Saturday, November 25, 2006

What Was Going On
The turbulent birth of one of the greatest R&B

November 25, 2006

Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, "What's Going On," is almost universally acclaimed as the greatest R&B recording of all time, yet the music nearly didn't get recorded. The months that preceded its release were marked by a bitter standoff between Gaye and Berry Gordy, the president of Motown Records. Mr. Gordy considered the music some of the worst he had ever heard and refused to release it; Gaye thought the music was indicative of his new direction. Gaye prevailed, and this recording has influenced nearly all soul music since its release.

During the '60s, Gaye was known as a prince of Motown. The label churned out one hit after another, and Gaye's unique voice, both gritty and suave, was at the forefront of many of them. His duets with Tammi Terrell had made them national sweethearts, and Gaye's rendition of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," released in 1970, became the label's all-time best seller. However, Gaye entered the '70s at an emotional low. Ms. Terrell had collapsed in his arms during a performance in 1967 and subsequently died of a brain tumor. Also, he had been battling with Mr. Gordy for more artistic control of his music. Gaye wanted to produce his recordings and push his sound into more experimental vistas incorporating jazz influences. Mr. Gordy felt that his top singer shouldn't tamper with a successful formula.

The song "What's Going On" was written by Obie Benson, a member of the Four Tops, and he didn't consider the tenor of the song, a tract about the disintegration of the social fabric in the black community, appropriate for the Tops. He shopped it around, even taking it to Joan Baez, but found no takers until Gaye read the lyrics. To Gaye, the song reflected the feelings of his brother, Frankie, who had just returned from Vietnam and was astonished by the turmoil that engulfed America.

The singer organized an unusually large session to record the song. He went beyond the usual stable of Motown musicians to add drummers and saxophonists from Detroit's jazz scene. He also recorded street sounds for part of the introduction. The result was a far more ruminative song than the usual Motown fare. Rather than a ditty about love or loss, this was a sober and sobering look at the state of black America.

After Mr. Gordy's objections, the singer went on a work stoppage. He knew that the label needed more work from him and that if there was nothing else to choose from, "What's Going On" would eventually be released. Mr. Gordy held his ground, though he was spending most of his time away from the label's home base in Detroit tending to his budding career as a film producer. But Gaye had allies among Motown executives who felt "What's Going On" would be a hit; recording artist Stevie Wonder -- who was fighting a parallel battle for artistic control -- endorsed the track.

The weeks stretched into months. Gaye announced that he was going to abandon music for pro football. Even though he was 31 years old at the time, he began working out with trainers for the Detroit Lions.

Finally, in January 1971, the single was released. Mr. Gordy was in Los Angeles at the time and unaware of the decision. The recording went straight to the top of radio playlists and sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week. Mr. Gordy changed his tune. In the past, many hits were released as albums with filler from the vaults backing up the well-known song. He knew that wouldn't work for a track with such a different sound. However, Gaye was a notoriously slow worker and the label wanted to capitalize on the momentum. So Mr. Gordy offered complete control of the project to Gaye as long as the singer could turn in a finished recording in 30 days. To seal the deal, Mr. Gordy bet Gaye a large -- and still unknown -- amount of money that he couldn't do it.

A furious series of marathon sessions ensued as Gaye and his collaborators created a song cycle that built on the innovations of their hit single. The orchestral sweep and unusual harmonies from the background vocalists were stretched over a full recording. Gaye employed scratchy rhythm guitar that Isaac Hayes had made famous and added early rhythm-and-blues saxophone licks. He also wrote two songs -- "Mercy Mercy Me (The Environment)" and "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)" -- that were the equal of "What's Going On." They delivered the album just ahead of the deadline.

The album duplicated the success of its lead single, launching an era in which R&B artists began to choose their sonic palette from a wider range of colors and styles. The lyrics are often cited as an influence on the angry, politically oriented songs that became popular in the early '70s, but Gaye's opus is not a stinging rebuke. "What's Going On" is a deeply humanist work that acknowledges the desolation and turmoil but calls for a marshaling of human strengths to build a better tomorrow. That optimism amid grim circumstances is what has made the recording a timeless work.

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