If Barry Gordy Jr. had his way back in 1971, Marvin Gaye would have never recorded the album “What’s Going On”.
When the founder of Motown Records in Detroit first heard the title song Marvin Gaye had recorded for his next album, he was confident it would be a failure and refused to release it. Barry Gordy believed in the upbeat tempo and feel of the songs that had been the formula to Motown’s success. That was the record he wanted from Marvin Gaye. What Gaye delivered instead was a mid-tempo, multilayered song that made a sociopolitical statement against war, poverty, and brutality.
Barry Gordy felt “What’s Going On” would never sell and that it would be the ruin of Marvin Gaye’s career if it was ever released. Equal in his passion for the song, Marvin Gaye took a stand, refusing to write or record even one more note for Motown if the song wasn’t released. Barry still refused. It was his record company after all, and he had the final say.
But the song was released anyway.
Circumventing Barry Gordy, the VP of sales at Motown records decided to go behind his back and have the record pressed and released, sending some advance copies out to radio stations. It’s the kind of thing that will get you fired – unless you know you’re right. The song got heavy airplay across the country and when it came out “What’s Going On” became the fastest selling single in Motown’s history. Marvin Gaye was given the green light to make his album and make it his way.
“What’s Going On” didn’t ruin Marvin Gaye’s career, it defined it. It was his masterpiece. Like its title track, the album makes a strong statement. The soulful and beautifully layered songs lament against war, poverty, drug abuse, injustice, hate, and destruction of the environment. In contrast to the music, the lyrics to the songs don’t always paint a pretty picture, but they always make you think. This is an album that begs you to step back and take a look at the world around you; to take a good close look at “What’s Going On”.