Collection: 1. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece began as a reaction to police brutality. In May 1969, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, the Four Tops’ bass singer, watched TV coverage of hundreds of club-wielding cops breaking up the People’s Park, a protest hub in Berkeley. Aghast at the violence, Benson began to write a song with Motown lyricist Al Cleveland, trying to capture the confusion and pain of the times. He knew he had something big in his nascent version of “What’s Going On,” but the rest of the Four Tops weren’t interested, and Benson’s efforts to get Joan Baez to record it didn’t work out, either.

But one of Motown’s biggest stars and greatest voices turned out to be more receptive. Gaye was in a dark and contemplative place, wounded by the death of his frequent duet partner Tammi Terrell, yearning to sing subtler and more substantive material, and mulling over his brother Frankie’s horrifying tales of his recent stint fighting in Vietnam. Gaye had been keeping busy writing for and producing a group called the Originals, and trying to figure out what was next. “I’d been stumbling around for an idea,” he told biographer David Ritz. “I knew there was more inside me. And that was something no record executive or producer could see. But I saw it. I knew I had to get out there.”

After some hesitation, Gaye embraced “What’s Going On,” and with the help of arranger David Van De Pitte, crafted a version of the song that was jazzier and more sophisticated than any Motown recording to date, layering cinematic strings over James Jamerson’s supernaturally sinuous bass line and a polyrhythmic groove. Gaye unleashed one of his most spectacular vocal performances in a career full of them, scatting and improvising around the main melody.

Motown Records founder Berry Gordy initially resisted releasing “What’s Going On,” telling Gaye that he thought scatting was out of date and protest lyrics were too commercially risky. But when the song became an instant hit, Gordy gave Gaye a single month to craft an album to accompany “What’s Going On.” Gaye more than rose to the challenge. “I work best under pressure and when I’m depressed,” he told the Detroit Free Press at the time. “The world’s never been as depressing as it is right now. We’re killing the planet, killing our young men in the streets, and going to war around the world. Human rights … that’s the theme.”

What emerged was soul music’s first concept album, and one of the most important and influential LPs ever made. John Legend recently described it as “the voice of black America speaking out that we couldn’t always smile on cue for you.” Building it all around one finished song lent What’s Going On a musical and thematic through line. “What’s Happening Brother” assumes the voice of a Vietnam vet like Gaye’s brother, puzzled by a changing America and looking for work; “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” is a taut ode to the environment; “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” takes on drug addiction.

After What’s Going On, black musicians at Motown and elsewhere felt a new freedom to push the musical and political boundaries of their art. “When I was struggling for the right of the Motown artist to express himself,” Gaye said, “Stevie [Wonder] knew I was also struggling for him.”

At the end of the final song on What’s Going On, the lament “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” the music shifts back into a jazzier reprise of the title track. As the album fades out, the groove continues on. Five decades later, it still hasn’t stopped. - RollingStone.com

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  • MARVIN GAYE - WHAT'S GOING ON LIVE VINYL
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  • MARVIN GAYE - WHAT'S GOING ON? (2LP) SET
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