There is a lot of music, across several styles, that’s important to me. It goes in cycles, from revisiting r&b and soul music that I know really well one week, to digging deeper into 50‘s post-bop jazz the next week, to going through a stack of old country 45’s after that, and so on. With all of those disparate styles and interests it would be impossible to truly decide, but if I had to choose, I would call What’s Going On my favorite album.
Marvin Gaye was a singer of unparalleled skill and soul–simply as good as you can be. Always at the top of his game, from his early pop/r&b hits, to his later solo records which feature complex multi-tracked lead and background vocals. I’ve heard isolated vocal tracks that are incredible. It’s staggering stuff that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
That’s Marvin Gaye the singer–Marvin Gaye the producer, musician, and artist appeared fully formed on this record–but it wasn’t easy. Berry Gordy did not want Gaye to make this album. Motown artists did not produce their own records, and the social and political themes that Gaye was interested in did not fit with the squeaky clean image the label wanted to project. He had to produce two hit singles for The Originals before he was allowed to work on his own music on his own terms. That success enabled him to move forward and he recorded “What’s Going On” as a single with “God Is Love” as the B-side in June 1970. When it was turned in Gordy refused to release it. Gaye countered this by refusing to record any more music for the company until this single was released. Gordy eventually relented, and it was released in January 1971 as a critical and commercial success. It was a big hit on the charts: #2 pop and #1 soul. Vindicated, Gaye was now given the green light to finish the album, and do it quickly. Sessions were booked, and the album was finished and released by May of that year.
Incredible musicianship aside, the albums lyrical content resonated with many people at the time and still does today. This was an important part of it’s success. It connected with people and made them think–it says something. The Vietnam War, religion, unemployment, police brutality, urban decay and rioting–these were not topics normally associated with the slick and commercial Motown singles and albums–but Gaye faced them head on and made a statement.
This was an important moment for the Motown studio band, the “Funk Brothers”, and all of the musicians involved. This included, among others, Earl Van Dyke (kb), Johnny Griffith (kb), Jack Brokensha (vb/perc), Joe Messina (gt), Robert White (gt), Chet Forest (dr), Jack Ashford (perc), Bob Babbitt (bs), and the excellent arrangements of Dave Van De Pitte. Of particular note, in a remarkable career that included dozens of hits songs, this record is the crowning achievement of bassist James Jamerson. By this time, with nearly a decade of recording experience under his belt, he was at his best. He was playing tracks, both simple and very complicated, at the highest possible level, and was absolutely fearless. This is genius, which is a world I don’t use lightly. Nothing like it had happened before him.
This album means a lot to me and it has shown me over and over again how good popular music can be. Everything about it–the singing, the writing, musicianship and engineering–all in a package that was successful, socially and politically conscious, and still moved people in a meaningful way. When was the last time you turned the radio and heard something that had all of that? I don’t think that it can happen again, at least it certainly doesn’t seem like it can. Even at the time of it’s release it was controversial, and in that controversy and perceived lack commercial appeal, it was nearly swallowed up and not even allowed to be made, but in the end it was and we’re all better off for it.
(Details: Tamla S-310)