Rewinding the Charts: In 1971, Marvin Gaye Had to Ask, ‘What’s Going On’
Affected by the social upheaval of the late '60s, the soul icon won a battle of wills with Motown to release his classic album.
“WITH THE WORLD EXPLODING around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Marvin Gaye asked himself, according to biographer David Ritz, in 1965 after hearing a DJ interrupt his song “Pretty Little Baby” with news of the Watts riots in Los Angeles.
It took almost six years – and a few more love songs, including his first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – but Gaye finally responded to the violent upheaval taking place in America with “What’s Going On,” a social and political meditation that was a far cry from the polished pop and R&B tunes that defined his career in the 1960s.
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Gaye wrote and recorded 11 top 10 Hot 100 songs for Motown between 1963 and 1969 (including four duets with Tammi Terrell) that helped define the label’s mass-appeal “sound of young America.” Not surprisingly, his decision to abandon the formula and record a politically charged concept album, also called What’s Going On, about a Vietnam War veteran’s return to America and his disillusionment with pervasive social injustice, did not sit well with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. He reportedly refused to release the single and the LP, reputedly calling the former the worst thing he had ever heard.
After threatening to never record for Motown again, Gaye prevailed … and proved Gordy wrong. “What’s Going On” became Gaye’s seventh No. 1 (of a career 13) on the Hot Soul Singles chart (since renamed Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) on March 27, 1971 and zoomed to No. 2 on the Hot 100. The album, meanwhile, climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and earned Gaye a Billboard 1972 Trendsetter award for “promoting the cause of ecology through thought-provoking message songs.”
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After What’s Going On, Gaye returned to making love-themed R&B hits in the ’70s and ’80s, including “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing.” On April 1, 1984, he was shot and killed by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day before his 45th birthday. He’s survived by three children, daughter Nona and sons Marvin Gaye III and Frankie Christian, and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
A version of this article first appeared in the April 2 issue of Billboard magazine.