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Heard on CultureShift

Marvin Gaye, 50 Years Later: Why We’re Still Asking “What’s Going On?”

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Image credit: Ryan Patrick Hooper

Longtime Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum joins CultureShift to breakdown a major Motown anniversary — the recording of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” In the summer of 1970.

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The rich layers of Marvin Gaye’s unmistakeable vocals.

The lush strings of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. 

An important message that seems more relevant than ever today.


Listen: The full story behind Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”


Recorded 50 years ago this summer, Gaye began recording his vocals for what many critics would say is his greatest artistic achievement in July 1970 — the single “What’s Going On?” That would later spur an album of the same name released the following year.

It’s a major Motown anniversary that longtime music reporter Brian McCollum dove into recently for the Detroit Free Press.

Detroit artist Sheefy McFly pays homage to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" album cover with a mural on the city's westside.Artwork by Sheefy McFly / photo by Ryan Patrick Hooper
Artwork by Sheefy McFly / photo by Ryan Patrick Hooper

Detroit artist Sheefy McFly pays homage to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” album cover with a mural on the city’s westside.

He was, in a sense, saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ before it was actually in our lexicon,” says McCollum.

McCollum says that at the time of the single’s recording, Berry Gordy’s Motown record label still viewed Gaye as a crooner with sex appeal for female fans, an identity that Gaye wrestled with throughout his career.

But with Gaye’s brother returning from Vietnam with horror stories of war and the fight for civil rights marching on, he wanted to venture into new musical and lyrical territory. Despite Gordy’s reservations, Gaye was determined to expand his artistry and use his voice as a wake up call. 

Motown didn’t want to put it out. Berry Gordy in particular really thought it was the wrong move for Marvin,” says McCollum.

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Ryan Patrick Hooper, Host, CultureShift

Ryan Patrick Hooper is the host and producer of CultureShift. As a longtime arts and culture reporter.

hooper@wdet.org Follow @HooperRadio

LaToya Cross, Producer, CultureShift

LaToya Cross is a Producer with CultureShift, where she produces in-depth content that spotlights creatives and individuals using their platform to examine, cultivate, shape and shift culture.

Latoya.cross@wdet.org Follow @ToizStory

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