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For The Record: Inside Marvin Gaye's Revolutionary 'What's Going On' At 50

Marvin Gaye

Photo: Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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For The Record: Inside Marvin Gaye's Revolutionary 'What's Going On' At 50

Born from the singer's personal loss and the tragedy that descended on the Black community at the dawn of the '70s, Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' is the iconic singer's era-defining, eye-opening magnum opus; GRAMMY.com explores the making of the classic

GRAMMYs/May 22, 2021 - 01:04 am

By 1970, Black America was in turmoil. In April 1968, civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally assassinated in Tennessee. Edwin Pratt was shot to death in the doorway of his Seattle home in January 1969. Black Panther revolutionary Fred Hampton was killed by police gunfire, while sleeping after being drugged, in Chicago in December 1969. In March 1970, Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye's longtime singing partner, succumbed to brain cancer.

For Gaye, this string of events became part of the recipe for a heartbreaking masterpiece to come: What's Going On, Gaye's 11th studio album, released May 21, 1971. Widely considered his magnum opus, regularly ranked as one of the best albums of all time, and inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1998, What's Going On was born from both the singer's personal loss and the tragedy that descended on the Black community at the dawn of the 1970s, compounded by the thousands of young men returning home to America from the Vietnam War. Among them: Gaye's brother, Frankie. That same year, the singer broke a self-imposed three-year media blackout to talk about the tumult that went into the creation of the pivotal album.

"I was terribly disillusioned with a lot of things in life and life in general, and decided to take time out to try to do something about it," Gaye told Disc and Music Echo (via the Guardian) by telephone from his home in Detroit. "I spent the three years writing, producing and reflecting. Reflecting upon life and upon America especially – because that's where I live – its injustices, its evils and its goods. Not that I'm a radical – I think of myself as a very middle-of-the-road sort of person with a good sense of judgment. I think if I had to choose another profession I'd like to be a judge because I'm very capable of determining what's right and what's not."

"What's Going On," the album's flashpoint, came to be when songwriter and Four Tops member Obie Benson was inspired to start writing after witnessing Bloody Thursday at People's Park in Berkeley, California, while on tour in 1969.

"They had the Haight-Ashbury then, all the kids up there with the long hair and everything," he told MOJO (via American Songwriter). "The police was beating on the kids, but they wasn't bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what was going on. 'What is happening here?' One question leads to another. 'Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas?' And so on."

Read More: Marvin Gaye 'Let's Get It On' | For The Record

Benson, who co-wrote the song with fellow Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and, later, Gaye himself, took "What's Going On" to the Four Tops and Joan Baez. After both artists turned down the tune, Benson and Cleveland shared the song with Gaye, who was adamant that the track was ideal to launch a new vocal group, the Originals. Benson ultimately made Gaye an offer he couldn't refuse: "I finally put it to him like this: 'I'll give you a percentage of the tune if you sing it, but if you do it on anybody else you can't have none of it.'"

With Gaye throwing himself into the producer role for the record, Benson marveled at how the singer made "What's Going On" his own.

"He definitely put the finishing touches on it," Benson said. "He added lyrics, and he added some spice to the melody. He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song. He made it visual. He absorbed himself to the extent that when you heard the song you could see the people and feel the hurt and pain. We measured him for the suit, and he tailored it."

Example: The iconic saxophone melody at the start of the song happened while saxophonist Eli Fontaine was getting ready to play. Fontaine was just warming up; suddenly, Gaye stopped the tape player and thanked him for his work. When the instrumentalist informed the singer that he was simply goofing around, Gaye responded, "Well, you goof exquisitely." He had captured exactly what he needed.

"I feel very good about it. I wasn't sure what would happen to it," Gaye, describing the finished song, told Disc and Music Echo in 1971. "But I don't feel good for myself – I didn't have much to do with the song; I feel it all came from God. He drew me into it."

The singer was similarly pragmatic in regards to What's Going On as a whole. "I musn't get into ego tripping, because I didn't have much to do with it," Gaye insisted. "But I'm only human and when you get a lot of pats on the back for something it makes you go on trips. I was only the instrument in the album – all the inspiration came from God himself. It's one that should be listened to. The material is social commentary but there's nothing extreme on it. I did it not only to help humanity but to help me as well, and I think it has. It's given me a certain amount of peace."

Legendary record executive and Motown president Berry Gordy, on the other hand, hated "What's Going On," calling it, "the worst thing I ever heard in my life." According to Gordy himself, though, the truth isn't quite as dramatic. "I was in the Bahamas trying to relax," he remembered in the 2016 Motown documentary, Marvin, What's Going On? "He called and said, 'Look, I've got these songs.' When he told me they were protest songs, I said, 'Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?'"

"I was extremely happy that I released [e] because it was the biggest record at that time," Gordy told TMZ in 2016. "But Marvin was so determined, and such a beautiful person was Marvin. And he fought everything that he thought was injustice and he wanted to speak about—he had a brother in Vietnam—and he convinced me that we should try it. But I didn't think it was going to work."

Released as the album's lead single in January 1971, "What's Going On" was an instant hit; it captured the country's mood while moving more than 10,000 copies in just the first week in record stores. The song made a steady ascension up the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 2 over the week of April 10, 1971. The song that blocked Marvin Gaye from the No. 1 spot? The Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)."

Released in June 1971, the album's second single "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," a similarly laid-back yet topical cut, rode up the Hot 100 chart, reaching No. 4 on Aug. 20, 1971. The top tune in America that week: Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." Like "What's Going On," "Mercy Mercy Me" peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart; it was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2002.

"Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," the third and final single off What's Going On, proved to be another Top 10 hit in the American mainstream, climbing to No. 9 over the week of Nov. 6, 1971. (Cher had the No. 1 song at the time with "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves.") That same week, "Inner City Blues" was the No. 1 song on the Billboard R&B chart, marking a perfect hat trick for Gaye. At the 14th GRAMMY Awards held in 1972, the song received a GRAMMY nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.

With What's Going On, Marvin Gaye made a massive, and potentially devastating, shift in his artistic direction. But as he puts it, he simply had nothing left to lose.

"There seemed to be nothing else to do," he admitted to Disc and Music Echo. "My life, destiny and fate weren't pointing in any direction, so I thought maybe that would bring it all together a little more."

Fifty years after the release of What's Going On, it's clear Gaye's risk paid off. Its impact has left an indelible mark on Black music and culture. "After What's Going On," Rolling Stone writes, "Black musicians at Motown and elsewhere felt a new freedom to push the musical and political boundaries of their art." Elsewhere, John Legend described the album as "the voice of Black America speaking out that we couldn't always smile on cue for you."

Born out of the social unrest that defined America five decades ago, What's Going On remains a pillar of Black music and the soundtrack to the social revolution.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Ant Clemons

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home.

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Will Smith Dedicate His 1999 Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY To His Son

Will Smith at the 1999 GRAMMYs

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Will Smith Dedicate His 1999 Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY To His Son

In his acceptance speech, he offers thanks to his family and "the jiggiest wife in the world, Jada Pinkett Smith"

GRAMMYs/Sep 25, 2020 - 11:17 pm

Today, Sept. 25, we celebrate the birthday of the coolest dad—who else? Will Smith! For the latest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, we revisit the Fresh Prince's 1999 GRAMMY win for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."

In the below video, watch rappers Missy Elliott—donning white leather—and Foxy Brown present the GRAMMY to a stoked Smith, who also opted for an all-leather look. In his acceptance speech, he offers thanks to his family and "the jiggiest wife in the world, Jada Pinkett Smith." He dedicates the award to his eldest son, Trey Smith, joking that Trey's teacher said he (then just six years old) could improve his rhyming skills.

Watch Another GRAMMY Rewind: Ludacris Dedicates Best Rap Album Win To His Dad At The 2007 GRAMMYs

The classic '90s track is from his 1997 debut studio album, Big Willie Style, which also features "Miami" and 1998 GRAMMY winner "Men In Black," from the film of the same name. The "Está Rico" rapper has won four GRAMMYs to date, earning his first back in 1989 GRAMMYs for "Parents Just Don't Understand," when he was 20 years old.

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

N.W.A's DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

What started as an attitude that helped put Compton on the map grew into a worldwide music revolution celebrating the streets

GRAMMYs/Jul 26, 2018 - 11:05 pm

A debut album that landed like a sledgehammer, 1988's Straight Outta Compton has become a legend in its own right. The featured N.W.A lineup was Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and released on Ruthless Records, the label co-founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller two years before.

Although it sold well initially, its landmark status rested on the controversies surrounding its gangsta lifestyle themes and attitudes. Its provocative tracks described the world N.W.A knew through their own eyes, including the title track, which elevated the group's hometown of Compton, Calif., "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." The album also included "F* Tha Police," which resulted in the FBI and U.S. Secret Service sending threatening letters to Ruthless Records and the group's banishment from many venues.

Credited as one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, in 2015, Straight Outta Compton the film appeared, dramatizing the 1988 impact of the album, with Ice Cube portrayed by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. Confrontations with law enforcement and antagonism based on "F* Tha Police" form a core element of both the 2015 drama as well as the drama on the streets that has never stopped.

Among the album's many aftermaths, Eazy-E died in 1995, Ice Cube went on to produce and star in his extensive filmography and the adventures of Dr. Dre touch on many other histories, including those of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, in recognition of its critical importance to music history, Straight Outta Compton was inducted into the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as well as the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

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