Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Sharon Davis' Motown Tracking column (MAY)

Sharon Davis' Motown Tracking - The Marvin Gaye 40 Anni column (May 2011)
Sharon Davis' Motown Tracking - The Marvin Gaye 40 Anni column (May 2011) Marvin Gaye - What's Going On Marvin Gaye - What's Going On Marvin Gaye Sharon Davis and Marvin Gaye Marvin Gaye -1963 Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (Vinyl) Side 1 Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (Vinyl) Side 2 Marvin Gaye

As this month is extra special, my words will take on a different slant as we journey back in time. So, without further preamble, let’s TCB …

In May 1971 an album that was destined to change the face of black music was released. It later changed world music as artists became more courageous at venting their concern about political and environmental issues. In other words, the artist became preacher. Yes, it was forty years ago that Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On was released... And this is its story.

While Marvin lived in exile in Detroit, Berry Gordy was based in Los Angeles overseeing the film career of Diana Ross. This fact angered the singer who felt he was being overlooked by Motown’s boss and leader. Eventually, Marvin would also relocate to the city but for the meanwhile he preferred to while his life away doing nothing much, smoking marijuana and staying out of the public eye. He was, of course, also deeply pained by the recent death of his much loved singing partner, Tammi Terrell. Without doubt, part of him died with her, and there was no consolation for the way he felt. His appearance then suffered; the look of the successful and wealthy singer was exchanged for shapeless track suits, trainers - and a beard. Marvin said this time alone was actually the start of a new life for him, and one that he was content with, yet it took him further away from reality and his commitments. For a start, he was behind in delivering an album for Motown, and in typical Gaye fashion, the more the company urged him to get a move on, the more he refused to co-operate. “I was terribly disillusioned with a lot of things in life and in life in general” he later said. “I decided to take time out to try to do something about it.”

As he fell foul to his demons, Gaye’s fellow artist Stevie Wonder was travelling down a road of creative frustration. Tired of the pop songs he was forced to record/write without regard to his growing talent, he – like Marvin – had reached a musical crossroad, unsure of future steps. Both artists would take major strides within months of each other - Stevie with Music Of My Mind and…… this is about What’s Going On so let’s stay focused Davis!

Eventually Marvin eased himself back into music, thanks to two influential figures. His brother Frankie and writer/producer Al Cleveland. Al knew that Marvin needed motivation so had given him a tape of a song he’d penned with Four Tops’ member Obie Benson titled What’s Going On. Frankie, on the other hand, had recently returned from active service in Vietnam and had spent hours telling his elder brother about the horrors of that war, stunning him to his very core. Marvin believed someone had to stand up and condemn these man-made atrocities, and he felt an urgency to tell the story. “It caused me to think about society, and something happened with me during that period, and I felt the strong urge to write music, and write lyrics that would touch the souls of men and that way thought I perhaps could help” Marvin explained. Having lived with the rough tape of the song for a while, he felt it could have been an ideal vehicle for The Originals (with whom he’d previously worked) as they were desperate for good material. Then, thankfully, Marvin changed his mind, and with producer David Van De Pitte, started to develop the song and an album around it, saying – “I wanted to write an album that could be translated into any language, that would hold its meaning, and not be particularly an ethnic statement that other people and nations couldn’t get into….It took a little time to think about that philosophically because I ….wanted to write stinging things to music that would make people say ‘he’s after us’ and incense them also.”

What’s Going On was Gaye’s first self-produced album although, in the end, none of the tracks were written by him unaided. And for the first time in his career, the forty or so participating musicians and the song lyrics were listed on the album packaging. A reluctant move on Marvin’s part because he believed the public would think he was incapable of working alone which, to a certain extent, was probably true. The packaging was another ‘first’ – Marvin personally wrote the sleeve notes which began with a little ridiculing – “After several days of reflection and pondering and general thought (which is very unusual), I still can’t think of any non-complimentary things to write about myself.” Also, the front album sleeve was startling when compared to his tacky previous ones. It showed Marvin standing in the pouring rain, in a rather reflective pose, staring into space, wearing a wide-collared raincoat over a dark suit, yellow shirt and kipper tie.

So what of the music? Well, there was a marked change in Marvin’s vocals for a start. Gone was the past rasping, guttural, almost sweaty voice, synonymous with his hit singles. In its place he adopted a velvety, relaxed delivery, inspired by listening to the moody music of horn player Lester Young, as he ploughed one vocal on top of the other, ensuring every pure dimension of his range was used to full effect. The album’s opening minutes really set the pace, laying the foundation of the thematic tunes, where, on the one hand, Marvin begged for peace, and on the other, cried to his parents and his brother for help. It was music from the soul for the soul; a work dictated by human conscience. The tracks were alarmingly accurate and heartbreakingly haunting. On What’s Happening Brother, Gaye spoke with his brother’s voice returning home from Vietnam, while his own reliance on drugs was well documented in Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky), admitting the stupidity of his habit yet enjoying the effects. Save The Children, possibly the hardest hitting track, echoed the thoughts of millions that if the world was to continue, children should be a protected species. Two songs – God Is Love and Wholy Holy were what he called his ‘hymns’, where he begged for family harmony and pledged his trust to God in the former, and praised the Lord’s work and rulings in the latter. After touching on the destruction of Mother Nature in []Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology), Marvin attempted to minimise the social gap between the wealthy and the poor in Right On. Then with Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) he exemplified his anger at the sheer brutality of modern day life, and his hatred of the US tax system (a possible first inkling here of his future financial problems).

On the actual What’s Going On track he used The Miracles’ Bobby Rogers, the Detroit Lions Lem Barney and Mel Farrer as backing singers, but when Motown’s A&R folks heard it they wanted professional singers to replace them. Marvin refused, insisting he preferred the informality of the relaxed atmosphere. And this wasn’t the only thing Motown objected to - the whole album was rejected out of hand, and considered unsuitable for release. No-one saw any commercial value to it because the music was alien to anything the company had handled before. Naturally Marvin quickly retaliated, telling Berry Gordy – “if you don’t issue it I’ll never do another album for you.” So, Motown decided to quietly release the single of What’s Going On early in 1971, and when it bombed, their point would be proven.. However, quite the reverse happened. The title blew wide open! Within twenty-four hours record shops had re-ordered huge amounts of the disc, and within a week in excess of 70,000 copies were sold, making it the company’s fastest selling single. It was a number one R&B single for five weeks and peaked at two in the mainstream listing. Marvin, however, remained nonplussed over the success, saying it only proved what he’d been trying to say for years that, given the chance, he was capable of writing and producing without any guidance from Motown. Over here, the title struggled to make the top one hundred. Motown/UK had hoped the song would sell on Marvin’s name because his ‘conveyor belt’ music and duets had been lapped up by the record buying public: sadly it wasn’t the case. And the same fate befell the album which followed in May 1971. Yet it soared to number six in the US mainstream chart.

What’s Going On and Stevie’s Music Of My Mind pushed Motown into the seventies in a way that Berry Gordy could never have envisaged. The music was alarmingly diverse from the rapidly stagnating late sixties when, some believed, the company rested on its laurels. So, with these two heavyweight albums to its credit, Motown had little option but to move with the times. “The seventies were rough for Berry Gordy because the artists’ time had arrived” Marvin once said. “The old days when the producer ran the show was over. People like me, Stevie and Diana knew that. “

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) was the second single in June 1971; Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) followed three months later. Both earned gold discs, topped the R&B charts, reached numbers four and nine respectively in the pop listings, and together sold four million copies. Neither charted over here, although Save The Children which followed What’s Going On in November 1971 struggled into the top fifty.

Marvin was alarmed when the full implications of the project were told to him in reviews, and by journalists and fans. His work had touched millions, something he failed to grasp at the outset, and now some people saw him as a preacher, a saviour, while others believed he was a conservationist or, more startling, a demi-god. As was his nature, the singer was modest in his response – “I’m only human and when you get lots of pats on the back for something, it makes you go on these ego trips. I was only the instrument in the album. All the inspiration came from God Himself. It’s true the album is social commentary but there’s nothing extreme on it. I did it, not to help humanity but to help me as well, and I think it has. It’s given me a certain amount of peace of mind.”

Happy 40th Anniversary What’s Going On ! Til next time – keep the faith

Sharon Davis
(extracts from I Heard It Through The Grapevine)

Please feel free to contact Sharon with any Motown news that you feel would benefit others - Thank you.

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