I just want to be heard and that’s all that matters. — Marvin Gaye
R&B superstar Marvin Gaye was more than willing to risk his career on a record.
His polished public persona was a false front behind which lurked some serious demons — depression and addiction, exacerbated by the illness and death of his close friend and duet mate, Tammi Terrell.
His downward spiral was also fueled by his distress over events of the late 60s.
How else to respond to the Vietnam War, the murder of civil rights leaders, police brutality, the Watts Riots, a dire environmental situation, and the disenfranchisement and abandonment of lower income Black communities?
Perhaps by refusing to adhere to producer Barry Gordy‘s mandate that all Motown artists were to steer clear of overt political stances….
He controlled their careers, but art is a powerful outlet.
Obie Benson also came under Gordy’s thumb as a member of the R&B quartet, the Four Tops. The shocking violence he witnessed in Berkeley’s People’s Park on Bloody Thursday while on tour with his band provided the lyrical inspiration for “What’s Goin’ On.”
When the other members of the group refused to touch it, not wanting to rock the boat with a protest song, he took it to Gaye, who had lost all enthusiasm for the “bullshit” love songs that had made him a star
Benson recalled that Gaye added some “things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song… we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.”
Gordy was not pleased with the song’s message, nor his loosey goosey approach to laying down the track. Eli Fontaine’s famous saxophone intro was improvised and “Motown’s secret weapon,” bassist James Jamerson was so plastered on Metaxa, he was recorded sprawling on the floor.
Jamerson told his wife they’d been working on a “masterpiece,” but Gordy dubbed “What’s Going On” “the worst thing I ever heard in my life,” pooh-poohing the “Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting.” He refused to release it.
Gaye stonewalled by going on strike, refusing to record any music whatsoever.
Eight months in, Motown’s A&R Head Harry Balk, desperate for another release from one of the label’s most popular acts, directed sales vice president Barney Ales to drop the new single behind Gordy’s back.
It immediately shot to the top of the charts, selling 70,000 copies in its first week.
Gordy, warming to the idea of more sales, abruptly reversed course, directing Gaye to come up with an entire album of protest songs. It ushered in a new era in which Black recording artists were not only free, but encouraged to use their voices to bring about social change.
The album, What’s Going On, recently claimed top honors when Rolling Stone updated its 500 Greatest Albums list. Now, it is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and as Polyphonic, producers of the mini-doc above note, its sentiments couldn’t be more timely.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.