DETROIT — If music was Motown legend Marvin Gaye’s pulpit, then “What’s Going On” was his ultimate sermon.
The landmark album, named the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone last September, was released 50 years ago on Friday and still resonates with fans, critics and music lovers across the spectrum, who say it raises relevant issues to this day about police brutality, spirituality and the environment.
“It’s one of the most important works in American history,” said author David Ritz, a friend of Gaye’s who co-wrote the soul singer’s later hit, “Sexual Healing,” and also a biography about the singer. “It’s transformative. It takes pain and transforms it into beauty.”
But the album — which draws on Gaye’s Pentecostal upbringing and his brother Frankie’s struggle to find a job after serving in Vietnam along with police brutality — was such a departure for Gaye and Motown that it almost wasn’t released.
Gaye, who grew up in Washington, D.C., before eventually finding his way to Detroit, had to fight Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. to release both “What’s Going On,” the single, and later the album, Gaye’s 11th studio album. At one point, he threatened to leave Motown if it wasn’t released, said Ritz.
Gordy’s “concern was that Marvin was taking such a drastic detour from what his fan base had come to know and love,” said Robin Terry, CEO of the Motown Museum and Gordy’s niece. “He was deviating from the sex symbol kind of guy to the protest kind of guy. And that was a big risk.”
But it was a risk that paid off. The title track, released in January of 1971, was a hit on both the R&B and pop charts. The album, meanwhile, sold more than 2 million copies and was the best-selling album of Gaye’s career.
Friday’s 50th anniversary comes as the issues it raised still reverberate, especially police brutality. Black Lives Matters protesters took to Detroit’s streets nearly every day last summer following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a Black man. Former police officer Derek Chauvin will be sentenced in June for Floyd’s murder.
Suzanne E. Smith, a historian at George Mason University who has written about Motown in her book, “Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit,” argues that even for a studio that introduced the world to iconic acts, such as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was Motown’s best.
“It’s the most iconic, historical important music album that Motown ever released,” said Smith, who realizes some may argue the Supremes’ “Love Child” was Motown’s best. “No Motown album, as an album, had the impact that this one had.”
And the reason it resonates still to this day, said Smith, is because it asks a question that still can’t be answered.
“The concept of the album is the question, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Smith said. “Because he (Gaye) framed the album around the question, it creates this musical meditation that is always going to be alive to people in different time periods.”
But what’s unique about “What’s Going On” is also how it was recorded. Gaye, who also produced the album, layered and stacked his own vocals on the album, almost serving as his own backup singers. He’s backed by the legendary Motown in-house studio band, the Funk Brothers.
From ballads to protest
Martha Reeves sang backup on Gaye’s first album with the Del-Phis after the studio’s preferred backup singers, the Andantes, were out of town. She said Gaye was a quiet person and wanted to be the next Frank Sinatra, singing ballads. She said other girls were jealous that she and the Del-Phis sang with him.
“He was so fine and had such a lovely voice,” Reeves said.
Reeves said Gaye was unusual at Motown in that he could sing, produce and compose. She said only two other people at the studio fell in the same category — Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.
“Marvin had always been busy producing and writing,” Reeves said. “The majority of Marvin’s time was (spent) reading dictionaries and bibles and keeping his head sort of down. He’d even close his eyes while he was always performing.”
But by the early 1970s, Gaye was struggling. He’d split up with his first wife, Anna, Gordy’s sister. His brother, Frankie, was home from Vietnam but struggling to find work. And his duet partner, Tammi Terrell, died in 1970 of complications from a malignant brain tumor.
“He was coming out of a depression,” Ritz said. “Tammi Terrell had died. He hadn’t been working for a year. He was really depressed. This is his way of using art to overcome depression.”
“What’s Going On,” the song, was inspired by an incident Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops saw in California during what’s become known as “Bloody Thursday” involving police attacking anti-war protesters in 1969. Benson asked the Four Tops to record it, but they passed. Gaye took the song and added his own lyrics.
When Gordy learned Gaye planned to record a protest song — as famously depicted in the “Motown” musical — he wasn’t thrilled.
“Marvin, don’t be ridiculous,” Gordy told Gaye, according to author Dorian Lynskey. “That’s taking things too far.”
Eventually, the song was released by two other Motown executives. It opens with what sounds like a conversation at a party, featuring among others, Detroit Lions Mel Farr and Lem Barney. Farr has claimed he once said to Gaye, “What’s going on?” and Gaye said that would make a good song title, but Reeves disagrees.
A day after the song’s release, Motown was overwhelmed with orders for 100,000 copies of the single, according to author and historian Michael Eric Dyson.
Gordy then asked Gaye for an album to support the single. The album, also called “What’s Going On,” was recorded in 10 days.
Ritz said the album operates on so many levels.
It operates on “a personal level, on a political level and on an environmental,” he said. “It starts at a party and it ends up in church. That’s really the trajectory of the story. It’s some kind of reunion with God or a spiritual force.”
Drawing on his early days as a doo-wop singer, Gaye layered his vocals into the songs, which was a mistake at first but then he realized he really liked the effect.
Still, Gordy resisted releasing the album. According to Ritz and his biography of Gaye, “Divided Soul,” Motown executives didn’t like it.
“They didn’t like it, didn’t understand it and didn’t trust it,” Gaye told Ritz. “Management said the songs were too long, too formless and would get lost on a public looking for easy three-minute songs.”
Gaye threatened to never record for Motown again if they didn’t release it, Ritz said. It was finally released on May 21, 1971.
Terry of the Motown Museum said she doesn’t know about resistance from other Motown executives, but her uncle was concerned about Gaye shedding his sex symbol status. But fans welcomed the detour.
“The loyalty of Marvin’s fans just grew even stronger,” Terry said.
And for a studio that discouraged its artists from making overtly political statements on its records to appeal to both white and Black audiences, Reeves remembers “What’s Going On” as a “big surprise.”
“It took him (Gaye) into another phase,” Reeves said. “… Marvin not only had a groove, but he had a message and it made all of us wonder what’s going on. It’s a prophetic message that he put to a groove and all of his spirituality came out.”