Stateside: The enduring legacy of Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece “What’s Going On,” 50 years later
This special originally aired on May 21, 2021. It recently won an award from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters for Best Cultural Programming.
Musician Marvin Gaye took a creative leap of faith 50 years ago when he released one of the most enduring works of the 20th century: his 1971 album What’s Going On. On the anniversary of the album’s release, a group of journalists, music aficionados, and educators join Stateside to reflect on the community that gave rise to Gaye’s masterpiece, and on the record’s enduring legacy today.
Listen to the full show above or find individual segments below.
A political single
Ann Delisi is the host of Ann Delisi’s Essential Music on WDET. She explained that Gaye, Obie Benson, and Al Cleveland wrote the song originally for The Four Tops, but they rejected it, saying it was too political.
“So the three of them wrote this song, and it was inspired by the police brutality that Obie Benson witnessed. Marvin Gaye had these feelings about his brother being in Vietnam, and Obie Benson saw this police brutality that was put upon these anti-war protesters,” Delisi said.
There were many reasons why this song ascended the charts. Gaye started to dress differently, he credited the Funk Brothers and other artists on the album, and utilized new sound engineering techniques.
“The engineer at the time recording Marvin, you know, he wanted to have two different versions of his own take to use, and they ended up getting sort of recorded together. And when Marvin heard it, he loved it. And so that was something that was different for this approach from a recording standpoint,” Delisi explained.
This song also marked a distinct shift from what had become known as the classic Motown sound. More and more artists started to sing songs that illuminated social justice issues, instead of focusing on love ballads.
“The approach that Motown had taken for so long wasn't going to continue to work quite as well. And then, of course, comes The Temptations with their psychedelic era, and they were dealing with social issues as well. So, you know, Marvin Gaye was very well respected and this definitely caused a shift. This album in this song caused a shift at Motown for sure,” Delisi said.
The music industry in 1971
David Hepworth is a music journalist and author of 1971: Never a Dull Moment. That book inspired the eight-part docuseries on Apple TV called 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. Hepworth told Stateside that while Gaye rose to fame out of Motown, the success of his song was not something that anyone could have predicted.
“Marvin Gaye was rather on the back burner in those times. And, you know, the success of ‘What's Going On’ was just one of those bizarre accidents that occur from time to time in the music business,” Hepworth said. “Nobody could possibly have foreseen that it would have been such a success as it was in the first place in the USA. And also what nobody could have seen is the kind of cult that set out that's grown up around it in the subsequent 50 years.”
Hepworth said the music world of 1971 was the primary means of entertainment for most young people — and it allowed for artists to attain major success in a short period of time.
“So the artists benefited from really good listeners at the same time. If people bought a record in 1971, they really listened to it. They took it out and they played it again and again and again. And so they became very much part of their lives. It became imprinted on them. And that was hugely beneficial to the artists,” Hepworth said.
Gaye's attempt at a football career
“What’s Going On” was made, in part, with the help of Gaye’s close friends and former Detroit Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney. You can hear their voices at the beginning of the track, but they also helped Gaye build the courage to write the album.
“He had support because he knew he wasn't going to [get] support from the label because Berry Gordy hated the record at first until he saw what it did in terms of sales. But he knew he had that support system,” said Justin Tinsley, senior writer on culture and sports with The Undefeated. “He knew if nothing else, Mel and Lem would be there to support him because they were the ones that told him, bro, you need to record this song. This song is important and the world needs to hear it.”
After the song topped the charts, Gaye asked Farr and Barney to help him live out one of his dreams — to play for the Detroit Lions. His friends were able to secure him a place to try out, but Gaye did not make the cut. The Lions coach at the time, Joe Schmidt, also refused to ensure Gaye’s safety.
“He was about as good as you would expect a 31-year-old with no football experience to be,” Tinsley said. “He ran routes well. He caught the ball well. He was very coachable, but he [Schmidt] told Marvin at the end of the day, like, I can't put you on this team, man. I just can't do it, like, for your safety and, you know, just for your talent. He's like your gift to the world is not to play professional football. Your gift to the world is your voice.”
How a city shaped an album
Melba Boyd — a poet, editor, and Distinguished Professor in African American Studies at Wayne State University — was 21 years old when the album was released May 21, 1971. Though Boyd was in college in Western Michigan at the time, she was born and raised in Detroit, and her family lived at the heart of the experiences that informed Gaye’s writing. She says that it’s clear the Detroit of the 1960s and early ‘70s helped shape the music and messages in What’s Going On.
“Detroit in 1971, at that point, the city was definitely a majority Black city. It had turned that corner. And again, Detroit, you know, it was the hub of the automobile industry. It was critical in terms of the labor movement, and also, you know, a burgeoning Black middle class, as well,” Boyd said. “A lot of things were happening in Detroit; politically, culturally, socially.”
Boyd said peace movements and social protests were prominent in Detroit in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with activists addressing issues like the Vietnam War and police violence against Black Americans. 1971, the year that Gaye released What’s Going On, was also the year that the Detroit Police Department created the STRESS unit, which quickly became notorious for its brutality toward Black Detroiters.
“You've got repression of the Black community in the city, and at the same time, they're stepping up the drafting of young men to fight in Vietnam,” Boyd said. “The typical sort of attitude was, why are we fighting in Vietnam instead of defending our communities right here in the United States? So it was a dichotomy that, you know, really haunted us during those years.”
Beyond the title track
The title track of What’s Going On might be the most popular from the record today, but it’s only the beginning of Gaye’s intricate, groundbreaking album. The second track, “What’s Happening Brother,” has the tough job of building on the momentum established at the start of the record. Stephen Henderson, host of WDET’s Detroit Today and executive editor of BridgeDetroit.com, said the second song on the album is a hopeful one, and it’s always been his favorite.
“He talks about the things that aren't working, the experience that he had in war, and the idea that you come home to a community that's torn apart, and there's not work, there's not money,” Henderson said. “But then he goes on to just ask what's happening. What’s happening in our neighborhood? Is our baseball team still good? Are people still dancing where we used to dance? What are the things that I missed while I was gone?”
What’s Going On’s closing track, “Inner City Blues,” strikes a different chord when compared with the hopeful message of peace in the album’s first song. Henderson said that where “What’s Going On” asks provocative questions, “Inner City Blues” offers stark answers — and a call for change.
“[‘Inner City Blues’] is a much more pointed indictment of what life in America was like for people who live in the inner city, African Americans, and how dismissed, I guess, they feel by the priorities of white America and the government,” Henderson said.
But, he adds, the two songs — like the whole album — are musically and thematically intertwined. Henderson said the end of “Inner City Blues” features musical strains and lyrics that clearly hearken back to “What’s Going On.”
“It is the moment for me, when I listen to the album, that the hair always just stands up on the back of my neck. When you hear him go back to those first lines of ‘What's Going On’ at the very end of ‘Inner City Blues,’ it is a perfect wrap on the album as a piece of journalism, even. The idea of the story ending where it began is genius,” Henderson said.
A continuing legacy
Fifty years later, Gaye’s masterwork retains its power — and its relevance.
“We always say, ‘Oh, this song could have been written today.’ That's the sort of sobering part of it, is that it is still so relevant today,” Delisi said.
Henderson said he’s frequently revisited What’s Going On throughout his life, and that he turned to the album during particularly difficult moments in the past year.
“You think of the despair that defines so many months of the last year, where we just didn't know what was coming next, like, what else was going to happen to us, and what else was life going to ask us to endure? This album, in its entirety, is a sacred space, I think, to think about those things,” Henderson said.
This story originally aired May 1, 2021.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistants Catherine Nouhan and Nell Ovitt.