What's Going On? When Marvin Gaye Went A Little Bit Crazy

Music | May 22, 2021

Soul singer Marvin Gaye performs onstage at Royal Albert Hall in 1979 in London, England. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

At the end of the 1960s, soul singer Marvin Gaye was among Motown's biggest names. But the "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" singer was quite rapidly losing his enthusiasm for pop music. Motown brilliantly created stars and catchy R&B music in a factory setting, but Gaye was disillusioned with the product. During turbulent times, many musicians were making personal statements through their music, something that interested Gaye more than getting the next big dance hit. To follow his muse, Gaye would need to rebel against Motown. The result was What's Going On?, one of the greatest albums in history, but to make it Gaye had to go to the brink of quitting music altogether.

The Years Leading Up To The Album

Source: (Motown Museum).

Marvin Gaye, who did not have the easiest childhood, grew up with a father who was a Pentecostal minister; his father abused Gaye when he was young. He grew up in a public housing project, the Fairfax Apartments, in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood of Washington DC, an area that was mostly a slum. The buildings were small and many were in disrepair, lacking running water and electricity. In 1960, when Gaye was only 21, he signed on with Motown Records and became one of Motown’s top artists. As the 1960s drew to a close, Marvin Gaye was at the top of his game. He had some success before his No. 1 hit, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” which actually became the second biggest single of the year. In 1970, though, Gaye, who was angry about the state of the world, approached Berry Gordy and announced that he wanted to create an album with a political edge.


He Had A Lot On His Mind

Source: (Mic).

Gaye had a lot of things that were bothering him. He was concerned with the social injustices in the U.S. bothered him, including the 1965 Watts riots, which occurred after Marquette Frye, an African-American who was on parole for robbery was pulled over for dangerous driving. The traffic stop escalated into a fight with police, resulting in six days of civil unrest. Then, in 1967, Tammi Tyrell, who sang some duets with Gaye and who he had a very close relationship with, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died in 1970, and Gaye was devastated. Meanwhile, his brother, who had been fighting in Vietnam, returned from the war, and his conversations with Gaye helped to push him towards introspection about the state of the world. Gaye also changed his personal style at the time, growing a beard and refusing to wear ties. As Gaye told his biographer David Ritz: “I’d spent my entire career looking harmless, and the look no longer fit. I wasn’t harmless. I was pissed at America.” In 1969, Gaye had his first suicide attempt. At the time, he was stuck in a Detroit apartment and was upset about his marriage to Anna Gordy (who was Berry Gordy’s sister), which was failing; they would divorce in 1973. As he told Rolling Stone, around this time, "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."

Meanwhile, He Thought About Playing Football

Berry Gordy. Source: (Motown Museum).

Berry Gordy, who was invested in the three-minute single, as it was what made Motown great, and had no interest in an album with political songs, did not want to produce it, and the two were at an impasse. During this time, Gaye started to explore other career options, including football. He had a fantasy of playing in the Super Bowl and imagined becoming a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. However, the Lions coach would not let him try out for the team.   

The Song That Sparked The Album

Source: (Musicians Institute).

Meanwhile, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, who had witnessed the police brutality during an anti-war protest in Berkeley on May 15, 1969, came up with the idea for “What’s Going On” which he brought to Gaye after he had tried to convince the Four Tops to record it. Gaye took Benson’s idea, which was inspired by the political unrest in the country, and finished it out, putting his own touch to the song, changing the melody and adding some of his own lyrics. It was recorded in Motown’s Studio A weeks after the Kent State and Jackson State killings. Gordy refused to release the song, leading Gaye to retreat to his Detroit estate, and compose a number of songs centered on the political and social issues of the time, developing the concept for the eventual album. In January 1971, Barney Ales, Motown’s head of sales, took it upon himself to release “What’s Going On” as a single, and by March, the song was at No. 2. Because of this, Gaye got his way, and Gordy told him he had 30 days to record the album. Gaye was able to create the album in two weeks.

Music Infused With Rage

Source: (The Conversation).

The album reflected Gaye’s anger at the state of the world: it included songs dealing with his outrage about the Vietnam war ("What’s Happening Brother?"), environmental degradation ("Mercy Mercy Me"), and police violence and the enforcement of urban poverty ("Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)"). The album was a critical and commercial success and would go on to be considered one of the greatest collections by a popular artist, as it demonstrated the possibilities of music, combining doo-wop harmonies, jazz, and religious hymns with Gaye’s rage at the things that were going on at the time. 

Tags: Classic Albums | Marvin Gaye

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!