Marvin Gayes – What’s Going On?

Prior to creating the iconic album, What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye spent much of his time touring and in the studio playing soulful jazz music.  Marvin’s constant time away from home led to relationship problems with his wife, Anna.  Undoubtedly this influenced Marvin’s soulful style and impacted how he performed his music.   He also performed with Tammi Terrell leading up to What’s Going On and had established a connection with a young audience through Motown.  At the time What’s Going On was released there was heavy tension throughout the country over issues of race, war, peace, and love.  Amidst sorrowfully pondering the Vietnam war stories of his brother Frankie, Marvin collaborated with Four Tops member Obie Benson, who was observing police brutality in San Francisco and wondered what was happening to America.  Marvin wanted to spread a message of love and, inspired by Obie, raised the question “What’s going on [with our society]?”.  After the creation of What’s Going On? Marvin was stoked and so was Anna.  This helped to resolve their relationship problems, but there was a bigger obstacle in the way of the album.  Anna was the sister of record executive Berry Gordy.  Berry wanted to market socially acceptable records and avoid any kind of controversy.  Motown productions were prototypically aimed at the middle of the road to be uncontroversial and accepted by a large audience.  “Protest songs” did not fit that prototype.  Since What’s Going On was inspired by controversy and could be perceived as controversial for the times Gordy despised the album and intended to keep it unreleased.  Anna firmly supported the Marvin and the album and this positive support towards a product that her brother was determined to see fail did not help get the album released.  Additionally, the album was recorded and produced by means that were not typical of Motown records.  For example, the saxophone intro was recorded while session player Eli Fontaine was “warming up”, unaware that the session had already begun.  When he announced that he was ready to begin Gaye told him that they had what they needed and he could go home.  This sort of innovation was not what the executives wanted to gamble on.  It paid off though and when What’s Going On? was finally released behind Berry Gordy’s back it sold over 100,000 copies.  Marvin personally delivered the news. Dedication to conviction is a huge point to learn from Marvin Gaye. Through What’s Going On? he displays how an artist can be successful and innovative while staying true to what they believe. These are the kind of values that professionals in the music industry must cling to in order to stay relevant in our society. I have always enjoyed the single, “What’s Going On?” but was actually a little bit disappointed with the rest of the album. I felt like he was reaching for something on some of the other tracks that didn’t quite come through to me. Perhaps this was just a first impression type response to the music but I felt like “What’s Going On?” stood apart and that the rest of the album couldn’t quite match it’s impact.


One thought on “Marvin Gayes – What’s Going On?”

  1. Your post is very well laid out. It sounds like you have a lot of information of this subject. I respect your honesty in saying that the whole album wasn’t so great. I’m surprised that you didn’t really like “Save The Children” and “God Is Love”. But, thats the beauty of music. We don’t all have to like the same things. There’s music out there for everyone. I think it’s really hilarious that Marvin Gaye wanted to become a professional Football player while he was waiting on his project to drop. It was very optimistic of him to go after that goal. They said he actually got a little bit buff too. It would’ve been cool to see Marvin Gaye as the only Detroit Lions running back with top charting music.

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