Published November 2019

Washington, D.C.

13. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)


Marvin Gaye may have been raised a Washingtonian, but separate tales of Californian violence inform the story either side of this track’s release. If one member of fellow Motown artists the Four Tops hadn’t witnessed an infamous incident of police brutality in the San Francisco Bay area, then this song would never have entered the world. And but for a troubled father-son relationship tragically culminating in a firearm being discharged in a Los Angeles home, we wouldn’t have lost the man responsible, one day shy of his 45th birthday.

One cannot cover a Motown artist without also calling in on Detroit. Founder of the label Berry Gordy once struck an analogy between the hits that came off his own assembly line and the brand spanking new cars that would emerge from the nearby Ford factory. This devotion to prepackaged uniformity and quality control left little room for political messaging, a culture Gaye had to confront in releasing What’s Going On.

But Washington, D.C. is where it all began for Marvin Gaye – whether his acrimonious and traumatic relationship with his father, or his propensity for performance. Meanwhile his slum-like existence in the capital’s southwestern corner gave Gaye an early insight into the type of urban poverty that he would later seek to highlight (among much else) on his much acclaimed 1971 album.


Most of my D.C. track selection came with a naive ambition to explore the history of American protest music as a whole. It was closer to years rather than months before I realised that this would be quite difficult – not much easier than trying to speedily summarise the history of the love song, for example.

Nonetheless snapshots can be provided into individual moments, and I leaned towards What’s Going On due to the fact it came from a native Washingtonian. I was also interested in the story behind a protest song coming from a purveyor of music that is more typically associated with bedroom intimacy than political upheaval.

As always my level of pre-US100 ignorance towards my chosen subject was spectacular. Not only was I oblivious to this phase of Marvin Gaye’s career and the importance of the What’s Going On album, but I was also unaware of the tragic drama that was his life – and its termination at the hands of a consistently brutal and destructive father.


By May 1969 the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, had been in office for two years, having promised in his campaign to ‘clean up the mess at Berkeley’, a University of California campus that had become a hotbed for anti-establishment protest activity and, conversely, an affront to Middle America values. Reagan was eager to show his conservative voter base how he could deal with unruly longhairs, and a student-led occupation of otherwise derelict university land – the ‘People’s Park movement’ or a ‘haven for communist sympathisers … and sex deviants’ (as he called it) – was a prime opportunity.

A protester stares down the National Guard. Photo: AP

Rather than clean up a mess, however, the state’s heavy handed shotgun-centric approach created a much larger one. Protest soon escalated into rioting, and an onlooking student, James Rector, was killed by police buckshot fire, with May 15 1969 since immortalised as ‘Bloody Thursday’. Happening to pass through the area while on tour with the Motown vocal quartet The Four Tops, Renaldo “Obie” Benson was so shocked by what he saw that he returned to Detroit eager to express lyrical bemusement at modern America’s capacity to attack its own.

Benson composed an untitled prototype of What’s Going On alongside Motown songwriter Al Cleveland but, in one of those musical Sliding Doors moments, his fellow Four Tops were unconvinced by this political direction and rejected it as a song for the group. Feeling much more in tune with the song’s spirit of turmoil and distress, Marvin Gaye had no such hang ups. By 1970 his life had been turned upside down by the death of his close friend and singing partner Tammi Terrell, and he was moved by the war stories of his brother Frankie, who had just returned from a three year tour in Vietnam in a conflict that had also taken their life of their cousin. His rising stardom at Motown provided little consolation – he resented his restricted-to-romance Romeo brand, the tedium of touring, and his pampered existence when viewed through the prism of his brother’s experiences.

“With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”
– Marvin Gaye

Gaye’s upbringing in southwestern Washington, D.C. in the 1940s and 50s had been marked by poverty and cruel beatings at the behest of his father, Marvin Gay Sr.*, a man he later described as being a ‘a very peculiar, changeable, cruel, and all powerful king’. When not being brutally whipped by his highly religious father for failing biblical pop quizzes, Gaye was often bullied by his peers who learned that this same dominating patriarch occasionally dressed in his wife’s clothing. Terrorised by his drunken abuse, embarrassed by his cross-dressing, and disillusioned by his extramarital affairs, Gaye’s perception of his father stood in stark contrast to the reassurance and support he felt from his mother. He was to attribute Alberta Gay’s love as being a key factor behind him not becoming ‘one of those child suicide cases you read about’.

One of the few perks of being his father’s son was the opportunity to sing from the age of four in the pentecostal House of God – Gay Sr. was a minister who accompanied his son on the piano in isolated instances of father-son harmony. The performance bug was thus enshrined in Gaye’s psyche, and as he progressed through high school he became involved with a number of local D.C. doo-wop groups. After a failed stint as a United States airman at 17, Gaye’s late 1950s quartet The Marquees caught the attention of rock and roll legend, Bo Diddley. Signed to Columbia subsidiary OKeh Records as a result, Gaye and his bandmates relocated to Chicago: much like Duke Ellington before him, Marvin found that D.C. did not offer enough for an aspiring musician to thrive**.

Marvin Gaye (furthest left) with The Marquees

Alas Chicago did not represent a big break for the Marquees: dropped by OKeh after their first record flopped, the foursome went on to earn work as session musicians and Gaye found himself in Detroit, providing backing drums for Motown subsidiaries. It was here he made connections with the label’s kingpin Berry Gordy, who quickly recognised both an enormous singing talent and a complementary potential for throbbing hearts. In late 1962 Marvin Gaye enjoyed his first solo hits with Stubborn Kind Of Fellow and Hitch Hike; six years later I Heard It Through The Grapevine had smashed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, selling four million copies worldwide.

Gaye’s relationship with Gordy over this period transcended the professional: in 1963 he married Berry’s elder sister, Anna, who was 17 years his senior; three years later she faked a pregnancy to enable her and Marvin to adopt her teenage niece’s newborn son (Marvin Gaye III would not know he was adopted until his birth father’s death); and in 1969 Berry and Anna’s father prevented the singer from an attempted suicide, the first of three. Fame and marriage did little to alleviate the trauma that haunted Gaye’s soul, and Terrell’s 1970 death from brain cancer sent him spiralling into a drug addled depression.

It was in this confused and desperate context that What’s Going On arrived on Marvin Gaye’s lap. The song represented a chance to satisfy an itch for addressing the world’s woes, and to break free from the shackles of Berry Gordy’s famously controlling Motown way of working; his boss’s assertion that any attempt by Gaye to release a protest song would be ‘ridiculous’ only further fuelled his desire. At roughly the same time that Stevie Wonder was stamping his own independence on his dealings with Motown, Gaye defied the higher ups at Hitsville U.S.A. by surreptitiously releasing What’s Going On after Gordy declared it ‘the worst thing I have ever heard in my life’. He quickly changed his tune after it became the fastest selling Motown single of all time: Gordy barely had time to realise that 100,000 copies of the record were on the shelves before they had flown off them.

* Marvin Jnr. added the ‘e’ to the surname to avoid mockery
** – Both the Duke and Marvin played in outfits that bore the name of their hometown: the Washingtonians and the D.C. Tones respectively


In perhaps one of the most dramatic about-turns in musical history, Gordy went from blocking the record’s release to demanding a full length accompanying album. In doing so he would play his own belatedly constructive role in the evolution of protest music. Having learnt some lessons about his own judgement, Gordy ceded full creative control of the album to Gaye, and the result was a protest record unlike any other: What’s Going On, the album, is a smooth continuous journey of idealistic expression and regret, but anchored in a soulful tone that is as suited to the bedroom as to the streets.

Remarkably, outside of the title track, it took a mere 10 days in March 1971 to record the album – Gordy had demanded it in 30, making a speedy delivery a condition of Gaye retaining full artistic licence over the product. The manner in which it played as if one long continuous song, intending to reflect the narrative of a war veteran returning home – essentially a concept protest album – shattered all Motown norms, and led to further concern from Gordy and the label’s infamous Quality Control department that he would alienate fans and radio stations. History has vindicated the singer’s determination to stick to his guns.

Marvin tries his hand at professional football

Prior to all this, What’s Going On the song had emerged nine months earlier from marijuana and scotch laden sessions at Motown’s Hitsville HQ. One of the more curious aspects of Gaye’s intense depression at the start of the 70s was a short lived infatuation with becoming a pro NFL player, going so far as to try out for the Detroit Lions. It did not work out, largely because coach Joe Schmidt didn’t fancy having the responsibility of a global superstar’s wellbeing for what was presumably very little sporting gain. But this strange subplot did result in Gaye making two friends in the form of running back Mel Farr and cornerback Lem Barney, and the two Lions happened to be in the studio during the original recording of What’s Going On. Farr and Barney’s voices are heard among the general chatter during the song’s idiosyncratic introduction, alongside Gaye’s friend and Motown staffer Elgie Stover who delivers the track’s opening line of ‘hey, what’s happening?’

The laid back nature of recording – Gaye oversaw 12 hour sessions, rather than Motown’s standard one hour per track – is eminently reflected in the sound produced. Also in the room was saxophonist Eli Fontaine, whose now instantly recognisable riff launches the song proper as the chatter fades. This was a prime example of Gaye’s new found intuitive way of working: Fontaine had no intention of these bars finding their way onto the record, he was merely improvising whilst warming up. “You goof off exquisitely,” Gaye is alleged to have said while dismissing Fontaine from any further duties.

Also present at both single and album recordings were a handful of Motown session musicians, and What’s Going On would represent a significant first for them too, and not just on a musical or production level. Collectively Motown’s devastatingly effective session musicians were known as The Funk Brothers but, despite their obvious importance to the Motown sound, they were never credited on its records (in contrast to The Wrecking Crew in LA and Booker T. and the M.G.’s in Memphis). The What’s Going On album represented the first time that names such as Jack Ashford, James Jamerson* and Eddie Brown appeared on a Motown album sleeve.

“If What’s Going On remains immortal and untouched in the canon of great pop albums, it’s probably because Gaye managed to make political consciousness … feel as intimate as a night in his boudoir.”
– Slate magazine

But by far the most notable aspect of Gaye’s record is the seemingly incongruous relationship between its lyrical messages and its musical mood. In the title track, he assumes the role of bloodied Berkeley protester, condemning the prejudice he receives on account of having long hair. By declaring that ‘only love can conquer hate’, he invokes the spirit of Martin Luther King – his death only two years prior to recording was another source of the existential distress for Gaye that dated back to at least the Watts riots of 1965. And in declaring that too many brothers are dying, he may well have had his own sibling Frankie and his Vietnam experiences in mind.

Yet this track contains no hint of the apocalyptic menace, sneering contempt, impotent anger or sarcastic fatalism that basically defined protest music up until this point. And nor do any of the other album’s tracks, despite their consistent message of consciousness – whether bemoaning urban poverty (Inner City (Makes Me Wanna Holler)), the fate of disadvantaged children (Save the Children) or mankind’s treatment of the environment (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)).

* – In 2017 Bass Player magazine declared Jamerson to be the greatest and most influential bass player of all time, a testament to the wider significance of The Funk Brothers. Legend has it that he performed the What’s Going On bass line whilst horizontal on the floor, having been dragged drunk out of a nearby bar for the session – however this account is denied by those present.


What’s Going On was Marvin’s millions moment. After becoming his first album to sell over a million copies (becoming one of the few protest records to turn gold), he then signed a new $1m contract with Motown records, at the time the most lucrative deal ever signed by a black recording artist. With creative autonomy assured, this period of time also represented a shift westward: Gaye moved to Los Angeles with wife Anna and adopted son Marvin III, where he built ‘Marvin’s Room’, a customised recording studio-cum-apartment-cum-nightcclub on Sunset Boulevard.

Marvin Gaye during Let’s Get It On recording sessions, 1973. Photo: Jim Britt

In 1973, the same year Let’s Get It On became his second Hot 100 number 1 album, Gaye bought a house in the West Adams district of LA, which was to become the setting for one of pop music’s most shocking moments. The property was for his parents to live in – while Gaye’s relationship with his father was never straightforward, by this stage he felt he at least had earned a degree of pride when Washington, D.C. declared May 1 1972 to be ‘Marvin Gaye Day’, complete with full live performance of the What’s Going On album at the Kennedy Center. A year later, he probably clung to a mistaken hope that flying his parents over to California would enable all parties to draw a line under past trauma.

As the 1970s whirled by, Gaye did not cope admirably with his elevation from Motown poster boy to international superstar. Issues with the tax authorities led him into a life of exile – first Hawaii, then London, and then Belgium. His marriage with Anna fell apart, as did a later union with Janis Hunter. His other great partnership – that with Motown – also collapsed after he accused the label of releasing an ‘unfinished Picasso’ in dropping 1981’s In Our Lifetime without his consent. Vowing to never work with Motown again, his last great triumph – 1982’s Sexual Healing – was released by CBS and won Gaye his first Grammy awards. But never one to enjoy life on tour, he once again regressed into cocaine abuse, only this time compounded by a paranoia of being targeted for a hit job so acute that he wore a bulletproof vest while on stage.

Off the back of this miserable success, Gaye made the fateful decision to move in with his parents upon the conclusion of the Sexual Healing tour, as his mother recovered from kidney surgery. In a cruel irony, it was Marvin’s own paranoia of being killed that would bring to his house the weapon that fulfilled this prophecy. He gave his father a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson on Christmas Day in 1983 in case of intruders; four months later that same weapon was used to pierce a bullet through his heart.

There is not much to be gained from forensically pouring over the details of the shooting, other than to note that a dispute broke out between Marvin’s parents and, stepping in to protect his mother, he became the first to strike out violently. This was, in the view of his sister Zeola, akin to orchestrating his own murder: Marvin Gay Sr. had made it very clear he would kill his son if he laid hands upon him. For Gaye’s other sister, Jeanne, there was a three pronged motivation behind provoking his father in this way: to end his own misery; to end that of his mother; and to punish his father by sending him to jail. He is alleged on his death to have said ‘I couldn’t do it myself, so I had him do it’ – essentially a grim antithesis to ‘father father, we don’t need to escalate’.

A mosaic in D.C.’s Marvin Gaye Park renders the album cover of What’s Going On

But, with his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean, Gaye’s legacy is guaranteed for generations to come. Outside of music, Marvin Gaye Day has become an annual celebration in his hometown of D.C and his mother founded the Marvin P. Gaye Jr Memorial Foundation for those suffering from drug abuse and alcoholism. Washington has also recognised one of its most famous sons through the naming of Marvin Gaye Park and the Marvin Gaye Recreation Center. Meanwhile the singer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and What’s Going On was admitted to the National Recording Registry for historically important audio recordings in US history.

But perhaps his most significant legacy lies not with the artist or the record’s achievements, but in their methods. Along with Stevie Wonder, Gaye was the first Motown artist to break away from the prescriptive production motive of the company. Thanks to him, members of the Funk Brothers were given the credit they undoubtedly deserved. And in birthing the R&B concept album, inspiring everyone from Wonder to Barry White, Gaye had struck a victory for artistic autonomy.

Learn more

Marvin Gaye’s Motown drumming exploits included featuring on Stevie Wonder’s 1963 single, Fingertips, and the Marvelettes 1961 classic, Please Mr Postman.

‘Marvin Gaye Was a Prince of Soul, But One Who Knew the Torment of Drugs and Violence’ – People (1984)
‘Review: Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On’ – Slant Magazine (2003)
My Brother Marvin a Memoir By Zeola Gaye – Zeola Gaye (2011)

Marvin Gaye – Abraham, Martin & John (1970) Spotify / YouTube
Various artists – Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marvin Gaye (1995)
Raekwon feat. CeeLo Green – Marvin (2017) Spotify / YouTube

US100 cover of choice
Cyndi Lauper (1986) Spotify / YouTube