It was a time of upheavals and unrest, the war in Vietnam Race Riots, and the Anti war movement in the US and the music was changing from love songs to protest songs. In the mist of all this chaos came Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” a concept album that Marvin produced with the help of some great songwriters and arrangers.
Before recording “What’s Going On” Marvin fashioned himself as a “Sinatra-styled balladeer” determined not to conform, and his work with various producers in the early 60’s made him a solo star in the Motown machine. The many jewels in the Motown crown were his hit songs with Smokey Robinson’s production of ”Ain’t That Peculiar,” and “I’ll Be Doggone”, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s ”How Sweet It Is,” and “Can I Get A Witness” pushed him to the top of the charts, he also had great success as a duet partner with Tami Terrell. He greatest success as a solo artist came when he teamed up with Norman Whitfield with songs like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “That’s the Way Love Is” and “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” Marvin’s star climbed the charts.
There was a song “What’s Going On” written by Renaldo "Obie" Benson of the Four Tops and lyricist Al Cleveland that addressed the issues of the day. This song was first offered to The Four Tops who turned it down, and with Marvin’s rebellious nature and being a spiritual guy they had a match for the song. Marvin broadened his vision after Benson and Cleveland dropped the song on him and decided what his next project would be. After hearing the horrors that his younger brother faced in the war and how his reward for sacrificing for his country was no jobs, and being hated for fighting the war, and his sorrow for the loss of Tami Terrell and his artistic frustrations and the social climate would help his project.
As far as Motown was concerned this album would ruin Marvin’s career and put a blight on Motown because of its protest nature and Barry Gordy was having none of it after all Marvin was their “hottest artist, the sex symbol of the '60s and '70s” and Marvin changing his appearance by growing a beard and the wearing of jeans would do more harm to Motown’s clean cut image. Barry Gordy said of the song "the worst thing I've ever heard in my life". Because of Gordy’s reaction to the song Marvin issued his ultimatum that when Gordy released “What’s Going On” Marvin would not record anything for Motown. Finally in January 1971 without Gordy’s knowledge “What’s Going On” was released, Barry Gordy hit the roof when he found out because he hated the song, after the first days sales of 100,000 Barry’s attitude changed. “What’s Going On” made it to the #2 spot on the Pop charts and #3 on the R&B charts.
The album “What’s Going On” impressed me, it was a anthem back in the day and in the community we played it all the time. I am moved by the production and the vocal arrangements on this album.