What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Liberation from the Motown Sound

Marvin Gaye
What's Going On

Berry Gordy, Jr., head of the Motown Record Corporation, ran a tight ship. As much as the music was the soul of the business, the business was the soul of the music. From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 Top Ten hits. Artists such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, and the Supremes contributed to the label’s success. It was Marvin Gaye, though, who had become Motown’s number-one male recording artist in the 1960s.

Motown’s success was built upon a certain musical foundation. “The Motown Sound”, as it was officially called and trademarked, was a brand of soul music with a distinctive pop music influence. It included several signature elements ranging from prominent electric basslines to the use of various orchestral sections and a gospel-style singing treatment with a lead and back-up singers.

As much as Gaye had helped develop and popularize this sound, he began to feel stagnant in his musical role at Motown. By the late ’60s, Gordy’s assembly line-like production took a toll on the artist.

Though he had recorded plenty of duets throughout the decade with other leading female artists at Motown (Mary Wells and Kim Weston, most notably), it was his work with Tammi Terrell that proved to be the most powerful. Songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Your Precious Love”, and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” defined the famous duo’s relationship; at least, that was the rumor.

When Terrell collapsed into Gaye’s arms during a concert in 1967, it was the beginning of a three-year bout with a brain tumor, resulting in her death in 1970. Gaye had watched his friend slowly wither away. When she died, it sent him spiraling into a deep depression. He refused to record or perform and spent most of the time alone, confined to his home.

Terrell’s death, however, would become something of a catalyst for Gaye’s artistic reinvention. Through television news broadcasts, Gaye saw the racial, political, and social problems that were plaguing the world, manifestations from the explosion of political and social activism that took place during the late ’60s. As he wallowed in his seclusion, Gaye read letters from his brother Frankie serving in the Vietnam War. They described the confusion and frustration he and other soldiers felt fighting in a war that had no just cause. Many black soldiers at the time felt doubly conflicted, drafted to fight and die for a country that refused to accept them because of the color of their skin. These observations, along with the loss of Terrell, motivated Gaye to question his role in the world and at Motown.

Gordy set a high standard for his musicians and singers at Motown and was strict about quality control. For those artists who desired a bigger role within the music recording process, this meant limited creativity beyond the prescribed Motown Sound. Gaye, on the other hand, had an ever-growing desire to fully produce his music. Though he often collaborated with his producers and other musicians, offering suggestions on how to improve the songs, he yearned for the creative control that the role of producer would entitle him.

When Obie Benson of the Four Tops brought Gaye a song he had co-written with Al Cleveland, a songwriter at Motown, he found something that had reflected the way he had been feeling ever since Terrell’s death — anger, sadness, and disillusionment about his friend’s death and the chaotic world around him. After Gaye read the lyrics to “What’s Going On”, Benson urged Gaye to record the song himself. Upon agreement, Gaye collaborated with the two songwriters and eventually took complete creative control of the song’s production.

“What’s Going On” was recorded in Motown’s Studio A on June 1, 1970. Gaye enlisted Motown’s now-famous studio musicians, the Funk Brothers, to record his altered version of Benson’s song. But instead of hanging back in the control room, as most producers do, Gaye intermingled with the musicians, playing piano and creating new sounds. He brought in Chet Forest, who was known for his experience in the realm of the big band genre, to assist with the musical arrangement, as well as an assortment of percussionists playing everything from conga to woodblocks. Gaye even beat on a cardboard box with a pair of drumsticks to create a more hollow percussion sound. The result was unlike anything else in the Motown catalog.

Gordy refused to release it. Claiming the song was too political and too weird to be released as a Motown single, he was convinced the song would never become a hit. After all, it didn’t fit into the Motown Sound formula. Gaye, in response, refused to record any more songs for Motown until the company released it as a single. Eventually, Gordy gave in and the song “What’s Going On” was released in January 1971.

The finished product was a mix of Gaye’s intuitive genius, sheer stubbornness, and happy accidents. The first was the accidental recording of an alto sax warm-up. It happened to be just the sound Gaye was looking for as the song’s introduction. The second was the accidental mono playback of a two-track tape, each with a different vocal recording. The two tracks were played at the same time instead of separately for comparison purposes as Gaye had originally requested. Gaye liked what he heard so much that he used this technique as a trademark of his music.

Instead of the usual three back-up singers Motown often required, Gaye enlisted a background chorus to support his own soul-dripping voice as he walked around the studio, mike in hand, taking in as much of the magic in the room as he could. When it was released, the single quickly rose to the top of the charts. Gordy immediately called on Gaye for an accompanying album.

Though Gaye had an idea of what he wanted for the rest of the album, he wasn’t anywhere near finished writing the remaining songs for it. With the help of Benson, Cleveland, and a few other Motown songwriters, Gaye finished writing the other eight songs, enough for a complete album. After the initial recording, arranger David Van DePitte helped Gaye take the separate pieces of voice, instruments, and studio effects and compile them into a consistent and revolutionary album full of beauty and concept.

The songs of What’s Going On are told from the point of view of a black soldier returning home from fighting in a white man’s war. It is an unrecognizable America, filled with racial violence and uprisings, political strife and protests. The album is a question-inducing commentary about change, love, and hate.

As songs such as “Save the Children”, “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”, and “What’s Happening, Brother” seamlessly flow together as one musical journey, they describe much more than falling in love, hanging on to love or losing love. In fact, many of them aren’t about love at all, at least not the romantic kind of love that Gaye had so often sung about in Motown’s earlier days. The songs on this album describe a realistically bleak world in which death and violence occurs but where hope hangs on — but just barely. The album begs the question, “Who really cares?” It was a complete slap in the face to the pre-packaged feel-good vibes of Gordy’s Motown Sound.

The cover of the album is a starkly lit close-up of a bearded Gaye wearing a black vinyl raincoat in the rain. His semi-smiling face stares toward the distance; a look of subtle confidence perfectly captures the tone of the album, but even more so, the way Gaye felt while making it. It was a dramatically different piece of cover art for Motown, much different than the superficial poses so characteristic of Motown’s usual material. It was a simple yet powerful image so pure that it exposed the truth in Gaye’s eye, the truth that couldn’t be ignored. Gaye had found himself and had set himself free.

The album produced two more hit singles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. Instead of quickly fading away as Motown albums often did, What’s Going On stayed on the charts for over a year and sold over two million copies by the end of 1972. It was not only the first Motown album to list its session musicians — the Funk Brothers — in the liner notes, but it was also the first Motown album that could not be simply categorized as “soul” or “R&B”.

Though later songs such as “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing” have defined Gaye as a sex-inducing, sultry-dipped crooner for millions of horny men, his album What’s Going On offered a truer definition of Gaye — the musical genius and revolutionary who broke free from the Motown Sound.