneth Stover.

Marvin Gaye early 1970s (

Marvin Gaye early 1970s

After What’s Going On

Gaye had been proven right. Not only was he in sync with the current times, his new music was beautiful, revered by many, and garnered artistic recognition for both Gaye and Motown. Gaye had fought for his freedom and wasn’t giving that up anymore:

The biggest result of What’s Going On… 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.

It would result in more beautiful albums, of which Let’s Get It On would be the most successful. But all albums had that same indescribable beauty and purity, that would rightfully proclaim Marvin Gaye to be the best soul singer of all time.

Marvin Gaye - 2 All Time Great Classic Albums (What's Going On/Let's get It On) (

Marvin Gaye – 2 All Time Great Classic Albums (What’s Going On/Let’s Get It On)


The first time I bought What’s Going On was on cd in 1987. At the time it was released as a “2 All Time Great Classic Albums” action by Motown. I have bought the album again many times since, including the Deluxe Edition, the ultimate release. But I still own that first version and it’s close to my heart, if for the memories alone.

In closing

What do you think of Marvin Gaye? What do you think of What’s Going On? Let me know!

This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Marvin Gaye displays his genius: What’s Going On. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On - Font (

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