Proving that not all protest songs are played on an acoustic and have to be sung by a folkie, Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Going On not only introduced soul music to the masses, it also introduced the world to one of the finest singers of all time.
What’s Going On lamented on what had and what was happening to the American dream whilst lyrically it pointed out urban decay, environmental issues, police brutality, unemployment, and America’s inner city poverty.
After feeling constrained and almost caged, Gaye broke free of the Motown hit machine, and finally had the chance to express himself seriously through his songwriting and music.
So it was late in 1970 when Gaye finally decided to record a song that Obie Benson from the Four Tops had brought him, “What’s Going On”. The track was initially rejected as a single with Motown owner Berry Gordy deeming it uncommercial. Such was Gaye’s insistence that it was a hit! He refused to record any more material until Gordy relented.
History now shows that Gaye was correct, and with its huge commercial success in January 1971, Gaye recorded the rest of the album over a period of ten days in March, and Motown released it in late May.
Cementing Marvin Gaye firmly as one of the greatest artists in soul and pop music, What’s Going On proved to be a huge commercial success for Motown. Arguably it became the greatest soul album of all time.
Check out this video below that was produced for the Grammy Museum. The video gives an overview of the times and issues that inspired Marvin Gaye to write “What’s Going On.”