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:

    Hello,
    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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