Thursday, January 21, 1971

Marvin Gaye charted with “What’s Going On”

What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye

Writer(s):Marvin Gaye/ Renaldo Benson/ Al Cleveland (see lyrics here)

First Charted: January 21, 1971

Peak: 2 US, 11 CB, 2 GR, 2 HR, 15 RB, 80 UK, 76 CN, 69 AU, 1 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): -- US, 0.2 UK, 0.2 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 0.2 radio, 44.87 video, 227.74 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

As the seventies rolled around, Marvin Gaye was Motown’s top star, RS500 building a career on sensual love songs manufactured by the record company’s hit factory. However, Gaye had become so depressed by the assembly-line nature of his hits RS500 that he pondered retirement. TB

His mental state wasn’t helped by the death of Tammi Terrell, his frequent duet partner, and a rocky marriage to the sister of Motown head honcho Berry Gordy. RS500 Outside of his Motown family, life wasn’t any less stressful. Gaye had to deal with a puritanical father RS500 and his brother, Frankie, recently home from Vietnam. TC

When Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops offered Gaye a song he’d written with fellow Motowner Al Cleveland, RS500 Gaye seized the opportunity to make a dual statement of political beliefs and artistic freedom. While Gaye rarely took part in songwriting, SF he added lyrics to “What’s Going On” about the war and racial disharmony RS500 and did some tinkering with the melody. TC On top of that, Gaye had an unheard of demand at Motown – he wanted to produce it himself. TC

When Gaye cut the tune, he was backed by the famed Motown session crew the Funk Brothers. RS500 Bassist James Jamerson reportedly came home from the studio and informed his wife that they’d just cut a classic. TC

However, Motown still wasn’t sold on the song, initially declining to release it. Gaye held out, though, refusing to record anything else. His stubbornness proved founded; in its first week, the record shipped 700,000, making it one of the label’s fastest selling records. Gaye had secured his creative freedom; no one from the record company was going to mess with his vision after that. TC


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First posted 1/21/2013; last updated 2/3/2023.

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