January 20 – Marvin Was The Main Man At Motown

Marvin Gaye proved that just being the boss doesn’t automatically make you right on this day in 1971. That was when he released – much to the consternation of Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr.’s consternation – the great single “What’s Going On?” A few months later, he’d release the highly-successful album of the same name.

Gordy didn’t like the song, and especially didn’t like Gaye doing it. Which, coincidentally it wasn’t really supposed to be at first. The song was brought to life by Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops, when he saw police violently quell an anti-war demonstration in California. He asked his bandmates and friends “what’s going on?” and pondering the validity of the Vietnam War as well as the response to protest. He and Motown staff writer Al Cleveland wrote the song…more or less. Benson wanted his band to record it, but the other Tops would have no part of it, telling him they didn’t do “protest songs.” He argued “no man, it’s a love song about love and understanding.” Presumably it’s rather a  “glass half empty, glass half full” sort of situation – are lyrics like “war is not the answer” and “we’ve got to find a way to get some love in here today” protesting the world around them or optimistic statements? Benson thought the latter, but they didn’t buy in, so in turn he offered it to Marvin. Gaye rewrote some lyrics and changed the pacing a little. In his words, “we measured him for the suit, then he tailored the hell out of it!”

Indeed he did. As the Detroit Free Press noted, he was by then tired of singing love songs, and the “death of singing partner Tammi Terrell had shaken him up, letters from his brother in Vietnam concerned him.” He had an idea of a very easy-sounding song that would have dramatic punch. He got that recording in Detroit, with some of the regular “Funk Brothers” musicians like guitarist Robert White and bassist James Jamerson as well as a few of his own musician friends. Then he even invited a couple of Detroit Lions football players and some rank-and-file Motown staff into the studio to sing some backing vocals and chat (the talking in the background that makes the song so unusual sounding) and doubtless partake of a little of the ganja that Gaye had in good supply to help keep things “mellow.”

Gordy didn’t like the idea of Gaye doing a protest song, but when he heard the finished product… he disliked it even more. He called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Initially he refused to release it, let alone as a lead-off single from a forthcoming album. However, Gaye stood his ground and more or less threatened to go on strike against Motown until it came out. The label owner decided discretion was the better part of valour as next to Diana Ross, Gaye was probably his biggest single star at that time. The rest is history.

The single sold better than 200 000 copies in its first week, and by year’s-end had become Motown’s biggest-selling single at that point. It got to #2 in the U.S. (he’d had a #1 before with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” but this one outsold that) and was his seventh #1 R&B hit. It’s popularity then did seem restricted to the Red, White and Blue however; it failed to crack the top 60 in the UK, Canada or Australia. (As an aside, that is an odd statistic because a check of that singles chart for Toronto, Canada’s biggest market, showed it made it to #10 there in May.) However, through the years it became acclaimed internationally.

Rolling Stone have consistently listed it among the top 10 greatest songs of all-time, ranking it #6 in their most recent stab at that list. VH1 considered it the 14th greatest song ever, and in Motown itself, the Free Press readers voted it as the second “greatest Detroit song of all-time”, behind only Aretha’s “Respect.” They label the song “timeless and timely”and praise Gaye who “wasn’t shoving anything into listeners faces (but) he was leading them by the hand.”

Most reports suggest Berry Gordy never did warm up much to the record. But we bet he did warm to the influx of money to his company’s coffers from it.

14 thoughts on “January 20 – Marvin Was The Main Man At Motown

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    I wonder if the Four Tops regretted that one? It would have probably not have been as soulful if they would have done it. It would have been totally different. Gordy didn’t like to rock the boat…unless Ross was up front lol.

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    1. Indeed. Off the top of my head I’d say it’s my favorite Marvin Gaye track. Berry would soon show his misjudgment again by hating ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’. Oddly, but happily, he did seem to give free rein to Stevie Wonder.

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  2. Odd, over here it was a hit from release and has never gone away; its still heard here regularly on radio, and , as has been mentioned before, at the Gas’n’Go, the Supermarket etc. Berry was worried about upsetting people for nothing!

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    1. I would have liked to have seen his reaction when it was certified as being the biggest hit to date for his company! It does seem odd to me too that it charted so low in Canada and the British empire… I remember hearing it quite a lot as a kid and I waded through the year’s Toronto charts and found it had a long run and got to #10…spent about six or seven weeks between #10-15. Not a smash but a pretty popular song for one that supposedly only made it to something like #76 in the country.

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    1. Perhaps so… they seemed to be all but irrelevant by the time disco took over, and logically (if you listen to a lot of those Supremes hits or things like ‘My Girl’) you might have expected them to lead the charge with it. Stevie Wonder was the only one who really seemed to do very well in the 70s, and he of course embraced synthesizers and all sorts of new tech. thanks for commenting!

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      1. commercially there sure is, but soundwise… I mean, they are different but mid-60s Motown was mostly upbeat, danceable little tracks with kind of fluffy lyrics which was basically also what disco was. But Motown didn’t make the jump. I think also that maybe when they moved out to LA they lost something… the detroit vibe and surroundings were important to their biggest successes.

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