September 19 – Diana’s Supreme Challenge, Going It Alone

This seems like a day Diana Ross would like to celebrate. Fifty-two years ago today, she got to #1 in the U.S. for the first time with her second solo single, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Of course, having a #1 single wasn’t unique or unusual for Diana by then; she’d sang on 12 of them in the ’60s with the Supremes. But the 1970 hit was the first just labeled under her name alone.

The song was the second single off her self-titled “debut” after a much-publicized falling out with her girl group bandmates, largely spurred on by Motown’s Berry Gordy. Gordy sensed, perhaps correctly, that Ross was the real star of the Supremes and could be a household name on her own. To get her on her way he brought in Ashford & Simpson, at the time a pair that were among Motown’s elite writers and producers. In later years, they’d also record on their own and score a major mid-’80s hit with “Solid.

Not only did they produce the Ross album, they also wrote many of the tracks including this one. It wasn’t penned for her though; it was first recorded three years earlier by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, who took it up to #19. They had to do something a little different with it for Ross (who was trying to signify something of a new direction with her album cover, featuring a sexy looking Diana with short hair and in cutoff jeans instead of the elegant gowns and coiffed hair the Supremes had been known for) so they brought in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to add some strings, made it a bit funkier and featured spoken word bits too. As the BBC’s Matthew Horton put it, it became “a sexy anthem, whipping up the tension with two minutes of psychedelic soul before the delayed release of the chorus.” The song ran over six minutes … and neither Diana nor Berry Gordy liked the initial result.

Gordy thought the song much too long and weird, and didn’t like the spoken word bits. Eventually they all compromised and the song was shortened to about half its album length for the 7” single which radio typically played then.

No matter who’s toes might have been stepped on a bit (there was no word on what Marvin thought of “his” song being redone to greater effect) it paid off. It ended up being among the top 10 hits of ’70 and set Diana off to a pretty solid solo career through the decade. And into the next.

Another reason for Diana to like Sep. 19th, was ten years after “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” she was back on top of the American singles charts this day in 1980, with “Upside Down.” It was her fifth solo chart-topper (she’d go on to score one more with “Endless Love”, the duet with Lionel Richie) and it spent a full four weeks at #1, earning her a gold single and a platinum one in Canada, where it topped out at #5 (but sold for more weeks in a row, apparently.) It was from her Diana album, which went platinum in the States. That record was produced by the Chic duo of Nile Rodgers – who’s enjoying his 70th birthday today, by the way – and Bernard Edwards. Rodgers says “Diana was the first big star we ever worked with, so we took it very seriously.” Ross however, didn’t like their job of mixing this song, thinking it too funky and bass-heavy and had it remixed herself, bringing her voice more front and center and cutting the funk a bit. Rodgers was furious, but it seemed to pay off. Ross had a #1 song and Rodgers would soon be working with another “serious” big star – David Bowie, putting together his Let’s Dance album and helping on the Serious Moonlight tour.

September 8 – Let’s Get It On Soundtrack To Getting Clothes Off?

This day in 1973, people were taking clothes off to the sound of “Let’s Get It On.” Marvin Gaye hit #1 in the U.S. for the second time in his career with the song some, like Purple Clover, think the sexiest pop song ever.

There’s no denying the sultry appeal of the smooth music and unabashedly (for the era) straight-forwardly naughty lyrics. As Rolling Stone put it, Gaye came up with a “vintage ’50s melody” with an “arrangement (which) centers around a slightly eccentric rhythm pattern that deepens the song’s power” resulting in “a classic Motown single, endlessly repeatable (with) Marvin Gaye’s best singing at its center.” The song spent 10 weeks in Billboard‘s top 5 and ended up as the fourth biggest single of the year not to mention becoming the biggest hit for Motown Records to that point in time, selling some four million copies by 1974. As such it got Marvin his first platinum single and pushed the album of the same name up to #2 on the charts, the highest for any of his. It lives on not only on radio but in countless movies, including Jack Black’s surprisingly-true rendition in High Fidelity, and ads. The b-side wasn’t bad either: “I Wish It Would Rain”.

August 29 – The Statement Song That Made Starr A Star

Today we look at another angry anthem inspired by the Vietnam War, from 52 years ago. “War” by Edwin Starr hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1970.

The song succinctly summed up the sentiments of many then, and to this day with it’s question asked and answered, “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” The song was put out by Motown, but had a decidedly un-Motown-like vibe to it. That thanks to the writing duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who also wrote “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” As British journalist David Hutter noted, Whitfield was probably the one person in the Motown organization who wanted to change their direction (away from happy, brief pop love songs) and had both the clout and nerve to take on Berry Gordy over it.

The Temptations originally recorded the song on their Psychedelic Shack album. But not only did it not really have the edge and vitriol it really deserved, the band itself weren’t crazy about it and no one wanted to release it as a single, fearing the effect it would have on the band’s career, since they had been to that point fairly typical Motown artists building a nice career on harmonic love songs. So he recruited Starr for the job of re-recording it.

Edwin Starr was a relatively low-profile artist on their roster who’d begun his career singing doo-wop in Tennessee in the ’50s and had a minor hit or two of his own in the ’60s, as well as writing the song “Oh So Happy” for the Shades of Blue. He didn’t have a big reputation to risk, and as Robert Christgau notes, “Starr is more naturally strident than any of the Temptations.” Turns out that’s just what was called for. Whitfield brought in session rock artists to do the music and The Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”) to add background vocals and the song packed a wallop.

Typical of the era’s contrasts, it knocked Bread’s “Make it with You” off the top of the charts, and spent three weeks at #1, eventually being the fifth-biggest single of the year in the States. It also went to #1 to the north in Canada, and #3 in the UK. The song would live on as a popular rally cry for the peace movement and be resurrected later in the Cold War era. Brits Frankie Goes to Hollywood recorded a version of it for the b-side to their own anti-war hit “Two Tribes” and Bruce Springsteen began playing a version of it on his Born in the USA tour. A 1985 performance of it in L.A. was recorded and put on his multi-disc Live 1975/85; becoming a top 10 hit as a single.

August 28 – When Young ‘Thriller’ Was Just One Of Five

Fast out of the blocks – that was the career of the Jackson 5. The Gary, Indiana brothers (at the time, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and 12 year-old Michael) had a remarkable start to their career with Motown Records, and on this day in 1970 topped it off with the release of the single “I’ll Be There.” It would quickly go to #1 in the U.S., their fourth-in-a-row, the first group to do that with their first four major label singles. It was also the fourth chart-topper of 1970 for them, making them perhaps the State’s top act that year. It followed “I Want You Back”, “ABC” and “The Love You Save”.

The Jacksons had been singing together around the Gary end of Chicago for about five years and had put out a couple of indie singles in Gary in 1968, which did well locally. Eventually that grabbed Berry Gordy’s attention and he signed them to Motown. And put them to work! Besides all sorts of media appearances, “I’ll Be There” was the lead single off the appropriately-named Third Album, which was album number three from them in the space of nine months. That would go on to be the biggest non-compilation album of their career (as a group, although needless to say Michael bested that on his own later) topping six million copies.

They recorded it in L.A., and although they were apparently capable of playing instruments – Jermaine on bass, Marlon on percussion and Michael on both piano and guitars for example – a range of California studio musicians actually played the music for this one, including guitarist David Walker and Ron Brown on bass. The song was written by a quartet, including the producer, Hal Davis, and Berry Gordy himself. But it was the lead vocals, shared by Jermaine and Michael that stole the show. As allmusic would recall, “rarely if ever had one so young sung with so much authority and grace.”

The love song seemed more mature than their previous hits and won over some new fans. It spent five weeks at #1, the longest for any of their singles, and was among the year’s top 10 hits at home. In Britain it hit #4 (and recharted onto the top 50 in 2009 upon Michael’s death) and in Canada, it made #10. By the time it cooled down, it had sold over four million copies in the U.S., the most for any Motown single until Lionel Richie and Diana Ross combined on “Endless Love” in 1981.

However, it was the acme of the 5’s career. They’d never again score a #1 hit together (although they did reach #2 three times) and the marketing people seemed to realize the real star of the show was the young Michael. He began putting out solo records the following year and garnered the Jackson family their next #1 single in 1972, with “Ben.” And yes, he had a few more after that – a dozen more to be precise.

August 3 – People Began To Wonder How Much Better Stevie Could Get

He was, and remains, a wonder. The great Stevie Wonder put out his highly-regarded Innervisions album this day in 1973. Stevie was by that time an almost-household name and a ten year veteran of the music scene despite only being 23. It was his fifth studio album of the decade, and he’d added a couple of live ones as well. and that was on top of his extensive recording as a teen “wonder” in the ’60s!

The child protege of the ’60s had turned into a fully accomplished musician and this album continued to prove it. He wrote all the songs, co-produced it and played the vast majority of instruments on it, from piano to synthesizers (it was the first hit album to use an ARP brand synth), to tambourines and even drums! And what songs he wrote!

The album was about half and half between solid love songs and very socially-aware rants. As Rolling Stone put it, “Stevie Wonder may be blind but he reads the national landscape.” For every beautiful “Golden Lady” or “Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing” there was a scathing “Too High” or “Living for the City,” or “Mistra Know-it-all” a thinly veiled barb aimed at then-president Nixon.

The album did well for Wonder. The great singles “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City” each topped R&B charts, his eighth and ninth toppers there. Overall, they reached #4 and #8 respectively in the U.S. and both were in the Canadian top 20, while the third single “Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing” made it three-straight top 20s in North America. “Living for the City” got to #15 in Britain, which had been lukewarm to Stevie to that point. the album itself hit #4 in the U.S. and was his first top 10 in the UK.

Critics liked it then, love it now. It won him his first Album of the Year Grammy (he’d win two more in the next three years) . The album seems to have grown in import though through the years, with Slant, Music Hound and allmusic each grading it a perfect 5-stars. Allmusic say of it “when Stevie applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early-’70s, he produced one of the greatest, most important works (of the era).” Rolling Stone seem to agree, ranking it among the 30 greatest albums of all-time, saying he was “expressing color in irresistible funk”. VH1 ranked it among their greatest albums ever, noting in a 2001 summary that seems even more apt today, “Wonder seems to be warning the Black community to be aware of their own plight, strive for improvement.”

Innervisions came uncomfortably close to being Wonder’s swan song. Only three days after it was released, he was the passenger in a major car crash that left him in a coma for days and without a sense of smell for a long time. thankfully he recovered and amazingly, put out his next album less than a year later. Michael Sembello, who sometimes played guitar with Stevie said “he’d always had some awareness of the spiritual side of life. but after the accident (it) made him recognize God…he got really intense.” And by the grace of God, for awhile his music seemed to get even better with that intensity. A “wonder” in many senses.

July 16 – Mr. Motown Robinson’s Last Miracle-ous Concert

It was the end of an era 50 years ago today. That night in 1972 was when Smokey Robinson left the Miracles, with them doing their last regular concert together after being together for about 17 years. It was doubtless an emotional time for them…and for Motown Records, because in many ways, Smokey Robinson had “made” Motown.

The Miracles had formed as a more or less equal partnership of five teenage friends at Detroit’s Northern High School back in 1955. Back then they were known as the Five Chimes. After a few lineup changes, including adding member Bobby Rogers sister, Claudette, they’d become The Miracles.

Motown’s Berry Gordy saw them at a record tryout in 1957 and was impressed. Only back then he wasn’t yet “Motown’s Berry Gordy”. He was just an eager, energetic music fan with dreams. He particularly liked Robinson’s voice and was impressed by a notebook Smokey showed him full of songs he’d written. They formed a partnership of sorts, and Gordy paid for them to record a single. It went largely unnoticed, and they had trouble getting it released, so Robinson suggested Berry form his own record company…which he did, of course. Motown, and its companion brand, Tamla Records.

The Miracles had Motown’s first single, “Bad Girl”, but since the company was just a fledgling unknown outside of Detroit at the time, they had to get Chess Records to distribute it. It didn’t do much. But fast forward just a couple of years and lots was happening.

Smokey had married Claudette, and the group hit it big with “Shop Around,” a song written largely by Robinson. It got to #2 in the U.S. and earned Motown its first gold record. Detroit was on the map for something besides automobiles.

The ’60s were good to the Miracles, and to Motown. The group would grab 11 more top 20 hits in the decade, including “I Second That Emotion”, which topped the R&B charts. And unlike the majority of the Motown stars, The Miracles – primarily Smokey – wrote most of their own hits. They even wrote for some of the label’s other stars, including hits for The Temptations (“My Girl”) , Mary Wells (“My Guy”) and Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar.”) By the middle of the decade, it’s reported they were being paid over $100 000 a night for concerts…a huge amount at the time. No wonder Berry Gordy loved them, particularly Robinson.

In 1964, he named Smokey Vice President of Motown; around the same time Gordy changed the act’s name to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Also then, Claudette quit touring with the Miracles due to the stress it was putting on her which had probably been responsible for some miscarriages she’d gone through. She did continue to add backing vocals to the records though, until her husband left the group.

Which he wanted to do by 1969. He was getting tired of it, wanted to settle down with the family and devote more time to the office work at Motown. But he was talked out of it, partly because in 1970 ABC gave them a prime-time TV special and they had their first-ever #1 hit on Billboard“The Tears of A Clown”, which also went to #1 in the UK.

However, about a year later, he’d really had enough so they arranged a farewell tour for early 1972. It was a six month tour Pete Moore of the Miracles remembers as “it was amazing.” They played largely sold out shows, wrapping it up in Washington DC at the 4200-seat Carter Barron Ampitheater.

For this one, Claudette returned to the stage with them and they rolled through many of their own hits plus covers of  Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” and label-mate Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be there.” Near the end of the show, Smokey brought out Baltimore singer Billy Griffin and introduced him as the replacement singer. Much of the concert was released on CD as part of the Miracles Live Collection.

From there they went their separate ways. The Miracles, with Griffin, continued on for much of the decade, even scoring one #1 hit in 1975 with “Love Machine.” Smokey settled in, briefly, at Motown’s new offices in L.A. But he soon found that boring. He says of playing live it’s “probably my favorite part of this. Because I get a chance to be with the fans and react to them, have them react to us.” So by 1973, he was recording a solo album. He kept busy recording but didn’t really fit the times, it seemed until 1979 when he got to the top 10 with “Cruisin’”; in ’81 he’d do even better with “Being With You” a lovely ballad that went gold and to #1 in the UK and New Zealand and #2 at home.

The Miracles got back together, Smokey included, for a one-off in 1983, when they took part in the Motown 25 TV show, the one which famously introduced Michael Jackson’s “moon walk” to the masses.

Smokey Robinson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their second group of inductees, in 1987. That wasn’t without some controversy because it ignored The Miracles, where he’d made his name and had some of his best-loved, most successful works. Pete Moore of the Miracles said “it was a slap in the face. Very disappointing. We are the premier group of Motown. We were there before there was a Motown!” That was corrected in 2012, when The Miracles as a group were inducted, after extensive lobbying from Robinson and others.

May 19 – When Stevie Really Began To Shine

Some cute child prodigies seem to enter the stage with a flourish then disappear before puberty sets in. Once in awhile though, they just keep getting better and making more of a mark for themselves. Such was the case for Stevie Wonder, as we were reminded this day in 1973. That was when he scored his second #1 song of the year, and third overall, with “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life.” It was the second single off his Talking Book album, 15th (besides compilations) of his career…even though he was just 22 when it came out!

Talking Book was considered by many the beginning of the run of truly great albums he made through the ’70s. Not that his earlier work was chopped liver; he’d already delivered such memorable hits as “For Once In My Life” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” But little by little he’d been getting better, and taking more control over his music. While most of his early songs were written by others, some covers of well-known hits, others written specifically for him by Motown staff, by Talking Book he was the main writer of all the songs. Not to mention that his expertise on the keyboards kept increasing, and his range of instruments expanding. On this hit, he played the electric piano and drums, he added a range of synthesizers and the clavinet (best heard on his other single from the record, “Superstition”) to the mix. Loni Groves and Gloria Barley add background vocals on this, with Jim Gilstrap singing the first two lines. The reasoning for that was seemingly known only to Wonder, but it worked!

At under three minutes it was the shortest song on the album (the album and single are the same length but the single had the tasteful horns added in) and also the first one recorded. It was recorded in one night at the Electric Lady Studios in New York City during the sessions for his previous album, but he decided to hold it back. Undeniably a happy little love song, one is left to surmise what his inspiration was. He’s said “the feeling of the melody is happy because I wrote in when I was in New York in late spring, early summer. Good things were happening!” Which is nice to hear, albeit suprising as that was right around the time Wonder was divorcing his first wife, fellow Motown singer Syreeta Wright.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is one of those ’70s songs that seems to raise spirits right away. Rolling Stone would call it a “pop tour de force” while Billboard predicted it would be a hit, noting its “outstanding production.” Years later, the former would rank it among the 200 best songs of all-time.

It didn’t let anybody down commercially, being the hit predicted. It got to #1 in the U.S. by knocking Tony Orlando’s massive “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” out of the top spot. It was a top 10 in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few other lands and won Stevie one of four Grammys he’d collect in 1974, it winning Best Pop Performance by a Male. Amazingly though, most agree his best work was still to come, later in the decade, proving again that Stevie lives up to his last name.

April 25 – What It Took For Junior To Score A Major Hit

A major hit from Junior made its blew onto the scene this day in 1969. That was Junior Walker & the All Stars sax-happy “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)?”. The single represented quite a comeback for Junior, who’d scored a major hit five years prior with “Shotgun”, a song which has lived on to this day in numerous commercials and movies. It solidified Walker’s reputation as one of the best sax-men in the business and helped usher in the widespread use of horns in pop or rock songs.

Junior” was born Autry Mixon, in rural Arkansas in 1931. He seemed to get to music rather late in life, at least in a professional way, forming a band called the Jumping Jerks around the beginning of the ’60s. At some point, a fan jumped on stage with them and declared “these guys are all stars!” Junior agreed and decided that would be a better name for the group. Apparently Berry Gordy agreed as well; soon after the Motown mogul signed them to Soul Records, a subsidiary of Motown. Walker’s prominent tenor sax differentiated them from most of the other Motown acts of the day, and made them (in the words of Britain’s Independent) “Motown’s answer to Stax’s Booker T & the MGs.” They had good success off the bat with “Shotgun” and were a major presence on R&B radio stations and charts in subsequent years but had only minor mainstream success until this.

The song was written by Motown staffers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, who also produced the record. It would have been a mere “hurtin’ unrequited love song” were it not for Junior’s impassioned pleading voice – he was one of the rare sax players who also sang lead – and of course, the sax that could rival the best horns Chicago or Blood, Sweat and Tears could have thrown at you in the day. It’s 35-second sax solo intro was like nothing else on air at the time. Which perhaps was why Gordy balked at releasing it as a single.

However, radio DJs found it buried on the Home Cookin’ LP and began playing it, and eventually Motown relented and put it out as a single. A smart move, as it would revitalize the All Stars career and become a gold seller. It got to #4 in the States, topping R&B charts, and made the top 20 in the UK and Canada as well. It was nominated for the very first Best R&B Performance Grammy Award, losing out to the less-remembered King Curtis.

Clarence Clemons later said this was one of the most influential records to him and his playing, and it also found fans in the guys in Foreigner. They liked his playing so much, they wrote a sax part specifically for him on their song “Urgent.” Meanwhile, also in the the ’80s, easy-listening sensation Kenny G re-recorded it and made it a minor hit.

Walker never had as big a hit again, and passed away in 1995 from cancer.

April 23 – Chart Topper One For Four Tops

The Four Tops were heading to the top on this day in 1965 with the release of one of Motown’s biggest, and best singles – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.)” It would go on to be their first #1 single and one of the defining ones of the whole Motown sound of the ’60s.

The quartet had “paid their dues” as they say, having been around for over a decade at that point, and having put out their first single way back in 1956 on Chess Records. They signed to Motown in ’63 and had decent success with “Baby I Need Your Loving” on their first album, with it getting to #11 in the U.S. and making their name known among the growing roster of stars on the Detroit-based label.

Like most of that company’s hits in the first half of the decade, “I Can’t Help Myself” was written by the great trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, with Lamont Dozier seemingly the chief creator of this one. He admitted the melody was similar to the one in the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go?”, and when someone had pointed it out to him when tooling around with the new song, he answered “I can’t help myself” – from writing the same tune over again basically. He liked the way the phrase sounded and worked it in, as well as the parenthethetical one, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.” That one dates back to his childhood.

I stayed with my grandmother when I was a kid. She owned a home beauty shop, and when the women would come up the walkway to get their hair done, my grandfather…was a bit of a flirt (and he) would say ‘How you doin’, sugar pie?’ ‘Good morning, honey bunch’…just flirting with a big smile.”

They recorded it with the Funk Brothers – an unfortunately rather anonymous set of Detroit studio musicians including great bassist James Jamerson – playing the music and Levi Stubbs of the group singing lead…against his wishes. He apparently hated the song, thinking it too lightweight and “sugar”y.

He was in the minority though. At the time Billboard called it a “spirited, fast-paced wailer performed in their unique style”; years later allmusic would simply classify it as “magnificent.” The public agreed, with it spending two weeks on top of the charts that summer and nine weeks at #1 on the R&B one. It also became their first top 40 in the UK, where it eventually was certified gold. And like it or not, 20 years later it was a highlight of their set at Live Aid. At that time, Stubbs seemingly couldn’t help himself from enjoying the moment.

April 2 – Marvin Moved Motown Toward Music That Mattered

Today we mark the 83rd anniversary of the birth of one of the 20th Century’s most important and celebrated musicians – Marvin Gaye. Born this day in 1939 in Washington DC and tragically killed by his own father a day shy of his 45th birthday in L.A., he crammed a lot of great Detroit music in the time he had. According to Casey Kasem, Gaye was the most successful solo artist of “the Beatles years”, a time when groups reigned supreme. And yet, his best work was still to come at that point. We’ve looked at his life before, so today we’ll look a bit at why he’s so revered. After all, he’s one of very few artists to be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

While Gaye ran off an impressive list of hit singles in the ’60s, like “How Sweet It Is” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, as well as duets with Tammi Terrell like “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, there wasn’t yet much to distinguish him from other popular Motown artists of the day, or many of the other pop singers on other labels for that matter. He had a great voice, but basically just sang what his record company bosses told him to. However, around the end of the decade, that began to change. Ironically, he’d written some hit singles, like Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets”, but not recorded them himself.

Maybe it was letters from his brother serving in Vietnam. Maybe it was seeing footage of the race riots going on, many near his record company’s front doors. Maybe it was seeing the growing level of poverty in Detroit, or reading of one young performer after another dying from heroin. Whatever it was, he had an epiphany. “In 1969 or ’70, I began to re-evaluate what I wanted to say,” he told Rolling Stone. “I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people.” So he set out to do that, and along the way probably came to realize that he needed more control over other aspects of the music. He was a professional drummer before joining Motown, and a competent enough keyboardist too, and he’d spent enough time in a recording studio to know how things worked. He began to play some of the music himself, produce the records himself and when he used other musicians, he was going to give credit to the session players and name them on his record notes.

None of this pleased his record company or its owner, Berry Gordy. As Rolling Stone put it, “the last thing Motown wanted its fans to do was think about what was happening in the world.” Motown had struck a gold mine in the ’60s with happy-sounding, easy-breezy love songs that made acts like the Supremes and Four Tops superstars. He didn’t want to rock the boat, even if he had to close his own offices and studio a time or two because the rioting on the streets outside made it too dangerous to get there. But Gaye persevered and recorded What’s Going On?, his 1971 masterpiece – which his boss hated. As the Songwriters Hall point out, with that album not only did he begin to take total control over his recordings but “he took on political and social issues like the Vietnam War, drugs, equality and the environment, while incorporating jazz, pop and classical styles.” It was as big a change from what he’d done before as The Beatles Abbey Road was from “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Not only did Gordy hate it, he wouldn’t allow the title track, nor “Mercy Mercy Me” to be put out as singles until Marvin threatened to go on strike and not record or tour again for the label unless they were. Of course, he was proven right. The song “What’s Going On?” became Motown’s biggest hit single to that point and the album sold millions. What’s more, it’s still critically-acclaimed, being named the greatest album of all-time by Rolling Stone recently (previous versions of their list had it ranked at #6) and by The Guardian in Britain back in 1997.

The Temptations had a similar problem getting there opus “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” released the following year, but Berry had seemingly learned to not argue against records his artists felt strongly about, even when he disagreed. And soon after, Stevie Wonder came into his own, taking a similar trajectory to Gaye, soon writing, playing and producing most all of his own records in the ’70s, many of them making pointed social commentaries on many of the same issues Gaye had. Some – and I would put us here as among those “some” – would say Wonder even did it better than Marvin… but it’s reasonable to wonder if he’d have had a chance to were it not for Gaye mapping the trail first.

Gaye of course kept recording after What’s Going On? with mixed results, producing some very good and popular and some not so well-received records and seemed to be just beginning a career rejuvenation when he was murdered. But if we remember him for just one thing, it would be that record… and his letting other artists know, by his example, to be their own men (and women) and if they were being forced to make music they didn’t feel, ask themselves “what’s going on?” 

*Tomorrow, I’m happy to be kicking off a new feature we hope to run periodically through the year. In addition to regular posts , we’ll be running a guest column each day for four or five, with great music fans talking about one topic . I hope you’ll like it and see one topic through various eyes – and ears.*