Revisiting Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” and the Album That Opened R&B to Resistance: Revisited 50 Years Later

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear Mar­vin Gaye Sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” A Capel­la: The Haunt­ing Iso­lat­ed Vocal Track

Nina Simone’s Live Per­for­mances of Her Poignant Civ­il Rights Protest Songs

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Mar­ley, Pub­lic Ene­my, Bil­ly Bragg & More

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.

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  • alan fair says:

    first let me thanky­ou for afford­ing time and space to this, of its time and yet tran­scen­dent piece of music, a won­der­ful musi­cal cry of pain, anger and love. But can I take issue with your title. While this album did indeed give voice to the ongo­ing resis­tance to racism and war (itself, some might argue, a racist war both for the Viet­namese and the African Amer­i­can sol­diers who dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly fought in that con­flict). It was not the “Album that opened R & B to resis­tance.” R & B, gospel and blues before that had always been a music of resis­tance, in fact it is through the music of Black Amer­i­ca that we can hear the cry of restance most clear­ly. Gaye of course new that and built on it, util­is­ing the strains of blues, gospel and soul to enhance his mes­sage of love and anger. The doors of free­dom had long been kicked at by the beau­ti­ful spir­it of African Amer­i­can resis­tance, some­thing “What Going On” cel­e­brates.

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