Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On?

Hello, greetings and salutations,

In this discussion post I will feature topics regarding Marvin Gaye’s “what’s Going On” and all the obstacles that he faced throughout its release.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gay was an inventive musician, singer and songwriter, and is regarded as one of the most extraordinary, visionary, and amazing talents ever propelled by the Motown influx, despite much of the difficulties he faced in his life with loss and illness, with this project, Motown and Barry Gordy. Marvin Gaye was first signed to Motown in 1961 as a session drummer for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Simultaneously meeting Gordy’s sister Anna and married her. His solo release “Pride and Joy” landed him in the top 10. He developed a passion for romantic ballads as well as a change in style that clashed with Gordy and Motown. His artistic ambitions differed from the demands the label was incurring, creating a long running battle with him, the label and its demands for chart success.

Affected by his brothers Vietnam stories, Marvin Gaye had been on a mission to tackle social issues through his music. He was trying to change direction in his artistic visions. Working on songs and developing his musical outlet, he stumbled on “What’s going on” triggering the outlet he needed for his emotions, originally created by Obie Benson of the Four Tops, while at a protest in San Francisco in 1969.


Gaye combined vocal spirituality of his gospel roots with the expressiveness and soulfulness of the song’s jazz infused rhythms. What’s Going On was a protest song on America’s struggles and Marvin Gaye’s personal conflict. Gaye sang in reference to his unsettled relationships, of his father, but also for humanity. Marvin Gaye’s beautifully constructed What’s Going On is a song concentrating on an enigmatically distinctive, jazzy sound with profound lyrics regarding war and socio‑economic issues as well as generating the pinnacle of artistic musical expression. What’s Going On was the first of Marvin Gaye’s albums to allow him credit as the sole producer. What’s Going On was different from anything that Gaye or Motown had previously issued, inspired from the classic track of the same name that he’d recorded in 1970 and it hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971.

Berry Gordy, the Motown CEO rejected and refused to release “What’s Going On” when Gaye presented it to him with the religiously‑infused B‑side “God Is Love” simply because he didn’t like it.  While quality control gave it a negative response. Marvin Gaye reacted by refusing to record any other projects till they released it. As it was released it sold out within 24 hours having to press more to fulfill the demand. “What’s Going On” then hitting the top position on the R&B charts, shifting over two‑and‑a‑half million units, making it the fastest‑selling release in Motown’s history up until that point. What’s Going On continued on the Billboard Top 200, selling over two million copies and was named “Album Of The Year” by Rolling Stone in 2003, ranking it number 6 on the “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time”.

The success of the album allowed Gaye much more freedom and control from the previous restrictive reigns Motown had held. He was able to change directions once again with “Trouble Man”, “Let’s Get It On” and other popular projects. Marvin Gaye’s vocal techniques and innovative arrangements with session players really set him apart from other recordings Motown usually released.

After his divorce, re-marriage and other issues surmounting in his life He released in 1981 a philosophical album titled “In our lifetime” which ultimately severed his long-standing relationship with Motown. Having disputes with the final release he signed with Columbia. After a series of hardships and suicide threats, Gaye made his comeback and reconciliation with Barry Gordy doing “Sexual Healing”, celebrating Motown’s silver anniversary.

Gaye eventually moved back home to rebuild and heal. His father always had issues with his success. A day before his 45th birthday in 1984 he was shot and killed by his father Marvin Gaye Senior in an apparent heated argument. After his tragic death Motown and Columbia released two 1985 collections of erotic funk songs titled “Dream of a Lifetime” and a big band inspired collection titled “Romantically Yours” that took well over 12 years to complete and didn’t get properly released till 1996. In 1987 he was inducted in the Rock and Roll hall of Fame, forever dubbing him as a musical great. His death also brought a reassessment to “what’s Going On” deeming it to be one of the landmark albums in musical pop history.


The impression “What’s Going On” has on me as a listener, musician, and industry professional is far beyond inspiring. As Marvin once quoted, “To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return. I had myself in that frame of mind. People were confused and needed reassurance. God was offering that reassurance through his music. I was privileged to be the instrument.” Even through all the dark times he faced he persevered his visions and art that ignited his work. His passion and dedication is easily felt and noticed through his compositions. I am inspired by his strength and insight that he portrayed so deeply in his music.

Thank you for reading my thoughts on Marvin Gaye.

By Adrianna Parnagian

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