Global Fusion Playlist : What’s Going On By Marvin Gaye

Classics are decided by the times and the people. Imagine a world without Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On! Never!!! This album was rejected by Barry Gordy (Mr. Motown), but now is said amongst many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. An Artist should always follow their dreams, their heart and passion in reflecting the times!! We the people need you as our voice…#MusicIsAWeapon…

What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album by soul musician Marvin Gaye, released May 21, 1971, on the Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records. Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California.

The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends on a reprise of the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.

Released on May 21, 1971, What’s Going On became Gaye’s first album to reach the Billboard Top LPs top ten, peaking at number six, and staying on the chart for nearly a year, selling over two million copies, by the end of 1972, becoming Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling album to that date until he released Let’s Get It On in 1973. It also became Gaye’s second number-one album on Billboard’s Soul LPs chart, where it stayed for several weeks. The album’s leading single, “What’s Going On”, sold over 200,000 copies within a week of its release in January 1971, later going on to sell two-and-a-half-million units by the end of the year. It spent several weeks at number-two on the Billboard Hot 100 behind Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”, and spent five weeks at number-one on the Soul Singles chart between March 27 and April 24, 1971.

What’s Going On was the first album on which Motown Records‘ main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit. The album features introspective lyrics and socially conscious themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. What’s Going On was both an immediate commercial and critical success and has endured as a classic of early-1970s soul. A deluxe edition set of the album was released on February 27, 2001, and featured a rare live concert shot at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center from May 1972.

In worldwide critics’, artists’ and public surveys, it has been voted one of the landmark recordings in pop music history and is considered to be one of the greatest albums ever made. In 2003, the album was ranked number six on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, placing that same position nine years later.

During the late 1960s, Marvin Gaye had fallen into a deep depression following the collapse and later diagnosis of his singing partner and fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell having a malignant brain tumor. Gaye was also depressed with the fallout of his first marriage to Anna Gordy, a growing dependency on cocaine which he often rubbed on his gums or ate because he had trouble snorting, troubles with the IRS and struggling with his relationship in Motown Records, the label he had signed with in 1961. At one point, Gaye attempted suicide at his brother-in-law Berry Gordy’s father’s home with a handgun, only to be saved from committing the act by Gordy, Sr. During this time, Gaye began experiencing international success for the first time in his career following the release of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and subsequent hit singles such as “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”, “Abraham, Martin & John” and “That’s the Way Love Is”. But Gaye was in no mood to celebrate: “My success didn’t seem real. I didn’t deserve it. I knew I could have done more. I felt like a puppet — Berry’s puppet, Anna’s puppet. I had a mind of my own and I wasn’t using it.”

During this time, Gaye was able to prove his worth as a producer, producing several songs for Motown vocal group The Originals. The songs, “Baby, I’m for Real” and “The Bells”, became hits as a result. On March 16, 1970, Terrell succumbed from her illness, roughly five weeks before her 25th birthday. Gaye dealt with Terrell’s death by going on a prolonged seclusion from the music business. After his success with the Originals, Gaye changed his look, ditching his clean-cut, college boy image to form a beard and dressing more casually, wearing sweatsuits. Gaye also pierced his ear in defiance and stood up to Motown executives who felt he should’ve been touring. He also began working on fixing his personal issues, re-embracing his spirituality and also attended several concerts held by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which had been used for several Motown recordings in the 1960s. Around the spring of 1970, Gaye also began seriously pursuing a career in football with the professional football team, the Detroit Lions of the NFL, even working out with the Eastern Michigan Eagles football team. However, Gaye’s pursuits for a tryout with the Lions was stopped after being advised that an injury would derail his music career, leaving him upset. Despite this, Gaye would befriend two of the Lions teammates, Mel Farr and Lem Barney.


While traveling on his tour bus with the Four Tops on May 15, 1969, Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson witnessed an act of police brutality and violence committed on anti-war protesters who had been protesting at Berkeley’s People’s Parkin what was later termed as “Bloody Thursday”.  A disgusted Benson later told author Ben Edmonds, “I saw this and started wondering ‘what the fuck 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 wrote and composed a song based on his conversations with Benson of what he had seen in Berkeley. Benson sent the unfinished song to his band mates but the other Four Tops turned the song down. Benson said, “My partners told me it was a protest song. 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.'”

The song was presented by Benson and Cleveland to Marvin Gaye while finding him at a golf game. Returning to Gaye’s home in Outer Drive, Benson played the song to Gaye on his guitar. Gaye felt the song’s moody flow would be perfect for The Originals. Benson, however, felt Gaye could sing it himself. Gaye responded to that suggestion by asking Benson for songwriting credit of the song. Benson and Cleveland allowed it and Gaye edited the song, adding a new melody, revising the song to his own liking, and changing some of the lyrics, reflective of Gaye’s own disgust. Gaye finished the song by adding its title, “What’s Going On”. Benson said later that Gaye tweaked and enriched the song, “added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story and not a song… we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.” During this time, Gaye had been deeply affected by phone conversations shared between him and his brother after he had returned from service over the treatment of Vietnam veterans.

Gaye had also been deeply affected by the social ills that were then plaguing the United States at the time, even covering the track, “Abraham, Martin & John”, in 1969, which became a UK hit for Gaye in 1970. Gaye cited the 1965 Watts riots as a pivotal moment in his life in which he asked himself, “with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” One night, Gaye called Berry Gordy about doing a protest record while Gordy vacationed at the Bahamas, to which Gordy chastised him, “Marvin, don’t be ridiculous. That’s taking things too far.”

In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh studio album:

In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say… I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.
—Marvin Gaye
On June 10, 1970, Gaye entered Motown’s Hitsville USA studios to record “What’s Going On”. Immediately after learning about the song, many of Motown’s musicians, known as The Funk Brothers noted that there was a different approach with Gaye’s record than there had been with other Motown recordings, and Gaye complicated matters by only bringing in a few of the members while bringing his own recruits, including drummer Chet Forest. Longtime Funk Brothers members Jack Ashford, James Jamerson and Eddie Brown participated in the recording. Jamerson was pulled into the recording studio by Gaye after he located Jamerson playing with a local band at a blues bar and Eli Fontaine, the saxophonist behind “Baby, I’m For Real”, also participated in the recording. Jamerson, who couldn’t sit proper on his seat after arriving to the session drunk, performed his bass riffs, written for him by the album’s arranger David Van De Pitte, on the floor. Fontaine’s open alto saxophone riff on the song was not originally intended. When Gaye heard the playback to what Fontaine thought was simply a demo, Gaye let him go. When Fontaine said he was “just goofing around”, Gaye replied, “well, you goof off exquisitely. Thank you.”

The laid-back sessions of the album was credited to lots of “marijuana smoke and rounds of Scotch”. Gaye’s trademark multi-layering vocal approach came off initially as an accident 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” to have him review which lead vocal take he would use for the final song. Smith and Sands accidentally mixed the two lead vocal takes together.  Gaye loved the sound and decided to keep it and use it for the duration of the album, later using it for sessions of “God Is Love“, which was recorded on the same day as “What’s Going On”.

2001 Deluxe Edition

In 2001, a “Deluxe Edition” 2-CD version of the album was released by Motown, which included the original LP as released, the discarded “Detroit Mix” of the album, and the mono 45 rpm mixes of the singles. Also included was a recording of Gaye’s first live concert performance after two years away from the stage following Tammi Terrell’s illness and death, performed at The Kennedy Center Concert Hall in his native Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1972. The recordings were Remastered transferred and handled respectively by Vic Anesini

Disc one (original album and bonus tracks)
  1. “What’s Going On”  – 3:53
  2. “What’s Happening Brother”  – 2:43
  3. “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky”  – 3:49
  4. “Save the Children”  – 4:03
  5. “God Is Love”  – 1:41
  6. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)  – 3:16
  7. “Right On”  – 7:31
  8. “Wholy Holy”  – 3:08
  9. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”  – 5:26
  10. “What’s Going On” (Detroit Mix) – 4:08
  11. “What’s Happening Brother” (Detroit Mix) – 2:43
  12. “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” (Detroit Mix) – 3:49
  13. “Save the Children” (Detroit Mix) – 4:02
  14. “God Is Love” (Detroit Mix) – 1:47
  15. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (Detroit Mix) – 3:08
  16. “Right On” (Detroit Mix) – 7:32
  17. “Wholy Holy” (Detroit Mix) – 3:08
  18. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (Detroit Mix) – 5:46
  19. “What’s Going On” (Rhythm ‘n’ Strings Mix) – 3:50
Disc two
  1. Sixties Medley (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 13:23
  1. “Right On” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 7:33
  2. “Wholy Holy” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 3:32
  3. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 9:06
  4. “What’s Going On” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 5:42
  5. “What’s Happening Brother” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 2:54
  6. “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 3:51
  7. “Save The Children” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 4:22
  8. “God Is Love” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 1:43
  9. “Stage Dialogue” (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 2:34
  10. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (Reprise) (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 5:12
  11. “What’s Going On” (Reprise) (Live At The Kennedy Center) – 4:07
  12. “What’s Going On” (Single Version) – 3:56
  13. “God Is Love” (Single Version) – 2:56
  14. “Sad Tomorrows” – 2:27
  15. “Head Title (AKA “Distant Lover”)” – 4:07