Richard Nisley

One of the Wonders of Pop Music–The making of "What's Going On"
Pop Culture Released - Aug 07, 2021
Marvin Gaye was not happy, despite having the number-one song on the radio ("I Heard it Through the Grapevine"). He was young, rich, handsome, and signed to one of the most successful record labels in the nation–Motown Records. He was also blessed with an incredible musical talent that included a versatile honey-toned baritone that could wrap around high and low notes with deceptive ease; but in 1969 he felt like a fraud. Since signing with Motown in 1961, he had known nothing but success, beginning with his first smash hit, "Hitchhike". Now, at the close of the decade, his nine years of unbroken success felt unearned.


It was Berry Gordy, the genius behind Motown's fairy-tale success story, who signed Gaye to a recording contract. As with so many singers who were among Motown's roster of stars in the 1960s, Gaye was a product of the ghetto, a diamond in the rough, with an amazingly versatile singing voice. Gordy's vision was to groom the best singers he could find on the streets of Detroit, and make them into stars that were palatable to white, mainstream America. He ran his business with the assembly-line efficiency of a Detroit auto plant, where he had once worked. If you were talented enough to be signed by Motown Records, Gordy had a gifted pool of songwriters to compose songs that fit your personal singing style, plus a talented house band (the Funk Brothers) to record with, and sound engineers to make your record stand out where it mattered most–on Top Forty Radio. If that weren't enough, Gordy employed a quality control committee to follow a singer's progress, from rehearsals to creating a record, ready for public consumption. Any record that did not meet Gordy's strict standards, was not released.

To insure success, Gordy sent his singers on a nation-wide tour, that included appearances on local and national television Before sending them on the road, he put them through etiquette classes where they were taught how to dress with style, how to speak in public, and how to dance. Gaye was something of a rebel, but with a golden touch, who resisted Motown's efforts to groom him for stardom. He was articulate, a sharp dresser, and he knew how to dance like nobody's business. On top of that, everything he recorded went top-ten, whether he made a television appearance or not. Starting in 1965, he began recording duets with the cream of Motown's glittering gallery of girl singers–Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell, and Diana Ross–all of them records topping the charts. Like few others, Gaye epitomized the Motown dream.

In 1969, however, Gaye's world was coming apart. His brother was in far-off Vietnam fighting in an unpopular war with no end in sight, while Detroit's Inner City was being gutted by a summer of riots. If that weren't enough, while performing in Philadelphia, his friend and singing partner, Tammi Terrell, collapsed in his arms, and later died from an inoperable brain tumor. At the same time the protest movement that had begun with the Watts Riots, and taken flight during the Vietnam War, was now in full swing. To be a part of it, and perhaps make a meaningful statement that would validate his legitimacy, Gaye decided it was time to dispense with his pop persona, and make a protest record.


To start with, his friend Obie Benson, while on his tour in Northern California with the Four Tops, witnessed an unspeakable act of police brutality, committed on anti-war protesters at Berkeley's People's Park. Said Benson, "I saw this and started wondering, 'what was going on, what is happening here?' One question led to another: 'Why are they sending kids far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own kids in the street?'"

Returning to Detroit, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland composed a song based on his conversations with Benson, about what he had seen in Berkeley. Benson sent a demo of the song to the Four Tops, but his bandmates turned the song down. Benson said, "My partners told me it was a protest song–we don't do protest songs." I said 'no man, it's a love song, about love and understanding. I'm not protesting. I want to know what's going on.'"

At some point, Gaye heard the demo, and decided the song would make the perfect opening track for the album he was planning. With Cleveland's blessing, he reworked some of the lyrics to fit his vision, and in June 1970 went into the studio to make a record, with Motown's Funk Brothers as his backup band.

The recorded song was not so much a song in the typical sense, but a smooth monolithic jazz groove, topped by Gaye's golden baritone.

That September, Gaye approached Berry Gordy with his recording of "What's Going On". According to one source, Gordy didn't like the song, calling it "the worst thing I ever heard in my life". Gordy later denied this, stating he loved the song's jazzy feel, but cautioned Gaye that by releasing a protest song he feared the singer might lose his mainstream audience.

With the exception of executive Harry Balk, most of Motown's quality control committee concurred with Gordy's opinion, and turned the song down. Balk later explained, "they were used to the 'baby baby' stuff, and this was a little hard for them to grasp."

With the help of Motown sales executive Barney Ales, Harry Balk got the song released in January, 1971, shipping 100,000 copies to record stores throughout the country, without Gordy's knowledge. Upon its release, the song became Motown's fastest-selling single at the time, peaking at number 1 on the Hot Soul Singles Chart, and peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.


Stunned by the sales figures, a chastened Gordy met with Gaye at his home to discuss making a complete album, telling the singer he could do whatever he wanted with his music if he finished the record within 30 days. By this point, Gaye had composed a complete playlist of songs and was eager to start. He returned to Motown's Studio A, a.k.a. "Hitsville", to record the rest of the album, which took a mere ten business days. The album's rhythm tracks and sound overdubs were recorded there as well, while the strings, horns, lead and background vocals were recorded at Studio B, a.k.a. "Golden World".

When Berry heard the original mix, he worried that the album did not feature another hit single for future release. To ease Gordy's worries, Gaye and the album's engineers traveled to California's The Sound Factory, in West Hollywood, to sweeten the sound and thereby make the songs more commercial. This done, he presented the album to Motown's quality control committee, that once again nixed the record. Gordy however liked what he heard, vetoed their decision, and signed off on the album's release.

Released on May 21, 1971, "What's Going On" became Gaye's first album to reach Billboard's vaunted Top-Ten LPs chart, peaking at number six, and staying on the chart for over a year, selling over two million copies, and, twelve months after its release, becoming one of Motown's and Gaye's best-selling albums ever.

On top of that, the follow-up single, "Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)", peaked at number-four on the Hot 100, and also went number-one on the R&B chart. The third, and final, single, "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)", peaked at number-nine on the Hot 100, while also rising to the number-one spot on the R&B chart, making Gaye the first male solo artist to place three top ten singles on the Hot 100, off one album.


Gaye had been working with the Funk Brothers throughout his career at Motown, and trusted and respected their musical instincts. In keeping with his new musical vision, he decided to give them a free rein, only telling them which key a particular song was written. As a result, a number of good, unexpected things happened. For example, on the title track, Eli Fontaine's opening alto sax riff was a happy accident. Gaye heard the riff on playback and liked it so much he decided the riff was the ideal way to begin the song. "I was only goofing around," protested Fontaine. "Well, you 'goof-off' exquisitely," said Gaye. "Thanks."

(note: Gaye was so happy with the Funk Brothers' contributions, that he credited them on the album jacket, the first Motown release to do so.)

As they rehearsed, the Funk Brothers (consisting of bassist James Lee Jameson, guitarist Joe Messina, the aforementioned Eli Fontaine, drummer Chet Forest, and percussionist Jack Ashford) created a mesmerizing jazz-infused groove that Gaye loved and, with some retooling, recorded as the basis of the album's nine songs. On top of this basic sound track, he and the engineers overdubbed a layer-cake of instruments, that accentuated the beat–tambourine, maracas, congas, bongos, chimes, triangle, hand cymbals, and the like. To sweeten the sound, strings and a vocal choir were added next.

Gaye's multi-layered vocals was another happy accident, this one caused by engineers Steve Smith and Kenneth Sands. Sands later explained that Gaye had wanted him to bring him the two lead vocal takes for "What's Going On" for advice on which one he should use for the song. However, Smith and Sands had accidentally mixed the two lead vocal takes together. Gaye loved the vocal mix so much he decided to use the effect on the rest of the album.

Another happy accident was leaving the mics on during rehearsals, thus picking up studio chatter between songs that sounded more like a party than a recording session. Gaye enjoyed listening to the playback so much that he decided to incorporate it into the opening moments of "What's Going On."

One of the keys to the album's intoxicating collage of vocals and instrumentation was that throughout the recording sessions, Gaye remained loose, and open to new ideas. He would go on to record several more albums, but none quite as good as this one.

In 2020, in a poll among pop musicians, Rolling Stone magazine rated "What's Going On" as the all-time greatest album ever made.

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