Photo: J. Edward Bailey (cropped)

Marvin Gaye’s Iconic “What’s Going On” Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago today, Motown Records released Marvin Gaye‘s iconic album, “What’s Going On.”

The album’s title protest song, “What’s Going On” was inspired by an instance of police violence seen by co-writer and Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson who fine-tuned the track with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland before mailing it to Gaye, who, as Ritz puts it, “Marvin-ized” it. “I mean, Marvin liked the concept, but he came up with his own lyrics.” “Marvin took over the song.”

Other hits from the album included “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” reflecting Gaye’s stance on the environment a year after the first Earth Day. “I believe it is very foresightful,” Ritz said. “He was deeply concerned about nuclear proliferation, but he had never sung about it, and so this landscape… was large enough to accommodate his thoughts about environmental catastrophe.” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” was one of three songs co-written by James Nyx Jr., a former janitor at Motown who understood the struggles of the “have-nots.” And with songs like “God Is Love” and “Wholy Holy,” “What’s Going On” not only brought the listener to consciousness, but also to church. Gaye, on the other hand, had a tumultuous association with faith, which led to his minister father shooting him in the head during a family quarrel in 1984.

As irony would have it, Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy objected to the album, believing it to be too radical for his label’s resident lover man. “Gordy thought Marvin had worked hard to create an image of a sex symbol, a singer who women adored,” said Ritz, who co-wrote Gaye’s 1982 hit “Sexual Healing” in addition to interviewing him in the 1970s and early 1980s. “And he didn’t like the prospect of Marvin venturing that far. However, they released the single without Gordy’s permission, and it became a success and Gordy changed his mind after the single was released.” As a result, a concept album centered around the song “What’s Going On” was born, with Gaye recording his own material for the first time — a landmark development for Motown’s Hit Factory. “He turned the song into a whole suite of songs,” Ritz said. “Marvin was ecstatic because it proved he was correct, that the public would accept something so drastically different from him.”

Sadly, the lyrics “Father father, we don’t need to escalate” from “What’s Going On” proved prophetic. “It did escalate,” Ritz added. Despite Gaye’s passing 37 years ago, the song and the message of “What’s Going On” seems to live on. “It’s sad that the problems are still the same problems,” said BJ the Chicago Kid, a four-time Grammy nominee who collaborated with Gaye on a “What’s Going On” remake in 2016 to commemorate the song’s 45th anniversary. “However, I thank God that there is something that has truth to meet with truth in order to fight it.” And, according to BJ, today’s R&B singers are “still chasing” the best-selling Motown album of all time, which was released five decades ago: “Fifty years later, we’re still trying to figure out the recipe.”

“What’s Going On,” the song that inspired and introduced Gaye’s masterpiece album, is ranked #1 by Rolling Stone on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums.

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Author: Luke Traina

Photo: J. Edward Bailey