May 21 – Gaye’s Masterpiece Hits 50…To His Boss’ Chagrin

Many times here we’ve looked at incidents where record companies over-ruled artists in terms of selection of singles or material to be recorded, and usually they ended up being right. Today we look at the case of an opposite to that – one where an artist’s stubborn refusal to listen to his influential boss and record company paid big dividends for all concerned. One of R&B’s best turns 50 – Marvin Gaye‘s 11th studio album, What’s Going On, came out this day in 1971.

It was about a decade after Marvin had issued his first record and through the decade in between, he’d become one of Motown’s most respected, and most bankable artists, scoring 11 American top 10 hits, several of them with his friend and musical partner, Tammi Terrell. However, all was not well with Marvin – nor the country – by the new decade. Terrell had terminal cancer, Gaye’s marriage was breaking up. And that marriage was to Anna Gordy, Motown’s owner Berry Gordy’s sister. He had a cocaine habit and was being hounded by the IRS. Meanwhile, around the land, youth were being shipped off in record numbers to Vietnam and protests were breaking out almost weekly. Gaye toyed with the idea of becoming a pro football player briefly, playing a few games with a low-level team in hopes of going to the NFL. That failed, but three members of the Detroit Lions club actually are among the ten backing vocalists Gaye utilized for this album. This album which was quite different than what he’d done before.

“With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” he apparently asked Gordy. “I felt like a puppet – Berry’s puppet, Anna’s puppet. I had a mind of my own and I wasn’t using it.” He set out to change that with this one. Which his boss didn’t like, to say the least. Berry was said to have called Gaye’s idea for a denser and more socially-meaningful album was “ridiculous”, calling the title track “the worst song” he’d ever heard. Gaye was undeterred.

He recorded the album over a full year, using both Motown’s own Hitsville USA studio in Detroit and an L.A. one. It was the first time he’d produced his own record, and picked the help, which included over 20 session musicians plus the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Gaye himself played piano, and on the title track, mellotron. The nine songs had somewhat optimistic sheens – “Save the Children”, “God Is Love”, etc. – but shone a light on the troubles of the land. As Dave Hutcheon of Mojo pointed out, “if listeners thought with all this talk about love and God and ecology meant there was some kind of redemption due…they were in for a hard, quick lesson in reality” with “Inner City Blues.” Then there was “Flyin’ High”,a song about heroin addiction; “Mercy Mercy Me” referenced the ecology, a word Berry Gordy said he didn’t even understand. “What’s Going On” was originated by Obie Benson of the Four Tops, who was disgusted with acts of police brutality he’d seen on the road and the growing casualty list among American kids in the Vietnam war. He offered the song to his band, but they turned it down, thinking it too controversial. He played it for Marvin, who “added some things that were more ghetto” and took to it. The Motown boss didn’t want to release the record, and especially not that title track (which Marvin wanted as the first single), but surprisingly the singer won the power struggle, threatening to quit recording if the label didn’t put out his record. It came out, and blew the doors off his previous work in terms of both commercial success and critical praise.

The LP became his first to go gold at home and platinum in the UK (it’s still only certified gold in the U.S., but has verifiably sold over a million copies meaning it could qualify for platinum, if not more) and it reached #6 on the album charts… a tidy 183 places higher than his previous one! The title track got to #2 in the States, and the follow-ups “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” also hit the top 10 and topped R&B charts. The former also made the Canadian top 10, something Gaye had done less frequently than at home.

Critics liked the record then. They love it now. At the time, Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, The Observer 5-stars and the Village Voice graded it “B” – typical of the range of reactions in ’71. Rolling Stone marveled “there are very few performers who could carry off a project like this. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect him to be one of them.” New York’s Village Voice liked “three highly original singles” but thought the remainder “marred by the lowest kind of movie background dreck” underneath the lyrics.

Time has treated the record well though. Allmusic gives it a perfect 5-star rating, declaring it “not only Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece” but the “best full-length (album) to issue from Motown.” By the end of the ’90s, VH1 ranked it as the fourth greatest album ever, while over in the UK, The Guardian‘s readers voted it 17th best but the paper’s critics tabbed it as the greatest. Something Rolling Stone would echo recently. A new list from that publication jumped it to the top spot of greatest albums ever, up from #6 the previous decade. They suggest “through a haze of marijuana smoke, Gaye made one intuitively brilliant decision after another.” The most brilliant of which was probably standing up to Berry Gordy.

Unfortunately, 50 years on, one could look around and still wonder “what’s going on?”…and wonder more, where’s the next great musical statement about the times coming from?

7 thoughts on “May 21 – Gaye’s Masterpiece Hits 50…To His Boss’ Chagrin

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    This one is one of the greats. The greatest? I never thought so…but great all the same. I’m glad he broke out and done his own thing because we all benefited from it with a great album. It was also the perfect backdrop to release this album.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At least we can be happy RS didn’t change their top pick to Cardi B or a singin’ Kardashian. Seriously though, it is an excellent record and Marvin’s finest hour, but I don’t think it even compares to the best of Stevie Wonder’s 70s catalog among the Motown releases, let alone with the all-time greatest ten or twenty, nor would I put any song on it above “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” in the canon of Motown singles. All that said, it is a good one and it’s good that it’s getting a lot of renewed attention this week.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 50 years on and you still wonder what the hell is going on? And ain’t that sad.
    An unusual song for the times but music must echo real life at times It is /was a decent wake up call back then, and wouldn’t need much re-fettling to be current now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like I commented to Max, although I don’t think it was even motown’s best work, it was a good album and I’m sure it did make people stop and think a wee bit when it came out. Robert Palmer tried to do a cover of “Mercy Mercy Me”, of course, I don’t think it worked that well but he gave it a try. I’d just love to see some artist come out with an album that was ground-breaking and listenable today about the things going on still that need changing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the market is a tad schizoid; Maybe a lot of acts don’t wanna fall in the same brave path that mired down the Dixie Chicks a few years back? Make money, not waves?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. could be a big part of it. Then again, maybe (I wouldn’t bet on it but who knows) such great and relevant music is being made somewhere these days, but with the fractured world of music marketing and releases, no one knows about it.

        Liked by 1 person

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