‘What’s Going On’ was a pivotal album for Marvin Gaye. Musically it signalled a more mature, politically aware sound that incorporated Gaye’s renewed spirituality after the sudden and tragic death of his close friend Tammi Terrell. In Gaye’s personal life, this was also a significant turning point, one that could be ultimately placed as the peak which led to his downfall and eventual death.

Marvin Pentz Gay Junior was born on April 2 1939. He was one of four children and lived in Washington DC with his mother who worked as a maid and his father, the leader of a small church congregation.

Gaye first found music singing with his father’s choir. He had a natural talent and before he reached his teenage years he was teaching himself to play the family piano. He had a very strict upbringing and rebelled against his father’s firm religious teachings by learning to play blues and ballads.

At the age of 18, Gaye escaped his father’s discipline through a brief spell in the Air Force. He joined forgotten group the Rainbows, then the Marquees and doo-wop group the Moonglows. Soon Gaye was a session drummer and a vocalist for Motown Records. This is where he started his career as a best selling soul artist, earning millions yet still managing to die in debt.

Gaye was offered a solo contract after he married Anna, the sister of Motown boss Berry Gordy, in 1961. This prompted him to add the ‘e’ to his surname, worrying that new connotations of the word "gay" may hurt his reputation.

A string of number one R&B hits made Marvin Gaye Motown’s best-selling male vocalist. This allowed him a lot more creative freedom and gave him a "get-out-of-jail-free" pass and some extra leeway with Motown’s bosses. This was much needed when he came up with the material for ‘What’s Going On’ and Motown initially refused to release it.

‘What’s Going On’ would have never become the structured and emotionally charged album it is if the few years before its release had not been as turbulent.

Gaye’s image was every bit the smooth soul singer and Motown utilised this by teaming him up with a number of female soul artists. His most successful duet partnership was with Tammi Terrell. They recorded four albums, their voices working perfectly together. One of my favourite all time songs is Gaye/Terrell duet ‘Aint no Mountain High Enough.’ The song effortlessly captures their energy and passion for singing; they are not just singing a song together, they make their voices one.

In 1968 Terrell collapsed on stage in Gaye’s arms. She had developed a brain tumour and tragically died two years later. Terrell’s illness hit him hard but he kept recording and released ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ in 1968, Motown’s biggest selling record at the time. When she died, however, he was so grief stricken he spent nearly a year in seclusion. When he returned, he had written the material for ‘What’s Going On’.

This album was nothing like the R&B soul Gaye had had success with in the past. He took his music and lyrics to another level, creating an album that instead of being a series of unrelated songs is a musical expression, a political comment on the war in Vietnam, race and spirituality.

What Gaye produced was new and had a deeper meaning that, despite worries from the label, transferred to the audience and reached them on a personal level. The title track was a number one hit and is a song that anybody with an interest in music knows even today, thirty years after it’s release.

One of the most stunning features of the album is the way elements from individual songs are weaved through the piece as a whole. A prominent bass line carries the album along while warm, hollow bongo drums are featured in most of songs capturing the thick syrupy quality of Marvin Gaye’s voice.

‘What’s Happening Brother’ comes in with gentle backing vocals, giving this song a light floating atmosphere. The xylophone is introduced along with a string and brass instrumental backdrop that shouldn’t work with the blues-y bass line, but it does.

The vocals on ‘Flyin’ High’ take over the song as they are so highly charged with gentle, yearning emotion. Again the xylophone floats across the song and brings in an instrumental musical style.

‘Save the Children’ brings back the bongo rhythm and the smooth sweeping sax. At the end of the song the bongo echo’s the title track and this is done again on the last track.

Both ‘God is Love’ and ‘Wholy Holy’ see Gaye returning to his more spiritual roots. ‘Wholy Holy’ is especially delicate, sounding like a steady build up and the verge of exploding into a thicker sound. It doesn’t come in this song but in the next, ‘Inner City Blues.’

‘Mercy Mercy Me’ was the next big hit for Gaye. It is a soothing song about the state of the environment and this time the more energising sax is complimented by the piano. The only confusing thing about this album comes at the end of this song, a strange sinister arrangement of synth and piano which leaves a lingering edge to the song. No matter how many times I listen to this song it never seems to fit.

‘Right On’ has a more blues orientated feel that leads on to ‘Wholy Holy’ and then ‘Inner City Blues.’ The last track of the album is a conclusion of everything that has been expressed. The bass and bongos again give the song a strong deep sound and Gaye builds on this with his stark lyrics that explore war, race and spirituality. The song ends with another echo of the title track bringing the album full circle, giving it a definite ending.

Gaye followed the success of 'What’s Going On' with 'Let's Get It On' in 1973 but by this time he was developing a dangerous cocaine addiction and his marriage to Anna was falling apart. He is known to have had many affairs while married to Anna and in 1974 he was involved with Janice Hunter, 17 years his junior. She give birth to his second child while he was still married to Anna.

Gaye and Anna had adopted a child in 1965 after faking a pregnancy. Gaye was embarrassed at the thought of not being able to conceive but with Janice he had two children. Just before his divorce with Anna was finalised Gaye released his last acclaimed album 'I Want You'. By now his behaviour was becoming more erratic and depressive. He married Janice months after his divorce was through but only a year later this marriage was also on the rocks.

Gaye’s increasing drug problems were earning him huge debts along with back payments of taxes and settlements from his divorce. His career was slowly dwindling only to be briefly rekindled by the success of his single ‘Sexual Healing,’ released after he left Motown for Columbia Records in 1982.

His debts were increasing and he openly talked about suicide. He returned home to stay with his parents and old conflicts between him and his father were fuelled by his drug-induced behaviour. He had always been very close to his mother and on April 1 1984 he over heard an argument between her and his father over an old insurance claim. He went to his mother’s defence, violently attacking his father. His father then got up, walked to his bedroom, took his gun and shot his son through the heart. Marvin Gaye was pronounced dead at 1:01pm.

An autopsy found cocaine in Gaye’s system and extensive bruising was found on his father’s body. This along with his father’s old age meant Marvin Gay Sr was given a lenient six-year suspended sentence with five years of probation. Alberta Gay divorced him and three years later she died of bone cancer. Marvin Gay Sr lived his final years in a retirement home before dying of pneumonia in 1998
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Stevie Wonder sang at Gaye’s funeral and 10,000 people came to show their respects. His ashes were spread over the ocean.

Marvin Gaye once said in an interview with Blues and Soul magazine that he wanted to be remembered as “one of, if not the greatest, artist to walk the face of the earth.” I think he got his wish.











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Commenting On: What's Going On - Re : View-Marvin Gaye








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18261 Posted By: Michael R. Jackson (Los Angeles, USA)

I HAVE HAD AN AFFINITY FOR MARVIN SINCE I WAS A LITTLE BOY BACK IN 1965. MY HEART ACHES BUT I ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND SOME OF WHAT MARVIN WAS SAYING MARVIN WAS BORN APRIL 2. I WAS BORN APRIL 4. MARVIN HAD TO DEAL WITH HIS CKE PROBLEM, SO DID I. MARVIN SANG. I WRITE. BUT ALL WE ARE DOING IS ASKING THAT PEOPLE NOT LOOK AT THE OUTSIDE HANDSOMENESS AND TALENT BUT JUST LOVE US FOR THE TENDER PERSON WE REALLY ARE. I UNDERSTAND, MARVIN...MY "BROTHER OF THE SPIRIT"

14000 Posted By: MELANIE (FLORIDA)

ALTHOUGH IM ONLY 15 I LOVE MARVIN GAYE'S MUSIC I FIRST CAME TO CONTACT WITH THIS MUSIC WHILE RIDING IN MY MOTHERS CAR.THE FIRST SONG I HEARD WAS "LET'S GET IT ON" WHICH I LOVE SO MUCH.I ACTUALLY DID A REPORT ON MARVIN GAYE FOR MY CLASS I LEARNED ALOT OF THINGS THAT I DID NOT KNOW ABOUT HIM.IM SO GLAD THAT CHOSE HIM AS A REPORT TOPIC.MARVIN DESERVES THE BIGGIEST AWARD THERE IS BECAUSE HE WAS A VERY WONDERFUL MAN DESPITE ALL OF THE HORRIABLE THINGS THAT HAS HAPPNED IN HIS LIFE.I WOULD LOVE FOR MY CHILDREN TO LISTEN TO MARVIN WHEN THEY ARE OLDER.SO YES MARVIN DOES DESERVE TO TAKE A WONDERFUL REST HE WAS THE GREATEST MAN ALIVE DURING HIS TIME.SO HERR'S TO YOU MARVIN WE ALL LOVE&RESPECT YOU FOR EVERYTHING YOU HAVE ACCOMPLISHED. I AM SAD THAT HE IS DEAD,I BELIEVE THAT IF HE WAS STILL ALIVE HE WOULD BE MAKING WONDERFUL HITS AS HE DID IN THE PAST.SO,ONCE AGAIN MARVIN I TRULY LOVE YOU FOR EVERYTHING YOU HAVE DONE.

480 Posted By: moongirl35 ()

I think this article was very well written and very interesting. I was a fan of Marvin Gaye. His music was as good as it got. R&B has never been the same. He was a musical genius never to be matched in this world. Take your rest Marvin, you have earned it.


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