Marvin Gaye smiling in the rain

5 Unbelievable Facts About Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"

Written by: Ivan Sheehan

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Released in the Spring of 1971, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On was a transformative recording for Gaye and his Motown label. The nearly operatic concept album mused deeply on such issues as Vietnam, drugs, the decline of northern cities, the economy and the environment, all over a free-flowing musical backdrop that drew on jazz, pop and classical forms. Gaye referred to the album as a “gift from God,” and the album’s spiritual dimension found overt expression in his liner notes: “We’ve got to find the Lord. Allow him to influence us. I mean, what other weapons have we to fight the forces of hatred and evil?” With his inimitable voice, he provided nuanced perspective that immediately resonated with audiences – and has so for generations. 

"My phone would ring, and it’s Motown wanting me to start working and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?’ The murders at Kent State made me sick," explained Marvin Gaye. "I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me. Neither did instant-message songs.”

An album of many firsts and a lasting legacy, here are five unbelievable facts about Marvin Gaye's What's Going On.

The Album Almost Never Happened

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Marvin Gaye took heat from Berry Gordy and Motown about the album's context and fought the Detroit recording impresario to release the record. "From Jump Street, Motown fought What’s Going On," recalled Gaye. "They didn’t like it, didn’t’ understand it, and didn’t trust it. Management said the songs were too long, too formless, and would get lost on a public looking for easy three-minute stories. For months they wouldn’t release it. My attitude had to be firm: ‘Put it out or I’ll never record for you again!’”

The album What's Going On began life at Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. studios, where recording of the monumental title track started in June 1970. However, when Gaye brought the recording to share with Barry Gordy Jr. in Los Angeles (where the Motown boss had relocated), it was not met with praise. In fact, Gordy hated it.

Gaye went on hiatus in response, but execs at Motown were able to get the single released, and it quickly became among Motown's fastest-selling single releases, hitting Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100. Shortly after – with Gordy's blessing – Gaye returned to Hitsville to record the album he wanted to make, which he did from March 1 to March 10.  The album's original mix was recorded in Detroit at Hitsville, Golden World and United Sound Studios, while a new mix of the album was engineered at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood.

A Masterpiece in 10 Days

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The album What's Going On began life at Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. studios, where recording of the monumental title track started in June 1970. However, when Gaye brought the recording to share with Barry Gordy Jr. in Los Angeles (where the Motown boss had relocated), it was not met with praise. In fact, Gordy hated it.

Gaye went on hiatus in response, but execs at Motown were able to get the single released, and it quickly became among Motown's fastest-selling single releases, hitting Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100. Shortly after – with Gordy's blessing – Gaye returned to Hitsville to record the album he wanted to make, which he did from March 1 to March 10.  The album's original mix was recorded in Detroit at Hitsville, Golden World and United Sound Studios, while a new mix of the album was engineered at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood.

Emotions on the Sleeve

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Marvin Gaye's lyrical outpouring was the foundation for What's Going On's emotional gravitas. It was also a source of consternation among executives at Motown. In the end, however, Gaye's prerogative prevailed, as evidenced by not only the album's release, but also more emphatically as the first-ever Motown album to have all the songs' lyrics printed on the inner sleeve.

Performers Finally Get the Credit They Deserve

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What's Going On was the first Motown record to include credits for all the musicians who performed on an album. As a result, the likes of such Funk Brothers as Hall of Fame Inductee James Jamerson, bassist Bob Babbitt, and guitarist Joe Messina – along with more than 40 other conductors, singers, saxophonists, pianists, percussionists, guitarists, violinists and more – were starting to come out of the shadows with the album's May 1971 release. Gaye also included some more personal shout outs, including: "… and thanks to Lem Barney and Mel Farr for singing background on 'What's Going On.' Right on brothers!"

What's Going On and the Grammy Awards

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Despite thinking the album would be a flop, What's Going On became Gaye's first album to reach the Billboard Top LPs Top 10, peaking at Number Six, and staying on the chart for nearly a year, ultimately selling more than two million copies. Rolling Stone magazine named it "album of the year," and critics from BillboardThe Village Voice and The New York Times all gave it high praise for its ability to deliver on its ambition. Still, it did not receive a single Grammy nomination. Marvin Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, its second year of existence.