The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #85: What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #85: What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye.

It was a time of unrest and disillusionment in America, as the Summer of Love gave way to the dawning of the 1970s. The Rolling Stones had a fan lose their life at a concert at Altamont Speedway. There were many clashes between protestors and National Guardsmen regarding the Vietnam War. The War, itself, was still in full swing, with many US soldiers returning home in body bags or else, scarred with physical and emotional injuries. The hopefulness of JFK’s Presidency had given way to President Johnson and now, to President Nixon who was inching closer and closer to impeachment. Racial tensions remained high, too, with The Watts Riots of 1965, unrest in Detroit, as well, all adding to a sense of restlessness and hopelessness across the land. In the midst of this stood singer, Marvin Gaye, singing his love songs for Motown.

All throughout the 1960s, Marvin Gaye was employed by Motown Records and faithfully fulfilled his contractual obligations with a series of solo hits, as well as, many duets, too. In particular, Gaye was known for his rapport with singer, Tammi Terrill. Many point to her death at age 25 as being a pivotal moment in the life and career of Marvin Gaye. While they were never a romantic couple, Gaye and Terrill were certainly fond of each other. It is said that Marvin Gaye was the first kind man Terrill had ever met. His kindness shown toward her was such that Gaye was the only person associated with Motown Records to be invited to be at her funeral. So, as his musical partnership with Terrill had ended and America slipped into a deep malaise, Marvin Gaye found himself at a crossroads.

At the same time, in California, The Four Tops were set to perform a concert at a local arena. But, upon arrival, the band members were witness to a clash between police and students; with many of the students being battered by billy clubs and other weapons of brute force. The entire band was stunned to see the police beating people who were barely older than children. One of the men in The Four Tops was named Renaldo “Obie” Benson. He took pen to paper and wrote of his shock and anger in the form of some rough song lyrics. These lyrics would go on to become “What’s Going On”. First, Benson brought the lyrics to the other members of The Four Tops but, they felt uneasy about singing, what they dubbed, a “protest song”. But, Benson did not give up. The very next time he was in Detroit, he showed the lyrics to a friend named Al Cleveland who, in turn, showed them to Marvin Gaye. For Gaye, seeing those lyrics was an epiphany. Being a very empathetic man, Marvin Gaye was certainly aware of the suffering that was going on around him in the world. He was, especially concerned with racial matters in Detroit, as well as, across America. As he looked at Benson’s lyrics, he asked himself how could he possibly continue with Motown, singing romantic love songs at time when his voice was needed for greater things. So, he asked to record Benson’s song. Benson agreed. The rest would be History, as they say, if not for an additional wrinkle to the story.

As we have seen, time and time again, during this countdown, there were no freelancers at Motown. The organizational structure of Motown was well-established. There was an assembly line process in place and, as such, nobody just up and sang songs without, first, getting the ok from Motown head, Barry Gordy. So, when Marvin Gaye approached Gordy with the idea for “What’s Going On”, Gordy rejected it out of hand. There was no way Motown was going to involve itself in the creation of protest songs. This left Marvin Gaye with two choices: accept Gordy’s directive and abandon the song or else, do what he did, which was, to go on strike. Marvin Gaye (and Stevie Wonder, separately) laid down an ultimatum to Gordy which stated that he would no longer sing any songs for Motown unless he was allowed to record “What’s Going On” as he saw fit. Unbeknownst to Gordy, Gaye recorded the song without awaiting a reply. He gathered up his own session players, booked his own studio time, produced the song, himself and then, when it was in its finished form, played it for Gordy. Gordy still hated it. But Gaye persisted and so, “What’s Going On” was released on the subsidiary of Motown called, Tamla Records.

Needless to say, “What’s Going On” was received by the public as an instant classic. Marvin Gaye captured the essence of the unease and anger many were feeling at the time. His calls for an end to police brutality, sadly enough, are as relevant today as they were back in 1971, when the song was released. “What’s Going On” speaks to a universal truth which is that we should be protecting and nurturing each other, not resorting to any means necessary in order to impose our will upon those weaker or more disadvantaged than us. It is a song that is, at turns, sad yet, hopeful, angry yet, optimistic. It is the song that, among all of his hits, is most revered and respected.

Marvin Gaye had a productive decade ahead of him with solo hits such as “Sexual Healing”, “Mercy, Mercy Me”, “Got To Give It Up” and “Let’s Get It On” still to come after the release of “What’s Going On”. However, this decade also marked a slow but, steady descent into drug use and depression which ended in 1984, when he was shot to death by his own father during an argument. Marvin Gaye left a rich legacy of beautiful and important music, as well as, a lifetime lived for the betterment of others. His treatment of Tammi Terrill is every bit as important as his catalogue of hits. Marvin Gaye was a good man who happened to be a good singer, too. Thank you for everything, Marvin. I hope you are resting in power.

So, without further delay, here is the classic commentary for our times, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Marvin Gaye, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting important music and the artists who create it. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

2 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #85: What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye (RS)”

  1. Great song great artist . Sad that times haven’t really changed, in fact gotten worse 💔

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