MARVIN GAYE – WHAT’S GOING ON
Released May 21, 1971- 44 years ago
(“What’s Going On” single released January, 1971 – 45 yrs ago)
The eleventh studio release and first album produced by Gaye himself, What’s Going On is a concept album from the point of view of a returning Vietnam vet facing a bad economy, social injustice, and civil unrest. Many of the underlying themes resonate today as much as it did in 1971. Hands down, one of the most important and influential r&b/soul releases of all time.
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4pm M-F on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4pm Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3FM and kxci.org.
Marvin Gaye, often referred to as the “Prince of Soul,” helped shape the sound of 1960s Motown as a musician, songwriter, composer, and performer. Born in Washington DC, Gaye played in various DC area groups before moving to Detroit in 1960 when he was 21 to become a piano session musician with Tri-Phi Records. Barry Gordy, founder and president of the newly formed Motown Records, saw Gaye perform and was so impressed he purchased Gaye’s contract from Tri-Phi. Gaye initially only pursued a career as a session player, but by 1962 he was being included in songwriting sessions with other Motown artists and increasingly found success with his own songs. This culminated with his first #1 hit in 1968 with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
What’s Going On is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning home to the country he had been fighting for only to see urban decay, environmental woes, police brutality, unemployment, poverty, and social injustice. Gaye had been dwelling on these themes himself since the mid 1960s, during which he felt increasingly caged-in artistically by Barry Gordy, whose focus had been on making hits.
In 1970, Gaye was presented the song “What’s Going On” by songwriter and member of the Four Tops, Obie Benson. Gordy initially wouldn’t let Gaye release the single, deeming it un-commercial. However, when Gaye refused to record any more material Gordy soon relented. When the single “What’s Going On” was released in January 1971, it garnered overwhelming critical acclaim and commercial success, the rest of the album was recorded in March of that year.
What’s Going On was an immediate critical success upon its release (the title track had been released as a single four months prior to release). It was the first album released by Gaye to reach Billboard’s Top 10 Pop Album Chart (peaking at #6), selling two million copies by 1972. It also spent several weeks at #1 on Billboard’s R&B Chart. It also produced three top 10 pop and R&B singles: “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Me,” and “Inner City Blues.”
Besides cementing Marvin Gaye as one of the most important artists in pop, r&b, and soul, What’s Going On is considered by many the best full-length issue from the singles-dominated Motown label, and arguably one of the best soul albums of all time. Virtually every “best of all-time” list includes What’s Going On near the top. Named “album of the year” by Rolling Stone in 1971, it later found its way to number 6 on the magazine’s 2003 list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” In 1985, the British music magazine NME named it the “best album of all time.” Spin named it as one of the “15 Most Influential albums not by the Beatles, Stones, Dylan or Elvis.”
The title track, “What’s Going On,” was recorded in June 1970 at Hitsville USA in Detroit MI. The rest of What’s Going On was recorded in 10 days in March 1971 at The Sound Factory in Hollywood CA. Hitsville USA was the small studio where all of the early Motown hits were recorded. The Sound Factory is a famous LA studio that also recorded albums by Linda Ronstadt, The Jackson 5, Brian Wilson, and Dolly Parton among others.
What’s Going On was the first album on which Motown Records’ studio band of amazing session musicians known as the Funk Brothers received an official recording credit.
Gaye has been credited with being an early critic of pollution and ecological issues long before it had become widely discussed.
On April 1, 1984, Gaye was fatally shot by Marvin Gay Sr., following an argument. Since his death, he has garnered numerous awards posthumously, including the prestigious Grammy Life Time Achievement Award, and induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (1987), the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame.