Prior to “What’s Going On”, Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. had a confirmed commercial status and a superstar image after reaching #8 on the R&B charts and #46 on the pop charts with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” in 1962. Benson and Al Cleveland presented “What’s Going On” to Gaye and in it he found a way to channel his sorrow for Tammi Terrell, his singing partner who had died of a brain tumor, his empathy for his brother’s plight, and his own professional frustration into an artistic statement addressing the social and spiritual anguish he saw sweeping the real world, the one that existed outside Motown. The shootings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had hit him hard. The violence in the streets of Detroit in 1967, in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968, and at Kent State University in 1970 seemed like eruptions of insanity. Seeing a man walk on the moon when there was economic desperation within two miles of his own home was surreal and depressing. What the hell was going on?
Berry Gordy was in vacations in the Bahamas when Gaye called him to tell him about the album and how it was ready for release. Gordy ask Gaye; “Why he wanted to ruin his career with that type of album?” Gordy was the biggest obstacle Marvin had trying to release “What’s Going On”.
Gaye was furious enough to change the way he dressed because he didn’t want to be labeled as part of Motown any longer. Gaye wanted to stay away from anything that could reassemble Motown’s standard beat. He brought in the veteran big band drummer Chet Forest, augmented by a phalanx of percussionists: Jack Ashford on tambourine, Eddie Brown on bongos and congas, Earl Derouen on congas and Jack Brokensha on vibes and assorted percussive toys. Marvin was down in the Snakepit playing piano and leading the rhythm section himself. Marvin stated “I will quit recording until “What’s Going On” is released”. In the meantime Gaye decided to become a professional football player for his hometown Detroit Lions.
One characteristic that sets this album apart from other soul recordings of the mid 1960-70 is the multilayered lead vocal. This was an actual mistake that became a hallmark on Marvin Gaye vocal style. Another characteristic is the album success of 100,000 copies sold in the first 24 hours. My impression of “What’s Going On” as a listener is mind opening. I can consider this as part of history even outside of music. As a professional “What’s Going On” represents a great example of the determination needed in order to succeed in the entertainment industry. Dreaming big is the initial step towards success, thanks for reading!
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On. (n.d.). Discogs. Retrieved August 17, 2014, from http://www.discogs.com/release/359107
What went on. (2001, December 7). theguardian.com. Retrieved August 16, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/dec/08/extract
What went on (part two). (2001, December 7). theguardian.com. Retrieved August 16, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/dec/08/extract1
Howard, D. N. (2004). Sonic alchemy: visionary music producers and their maverick recordings. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corp..