Marvin Gaye was a superstar from 1962 until his premature death in 1984 at the age of 44. He was a member of The Moonglows, 1958-1962, but it was his career as a solo artist and the singing partner of Tammi Terrell, that would bring him his fame and fortune. He would place 56 singles on the Billboard Magazine Pop Chart, including “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” which would top the singles charts for seven weeks. His albums would sell tens of millions of copies. Rolling Stone Magazine named him the 6th Greatest Singer and 18th Greatest Artist Of All Time. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987.
The late 1960s were not a good time for Marvin Gaye. His duet partner, Tammi Terrell, was suffering from the brain cancer that would take her life during 1970. His marriage was falling apart and the country was in the midst of political and social upheaval. Looming over everything was The Vietnam War. He responded by creating one of the best and most significant albums of all time.
What’s Going On was not the type of album The Motown label was used to creating. He had to fight the label every step of the way. The music was contemporary, biting, socially relevant, and far removed from the lightweight songs the label had been issuing with good commercial results. Gaye won the argument and What’s Going On with its themes of poverty, taxes, drugs, and war would go on to sell over two million copies and produce three top ten singles. Rolling Stone Magazine would name it The Album Of The Year for 1971. They would also honor the title track as the fourth greatest song of all time.
The title song was a number two hit single and lament about what was happening in our country at the time. It was a song of despair that centered on a series of questions. It caught the psyche of the country just right and reverberated across the musical landscape. It brought him legions of new fans from various protest movements.
“Save The Children” is almost a sermon with Marvin Gaye serving as the preacher. It was a plea to keep our children safe.
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was a number four pop hit that was an early call to environmental accountability. Mercury, ground radiation, oil, and the ocean were all dealt with by a vocal so smooth that it made the message all the more relevant.
“Inner City Blues” was third Top 10 hit single, which looked at the bleakness of the inner city. It was a time of little hope for many people and Gaye’s song echoed that despair.
“What’s Happening Brother” evolved from his brother returning from Vietnam to find a far different country.
What’s Going On is one of those rare albums that spoke to a generation, and not only impacted American music but society as well. It remains Marvin Gaye’s grand statement and is essential to understanding the world and its music during the early 1970s.