Fifty years ago, vibrating with agitation and energy, Marvin Gaye headed down the wood steps into a Detroit studio and made his anthem for the ages.
“What’s Going On,” a poignant musical masterpiece crafted in a season of unease, persists as a timely backdrop to another heated time, half a century later, when the world feels upside down.
Racial tensions, police controversy, environmental anxieties, a globe on edge — they were the topics on the front burner when Gaye rebooted his musical career and took control of his creative vision inside Motown.
His voice — voices, actually — hit the tape the second week of July 1970.
“There’s too many of you crying … there’s far too many of you dying …”
The song with the silky, layered vocals and an emphatic protest message was topical when Gaye cut it in 1970. It was still relevant when a newly freed Nelson Mandela recited its lyrics for a packed Tiger Stadium in 1990. And it resonates in 2021, in the wake of George Floyd’s death by police.
“In these times of crisis and challenge, we still go to those lyrics for strength,” said Detroit author and historian Ken Coleman.
The making of “What’s Going On” is a pillar of Detroit music lore.
Three years after the 1967 riot and rebellion that transformed his adopted hometown, the 31-year-old Gaye was in a deep and evolving head space. Shaken by the death of singing partner Tammi Terrell, haunted by the Vietnam War stories of his younger Army vet brother, Gaye was an emotional lightning rod waiting to be zapped with creative energy when Motown’s Obie Benson and Al Cleveland brought him their new composition about troubles across the land.
His textured recording was constructed over a series of sessions in 1970: the instrumental foundation in June, the vocals in July, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s sweetener in September. “What’s Going On” then sat for several months, a hot potato for Motown Records brass who fretted it was too controversial.
When the single finally went public in January 1971, it was an instant, massive hit. A full album was quickly commissioned, and four months later, Gaye’s groundbreaking LP of the same name was out.
The “What’s Going On” single, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart, was a mainstream breakthrough for conscious soul music. Its stature remains immense — Rolling Stone ranks it No. 4 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list — and it set the stage for themes now essential to hip-hop, resounding through artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill and Joey Badass.
“It allows someone experiencing oppression and trauma — all these tragic moments that the government is often ignoring — to just ask the questions,” said Eldric Laron, a Detroit musician and spoken-word artist. “It’s so relevant today because that’s what a lot of us are doing. We’re asking questions before acting: the whats and whys and whos and whens. Saying ‘what’s going on?’ is a good starting point for yourself.”
And Gaye’s song, he says, has special meaning as a homegrown treasure.
“Being in Detroit, which is birthed from arts and Black experiences and Black stories, it reminds me of how blessed I am to be a Black man from such a city. I could have been born anywhere,” said Laron. “The song allows me to remind myself of my own power and uniqueness.”
To say “What’s Going On” captured a moment doesn’t entirely do it justice. The song is certainly of its time, a snapshot of a strained America as the ‘60s bled into the ‘70s. But unlike many other protest songs of the era, it shimmers with a spiritual quality. When it comes to endurance, the song is far more “We Shall Overcome” than “Eve of Destruction.”
Gaye’s masterwork is assertive but not aggressive. It’s as much pain as anger, as much news broadcast as sermon. Like the best popular music through the decades, it achieves the universal by going personal — addressed to “mother,” “brother,” “father,” “babe.” The song is a call for tolerance, a plea for trust.
Gaye was the ideal messenger for that job. He wasn’t new to opening up emotionally: The Washington, D.C.-born artist made his name singing the ups and downs of romantic relations, including a hit two years earlier — “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” — that stood as Motown’s bestseller to that point.
Now he was directing that bold vulnerability to something bigger.
“He was highly sensitive. He would talk about being afraid,” recalled Louvain Demps, a member of the Andantes vocal group and a longtime friend of Gaye. “But to stand next to him, it was like he had all the confidence in the world. Like he wasn’t scared of anything.”
Some great music, like much important art, gets mythologized late. Courage is easy to endorse with the comfort of time.
But “What’s Going On” resonated immediately in its hometown in 1971, said Matt Lee, who grew up in Detroit and was close to co-writer Benson: “This thing lived and breathed right there and then.”
“It was Marvin’s statement of independence and artistic freedom,” Lee said. “But it was also a commentary on who we were, in real time. The impact of that record is impossible to overstate, not only in retrospect, but for what it meant at the time.”
The song had arrived “by some sort of divine guidance,” as Gaye told the Detroit Free Press in 1971.
Benson, on tour with his group the Four Tops, had conceived the song during a visit to San Francisco, where he watched police clash with hippie protesters.
As Benson reflected for Ben Edmonds’ 2001 book, “Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On,” an indispensable account of the song and album:
“The police was beatin’ on them, but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this and started wondering what the (expletive) was going on. What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?”
Back in Detroit, Benson fleshed out his creative kernel with Motown house writer Al Cleveland. Benson’s own Four Tops didn’t want the song and he thought it would be perfect for Gaye.
Feeling through the composition in the living room of the latter’s northwest Detroit house — Benson on guitar, Gaye on piano — Gaye was moved, but was eager to present it to the Originals, a Motown group he was now producing.
Benson pressed his case: This piece was perfect for Marvin. It needed to be his. He offered Gaye a songwriting credit.
“Marvin already felt like this,” Benson told Edmonds. “He was a rebel, and a real spiritual guy.”
Gaye relented, committed and promptly “fine-tuned the tune,” as Benson put it, tacking on jazzy flourishes and a sense of realism.
“He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song,” Benson said. “He made it visual.”
Then a decade into his Motown tenure, Gaye was at a career crossroads, restless to grow. Inside the studio that summer, he took firm control of the recording process: With this new song at hand, he had the opportunity to make not just a social statement, but a musical declaration — a sophisticated step forward.
Unable to read or write music, Gaye detailed his sonic vision to jazz arranger Dave Van De Pitte, who set about translating to the musicians. As chronicled in Michael Eric Dyson’s book “Mercy, Mercy Me,” the “weed smoke was thick” in the studio nicknamed the Snakepit as the Funk Brothers laid down the track’s instrumental bed on June 1.
The open spirit produced some happy accidents, including the distinctive opening sax line by Eli Fontaine — plucked from his warm-up noodling.
In July, Gaye did four days of vocal work, stumbling onto an effect that would become his signature production technique.
Having cut multiple lead vocals, Gaye asked engineer Ken Sands to create a stereo tape with two strong takes — one in the left channel, one on the right — so he could take notes. While the singer listened, Sands inadvertently switched the playback to mono. A pair of velvety Marvin Gaye voices now rode along together.
“That’s where the multiple lead vocals came from,” said engineer Bob Olhsson. “He liked the sound of both. It was a process. You don’t preconceive that it’s going to be like this. You don’t know where it’s going to go.”
More voices were recorded that week in July, including a track of party chatter by a group of friends that included Detroit Lions Lem Barney and Mel Farr.
And then there was the background singing, added during an evening session with the Originals and the Andantes — the unheralded female trio whose voices adorned countless Motown hits.
Gaye set a fitting mood that night in the studio, soprano Demps recounted.
“By his request, we sang with the lights out,” she said. “That session was really different than any other, because there were a lot of specifics that he wanted. There were intricate notes that weren’t really easy to do. They were sounds in his head and heart. It was beautiful.”
On Sept. 21, the track got its final piece as musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra recorded at Motown’s Studio B on West Davison.
“We knew it was something pretty special,” said Olhsson.
“What’s Going On” was richly Detroit. Gaye had been “all over the city, soaking up Detroit’s vibes and moods as he was recording,” wrote the Freep’s Bob Talbert, who was tight with Gaye at the time. With its seasoned jazz and big-band players, Motown’s ace Funk Brothers and the DSO, the track was a collective hometown feat.
“People always talk about various influences out of Detroit. This really was a hometown effort that went worldwide. It captured that community sensibility and coming-together during a challenging time,” said Chris Collins, a music professor and director of jazz studies at Wayne State University. “The production — the openness of the music involved — was a pretty spectacular example of what can come out of that.”
Collins said his 20-something son is enamored with the song and album.
“It’s in his musical life as a young person,” said Collins, also director of the Detroit Jazz Festival. “I think that speaks to the power and sincerity of that recording. It spans generation and communities.”
If Gaye was scanning the front pages of the Detroit Free Press landing on his doorstep in July 1970, he saw plenty of headlines setting the mood he would take to the vocal booth — a daily drumbeat of stories about protesters clashing with police, Detroit air pollution, congressional battles over the Vietnam draft. All there in a visceral black-and-white.
“What immediately strikes me about the time Marvin was recording and where we are in 2020 is that he uses the term ‘brutality,’ which is certainly front and center in the news today,” said Coleman, the Detroit historian. “Within that context, people like Marvin Gaye were saying ‘Black lives matter’ before it became part of the American lexicon.”
That forceful turn wasn’t met well by Berry Gordy Jr. Though Motown had recently hit big with a pair of politically tinged Norman Whitfield productions — the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War” — Gaye’s leap made the label chief nervous.
Gordy worried Gaye’s move into social commentary would derail a long-cultivated image as a romantic crooner. For 10 years, he’d had helped groom the mercurial singer into a suave star making the charts with the likes of “I’ll Be Doggone.”
In his 1994 memoir — where he owned up to his shortsightedness — Gordy recounted their contentious first phone call about ”What’s Going On,” as Gaye declared his wish to “awaken the minds of mankind.” Gordy thought the idea was “crazy.”
He fought “What’s Going On” all the way through its release in early ‘71, when the single was quietly greenlighted by several key Motown execs for a limited pressing.
Gordy’s issue with the track wasn’t just its lyrical theme. He may have regarded the music as too good for its own good. Musically, “What’s Going On” had a cosmopolitan feel that sent alarm bells ringing for an entrepreneur whose first musical venture was an east-side jazz-record shop that flopped.
“Berry actually thought it was a cool record. He just couldn’t see Marvin restarting his career,” said Olhsson. “In fact, if anything, Berry was hesitant about it because he was such a jazz lover. It’s almost like, if he liked something too much, he was afraid of it from a commercial point of view.”
While the parallels between now and 1970 are clear and daunting, there were changes afoot. Three years after Gaye’s recording, Detroit elected its first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, who, in 1976, appointed the city’s first Black police chief. A civilian police commission — long called for by groups such as the NAACP — soon followed.
“That was revolutionary,” said Coleman. “And I think music like ‘What’s Going On’ helped people realize these changes could happen.”
With the 1980s and the rise of hip-hop, reports from the street and calls for justice became staple material.
At Wayne State, ethnomusicologist Josh Duchan’s course on 20th century popular music zeroes in on “The Message,” the pioneering 1982 rap hit by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
“A song like that — which is much more explicit in its lyrics — is kind of the extension of what Marvin Gaye and ‘What’s Going On’ did years earlier,” he said. “It’s looking around at the world and saying: These are not the conditions we all hoped for.”
Detroit poet Jessica Care Moore, author of “We Want Our Bodies Back,” teamed with techno music producers Jeff Mills and Eddie Fowlkes for “The Crystal City is Alive,” released last July.
They dubbed themselves “The Beneficiaries” — a nod to the Detroit greats whose legacy they’ve inherited.
“Artists who are radical don’t always get the record deals, the radio play, the attention,” said Moore. “Marvin’s piece did, and that was really remarkable.”
Like Gaye in 1970, Moore is fueled by the moment at hand. Having felt “frozen” during the first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak — which hit Detroit early and hard — she said she has returned to the front lines of art, galvanized by Floyd’s death. Moore has been prolifically writing, frequently appearing online, and performing at one of comic Dave Chappelle’s socially distanced Ohio gatherings in June.
“There’s a lot of weight on artists,” said Moore. “We may not have Marvin Gaye now. But we have a lot of Marvin Gayes, speaking to the times and pushing culture forward.”
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