Motown was known for its unique brand of music that had a pop influence to it. Artists under the label such as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five, The Four Tops and The Temptations to name a few, followed that genre and style of music mixed with pop, gospel and orchestral blends. The music they produced was feel-good and uplifting. However, it was Marvin Gaye who ultimately ended up being ‘the top male recording artist under the record label during the 60s.’
Marvin Gaye was unique and quite different in the way he eventually viewed the world.
During his Motown days in the late 60s, Marvin was looking for a partner with whom he could sing and it was Berry Gordy, the head founder of Motown Records, who picked Tammi Terrell, another singer signed to Motown Records at the time to be Marvin Gaye’s partner. The pair quickly became great friends and together they sang powerful duets about love and relationships such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love,” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” written by Ashford & Simpson. Gaye and Terrell made quite a name for themselves in the short time they were together. However, Terrell became ill not long after their pairing and was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Marvin took the news very hard and gave up live performances with touring for a while. It is believed that the loss of his dear friend was a catalyst that fueled his “What’s Going On” album. The stories of being in the war told by his younger brother also influenced Marvin and caused him to change his views, image and the music he sang about.
Events such as ‘the shootings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy as well as the violence in Detroit at the Democratic National Convention and at Kent State University’ strongly affected Marvin.
He went from singing about love songs and relationships to singing about socially conscious situations happening in the world like race, war, violence, protests and politics. He wanted people to look and see what was happening in the world. He wanted people to understand that war and violence were wrong and what we needed to solve our many struggles was love.
Unfortunately, Marvin’s stand on social and political awareness created an uncomfortable feeling for the top heads at Motown Records, specifically Berry Gordy. It went against the company’s image and they felt like if they released that album it would no doubt flop and most likely cause negative backlash since they thought it was more like a protest album. It certainly didn’t suit the image of the previous albums they had released. Marvin assured them that it wasn’t the case and they simply needed to give it a try. He was very stubborn over the matter, refusing to make any more music, which instigated a silent battle between him and Motown over the release of his album. In the end, it was Marvin’s stubbornness that eventually won out and got the album released.
The success the album and the single “What Going On” received was tremendous at that time. They sold 100,000 copies on the first day. Because of the different nature of the album, Marvin was able to touch people on a deeper psychological and emotional level.
The lyrics of his songs were inspiring, moving and powerful. They opened up people’s hearts and minds and brought awareness to issues that were otherwise ‘watered down,’ in terms of seriousness and an innate need to make a change.
I felt that the songs on What’s Going On, flowed nicely into each other, painting a story that needed to be told. The lyrical content of songs like “What’s Going On,” “Save The Children,” and “What’s Happening Brother,” stayed true to discussing the hardships of violence and the terrible things happening in the world. Then, there were powerful songs like “Wholy Holy” and “God Only Knows” that spoke of love for your fellow man and spiritual awareness.
The mixtures of horns, strings, bass and percussion that made up the instrumentation of the various songs on the album were nicely blended with the vocals and gave the album a soothing, soulful flavor. You could feel the emotions expressed in each song.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the What’s Going On album. It wasn’t my first time listening to it, but it was nice hearing these songs again and being reminded about what they stood for and how their importance and influence transcended through time. The single even became an iconic song performed by various popular celebrity artists after the events of 9/11. Marvin Gaye was definitely an innovative and ‘forward-thinking’ artist of his time.
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On – References
- Edmonds, B. (2001, December 7). What’s Going On by Ben Edmonds | Books | guardian.co.uk . Latest US news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | guardiannews.com | The Guardian . Retrieved April 16, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/dec/08/extract
- Edmonds, B. (2001, December 7). What’s Going On by Ben Edmonds: part two | Books | guardian.co.uk . Latest US news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | guardiannews.com | The Guardian . Retrieved April 16, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/dec/08/extract1
- Howard, D. (2004). Sonic Alchemy: Visionary Music Producers And Their Maverick Recordings (First ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation.
- Moss, C. (2009, January 29). What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Liberation from the Motown Sound. PopMatters. Retrieved April 17, 2012, from http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/69381-whats-going-on-marvin-gayes-liberation-from-the-motown-sound/