Friday, May 31, 2013

Marvin Gaye--What's Going On (1971)

     Renaldo "Obie" Benson, bass singer of the Four Tops was hurt and angered by what he witnessed. An anti-war protest turned violent in a lot called, "People's Park" in Berkley, California. Benson watched the brutality by the police and along with lyricist Al Cleveland wrote the beginnings of "What's Going On"
      Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Marvin Gaye was deeply grieving. His singing partner and close friend Tammi Terrell had past just months before from a brain tumor which took her life just five weeks before her 25th birthday. He went into a time of seclusion where he pondered trying out for the Detroit Lions football team (he was not allowed due to potential injury), and accessing his future. He had always felt just a cog in the Motown machine and the resentment was just compounded when the person who had meant so much to him personally and professionally was gone.
      Benson  brought the still unfinished song to his bandmates. They didn't want to mess with it because to them it was a "protest song". At this point, they brought the song to Gaye who liked it and showed interest if he could get songwriting credit. The other writers agreed, and Marvin edited, revised the lyrics, reflecting the anger which Gaye was feeling towards the war as well. He also changed the melody and took it into the studio.
     After it's recording in September of 1970, Marvin flew to California and presented it to Motown president Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy hated it saying it was, "the worst thing I ever heard in my life". The singer at that point chose to go on strike refusing to record another note unless the single was released. Enter at this point executives Harry Balk and Barney Ales who, without Gordy's knowledge, shipped 100,000 copies of the single to stores in January of 1971, then after initial success, another 100,000 additional.
     The song became, at the time, the fastest selling single in the history of the record label. Gordy was stunned by the news and flew back into Detroit, telling Gaye that he could record an entire album of material like that one, if he could do it by the end of March. The album, "What's Going On" was recorded in 10 days and not only became his signature album, it has aged well and is considered by many one of the great albums of the modern rock era.  


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