When we listen to the early Motown songs released by Marvin Gaye (Great American Things, April 2, 2009) and his duets with Tammi Terrell, we hear a pop singer at the top of his game. But with the release of “What’s Going On,” we hear something more – an artist who doesn’t follow the popular style, but who leads the way to a new approach.
Gaye looked at the crucible that was the 60s (which didn’t end until the fall of Saigon) and felt compelled to produce music that addressed the pressing problems of the day. “What’s Going On” is the title song of a concept album that dealt with drug abuse, poverty, the environment, and the Vietnam War. Gaye recorded the song with some of his friends talking, giving it a live, party feel. And he included the distinctive saxophone riff that Eli Fontaine had played while “just goofing around.”
Motown executives, especially Berry Gordy, hated the song and refused to release it. Gaye said he wouldn’t record for Motown again unless Gordy changed his mind. The label eventually relented, and realized that their singer knew what he was doing. “What’s Going On” made it to number 2 in the Billboard Hot 100, and was a number 1 hit on the Soul Singles chart. Rolling Stone ranked it the fourth greatest song of all time.
- Music Review: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (blogcritics.org)