Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye released the album What’s Going On. The seminal album addresses injustice, war, racism and drug abuse and has remained relevant with each passing decade.
At the point of Gaye’s career in which he recorded this album, he had released 10 albums in 10 years, all on Motown Records imprint Tamla.
When he started his recording career, Gaye didn’t want to sing in the style that would end up defining his music, but instead wanted to sing jazz and standards. “Marvin Gaye was an artist who could sing many different kinds of music,” remembers Smokey Robinson. “He often was looking for a musical identity. Early in his career, he wanted to be the Black Sinatra. He wanted to live that life and sing that music by night.”
A Change of Heart
By the time Gaye recorded his 11th album, What’s Going On, his mindset about himself and the world around him had changed. As a result, his music did too and he created an album that was unlike anything he had done before.
“I felt a strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men.” — Marvin Gaye
In addition to becoming acutely aware of societal ills, Gaye’s close friend and singing partner Tammi Terrell died in 1970, which was emotionally devastating for him. Those tumultuous years brought about a change in what he wanted his music to say.
“I stopped thinking so much about my erotic fantasies and I started to think about the war in Vietnam,” says Gaye. “Something happened with me during that period, and I felt a strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men.”
Listen: WDET’s Ann Delisi brings you the story behind What’s Going On.
Overcoming the Motown Machine
Gaye may have been ready for a change, but that doesn’t mean everyone around him was. Everything from the album cover to the song content was questioned. Motown recording engineer Ed Wolfrum recorded the initial tracks for the album, which would ultimately take over a year to finish. He recalls how Marvin was aware that Motown founder Berry Gordy was hesitant to put out albums centered on social commentary, so they tried to work outside of the Motown system. “It was what we called an ‘Area 51 project,’ a dark project,” says Wolfrum. “No one could know about it.”
“He did ‘What’s Going On’ and I thought it was going to ruin his career. And he was right. … And it didn’t and it was our biggest record.” — Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records
Gordy ultimately found out about the project and summoned the production team to listen to the record. After hearing it, he seemed pleased. “Berry had this grin,” recalls Wolfrum. Gordy approved the record in that meeting, but must have had a change of heart as the months went by. He famously told Gaye that What’s Going On would ruin his career, and he even held back the album’s release.
Gordy would later publicly admit that he was wrong. “[Marvin] was one of those rare, rare artists — when he did stuff and kind of felt like that was him totally,” said Gordy. “He started being more like himself until he got to the point that he was too much like himself … for my taste. And he did What’s Going On and I thought was going to ruin his career. And he was right. … And it didn’t and it was our biggest record. I learned something. I learned that a true artist, when they are passionate about something, it’s great to let them do it.”
An Instant and Enduring Success
When What’s Going On was finally released, it stayed on the charts for over a year with three hit singles “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and the title track. It became Motown’s biggest selling album.
There were a number of firsts with the What’s Going On album. It was the first time the musicians who played on the album were acknowledged in the credits, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra players and Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers. It was also the first time the lyrics were published on a Motown album. When What’s Going On was about to be printed, Gaye wasn’t in Detroit, so he sang the lyrics over the phone to Georgia Ward who worked in the A & R department. She even included the oohs and ahs.
The iconic album cover photograph for What’s Going On was shot quickly in Gaye’s backyard instead of in a studio, because he was much more concerned about finishing the album than taking a photo. The album cover features a close-up shot of Gaye looking off in the distance with rain on his hair and beard. It was one of the last shots photographer Jim Henson took that day.
What’s Going On went on to sell 2 million copies. This profound artistic departure from Marvin Gaye and the label for which he recorded produced an album that has been recognized by countless critics, journalists and music publications. As one of the greatest albums of all time, we can only hope that one day the messages on What’s Going On finally become irrelevant. And we can simply admire this album for the masterpiece it truly is.
- Marvin Gaye, 50 Years Later: Why We’re Still Asking “What’s Going On”?
- Tackling Love, Lust and Social Injustice: Marvin Gaye’s Life and Legacy
- Essential Conversations: The Untold Stories of Motown