Before the great success of Marvin Gaye’s song, “What’s going on?” in 1973, Mr. Gaye already had a pretty strong career as songwriter, musician, and performer. His career started as singer while he was a child at a Pentecostal church where his dad was the preacher. Later on he left the church and jointed the some doo-whop quartet called Bo Diddley. Also, Mr. Gaye was one the many artists that helps Motown Records in the early 1960’s to found and create there own distinctive sound and vibe.
In 1970 Mr. Gaye started writing the lyrics of “What’s going on”. During this time the Vietnam War was occurring, and his brother Frankie was deployed to it. Frankie sent letters to Mr. Gaye while he was at the war telling him horrifying stories of what he was seeing and living in during the war. These letters, the race riots that were occurring across the United States by the time, and even the physical abused induced by his Father when he was a child, helped Mr. Gaye to shape this song.
In 1971, Mr. Gaye approached Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Record, and presented to him with the track “What’s Going On”. Unfortunately, Mr. Gordy was not pleased with the product and told him that the song was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Mr. Gordy also added that the song was too political to be played in radio, and even the Quality Control Department at Motown Record dislike the song. At this point, Mr. Gaye decided not to record anything else for the label until the Mr. Gordy change his mind. After the intervention of Motown sales executive Barney Ales and the executive Harry Balk, the song was released to radio without Mr. Gordy’s knowledge. The song sold 100,000 copies on the release day.
“What’s Going On?” was something completely different from what Marvin Gaye and Motown Record used to bring to the table. This song had a message, message of peace, instead of hate or sex, and musically was more thoughtful music composition by using jazz, gospel, and classical in the orchestration and arrangement.
As a listener and professional, I have to say that “What’s Going On” is a perfect blend between lyrics and music. The music arrangement it’s well balanced and the song has a very meaningful message. Actually, what inspired me the most from this song is the story behind the song. Mr. Gaye didn’t gave up his believe after the negative feedback that came from Mr. Gordy.
Today, the story behind this song should be taking under consideration at any level in our careers as musicians and producers. There are going to be times where some others might not see or feel what we do.