Motown’s Golden Boy.
Marvin Gaye, started with Motown as a session drummer in the early 1960’s. From then he had minor hits over the next few years. He was a predominant R&B singer with hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Aint No Mountain High Enough,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” It was 1971 when Marvin pushed for this concept album (What’s Going On) to be released.
“What’s Going On,” a concept protest album Marvin Gaye wrote and produced to help him deal with issues in the world and in his life at that time. He was dealing with the death of a close friend, Tammi Terrell, the plight his brother Frankie went through in Vietnam, and a case of depression. He got the title track from friend, Obie Benson of the Four Tops, when Obie’s group turned it down. The rest of the album was written on the heels of Vietnam, the deaths of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the “Race riots” in Detroit, and the Kent State massacres. Marvin was determined to make this album his own, without the essentials of a classic Motown song. He found a way to channel his sorrow for his lost singing partner, his brothers time in the the war, and all the social and spiritual anguish sweeping the nation at the time. (Edmonds, 2001)
When he tried to get the album’s title single released, Berry Gordy said it was the worst song he has ever heard. While waiting for his album to go through Quality Control, Marvin wanted to try out for the Detroit Lions, albeit unsuccessful. The main argument to not releasing the album was that “protest” songs/albums were career killers and it didn’t vibe with what Motown was trying to put out. After a while, Berry Gordy pushed to have a Marvin Gaye song released, but not What’s Going On. It was released anyway, without Gordy’s knowledge, and the single sold 100,000 copies in the first day alone. Never-the-less, Gordy’s opinion changed and he pushed the album to be released. (Edmonds, 2001)
The record had a few styles and techniques never seen before from a Motown hit. One was Marvin’s multi-layered lead vocal, which was not part of the original blueprint. “That double lead voice was a mistake on my part,” admits engineer Ken Sands. “Marvin had cut two lead vocals, and wanted me to prepare a tape with the rhythm track up the middle and each of his vocals on separate tracks so he could compare them. Once I played that two-track mix on a mono machine and he heard both voices at the same time by accident.” This happy accident became a creative strategy that was used throughout the album and the rest of Marvin’s career, becoming a hallmark of his vocal style. (Edmonds, 2001)
Another happy accident, the alto sax part that opens the record, was the work of Eli Fontaine. He was warming up and when he had played enough to feel comfortable, he signaled that he was ready for a take. Marvin told him to go home; they already had what they needed. He was very confused and tried to explain that he had just been goofing around. “Well,” Marvin replied, “you goof exquisitely. Thank you.” (Edmonds, 2001)
Like most musicians and music fans, I grew up on Motown and Marvin Gaye. His songs were cleverly crafted and really brought you into a good mood. This album really takes a deep look at what was going on in the world in the late 60’s and early 70’s but at the same time paints a better picture of hope and how we can rise from those troubled times. A lot of songwriters have lost that ability, to take a topic of despair and use words and music to provide a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. I hope to emulate the wordplay Marvin was able to use and make a substantial contribution to this worlds ray of sunshine.
Until Next Time,