Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ turns 50 — secrets behind the hit


Marvin Gaye famously sang that “war is not the answer” in his signature protest song “What’s Going On.”

But for the late Motown legend, football was the answer to help lift him out of a deep depression after the 1970 death of Tammi Terrell — his frequent duet partner on hits such as  “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”  — and into creating “What’s Going On,” his classic album that was released 50 years ago on May 21, 1971.

“It was during a time when he was trying out for the Detroit Lions and being a football player,” said David Ritz, author of 1985’s “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye,” the definitive biography of the singer. “He was a good athlete, and he had this notion of wondering if he could turn pro, but I’m not sure he had the chops. But he certainly had the drive.”

Ultimately, his would-be teammates stepped in. “They told him, ‘Hey Marvin, we’re crazy about you, but go home ‘cause we don’t want to hurt you.’”

Still, Gaye went on to become such good buddies with Detroit Lions players Lem Barney, Mel Farr and Charlie Sanders that they — as well as Detroit Pistons basketball Hall of Fame player Dave Bing — teamed up to provide background vocals on “What’s Going On,” the song that inspired and introduced Gaye’s masterpiece album, which last year Rolling Stone ranked at No. 1 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The cover of Marvin Gaye's classic album "What's Going On."
Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic album “What’s Going On” turns 50 on Friday.

But “What’s Going On,” the song was actually born out of an experience that co-writer and Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson had witnessing an incident of police brutality. He later collaborated with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland to fine-tune the track before submitting it to Gaye, who as Ritz puts it, “Marvin-ized” it. 

“I mean, Marvin loved the idea, but he added his own lyrics to it,” said Ritz. “Marvin took over the song.”

But the song was met with resistance from Motown Records head Berry Gordy, who thought it was too political for his label’s resident loverman. “Gordy thought Marvin had worked hard to create an image of a sex symbol, a singer who women adore,” said Ritz, who, in addition to interviewing Gaye in the ’70s and early ’80s, also co-wrote his 1982 hit “Sexual Healing.” “And he didn’t like the idea of Marvin going that far afield. But without Gordy’s approval they put out the single, and the single hit. And when the single hit, of course Gordy changed his mind.”

Thus, a concept album revolving around the single “What’s Going On” was born, with Gaye taking his first shot at producing his own material — a groundbreaking move for Motown’s Hit Factory.

“He extended the song to a full suite of songs,” said Ritz. “Marvin was excited because it had proven that he was right, that the public would accept something very, very different from him.”

The album’s other hits included “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” which found Gaye getting woke about the environment a year after the very first Earth Day. 

“I think it’s very prescient,” Ritz said. “He was very, very concerned about the proliferation of nuclear energy, but he had never sung about it, and so somehow this landscape … was large enough to accommodate his thoughts about environmental catastrophe.”

Then there was “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” one of three tracks co-written by James Nyx Jr., who — very much understanding the struggle of the “have-nots” — was once a janitor at Motown.

Marvin Gaye performing on stage
Marvin Gaye shined as a performer.
Alamy Stock Photo

In addition to taking you to consciousness, “What’s Going On” also took you to church with songs such as “God Is Love” and “Wholy Holy.” But Gaye himself had a conflicted relationship with religion that would contribute to his minister father shooting him dead during a family altercation in 1984.

Sadly, the “What’s Going On” lyrics “Father father, we don’t need to escalate” proved to be prophetic. “They did escalate,” said Ritz.

While Gaye has been dead for 37 years now, the music — and the message — of “What’s Going On” live on.

“It’s sad that the problems are still the same problems,” said four-time Grammy nominee BJ the Chicago Kid, who dueted with Gaye on a “What’s Going On” remake to celebrate the song’s 45th anniversary in 2016. “But I thank God that something has truth to meet with truth to kind of fight it.”

And, BJ said, today’s R&B artists are “still trying to chase” the best-selling Motown album of all time after five decades: “We still tryin’ to figure out the recipe 50 years later.”


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