Marvin Gaye (illustration by Andy Friedman)
When Marvin Gaye began recording his eleventh album, What's Going On, in June of 1970, Americans were steeped in chaos and disillusionment at home and abroad. In late April, the Vietnam War had escalated as President Richard Nixon and members of his administration reversed a campaign promise to withdraw military presence in Southeast Asia and sent in troops to invade Cambodia. On campuses and city streets across the nation, anti-war demonstrations swiftly followed, but culminated violently when four students were killed and nine wounded by National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4.
In the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, more student strikes followed at over 450 colleges and universities from coast to coast that May, stretching from the University of Washington to Northwestern to Jackson State in Mississippi, the latter protest resulting in more tragedy: the deaths of two black students, shot to death by police, and the wounding of a dozen more people. Days later, an anti-Vietnam War protest drew over 100,000 people to Washington D.C.
Concurrently, as outrage over the war erupted, the killing of Henry Marrow, a black Vietnam veteran murdered by his white neighbors in Oxford, North Carolina, would further fuel the civil rights movement that summer.
Over a stretch of five brutal years, Americans had mourned the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, and reckoned with the systemic racism that sparked 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles and Detroit's Twelfth Street riots in 1967. The Democratic National Convention in 1968 was tainted with violence as members of Chicago's police department and the Illinois National Guard, called in by Mayor Richard Daley, assaulted demonstrators and journalists.
On a more personal level, Gaye, who had just turned 31 on April 2, 1970, was at an emotional and professional crossroads. He was distraught over the March 16 death of his Motown singing partner Tammi Terrell, just 24. She had valiantly battled a malignant brain tumor for three years, undergoing nine operations. The pair had seemed an unstoppable force, releasing three albums and over seven top 40 hits from 1967 to 1969, and primarily working with writers and producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson on songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "You're All I Need To Get By," and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing." Terrell and Gaye had an irrefutable bond and following her passing, he refrained from performing in public for a spell.
"I had such emotional experiences with Tammi and her subsequent death," he told Britain's Disc and Music Echo in 1971, "that I don't imagine I'll ever work with a girl again." (He eventually did, recording a duets album with Diana Ross in 1973.)
Compounding Gaye's depression over the death of Terrell was his tempestuous relationship with his wife, the songwriter and record executive Anna Gordy Gaye (Berry Gordy's sister). He was also haunted by the nightmarish Vietnam War stories he'd heard from his younger brother Frankie, a veteran and fellow singer. Via frequent letters, while he was still overseas on duty, Frankie told Marvin of the horrific combat, death and destruction he had witnessed in Vietnam, a war he saw as unjust and unfair.
As Frankie Gaye recalled in his book, Marvin Gaye, My Brother, his older brother was also profoundly troubled by the riots and discord in America too. Those exchanges between siblings would coalesce into a conceptual arc for Marvin. As Gaye's biographer David Ritz wrote in his album notes for the 1994 reissue of What's Going On, "[Gaye] made Frankie the main character of What's Going On, projecting himself into the soul of his sibling, a man returning to America after the nightmare of war."
In an interview, Gaye told Ritz: "My phone would ring, and it'd be Motown wanting me to start working and I'd say: 'Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?' I couldn't sleep, couldn't stop crying."
Another catalyst for the album was a song sent to Gaye by the Four Tops' Renaldo "Obie" Benson and songwriter Al Cleveland, after it had been rejected by both Joan Baez and the Four Tops. The song reflected Benson's own experiences with anti-war protests and police brutality. Gaye revised and rewrote the melody and some of its lyrics, calling it "What's Going On." As the album evolved, he also cowrote two songs with his wife Anna—"God is Love" and "Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)."
Until this point in his career, Marvin Gaye had perfected his public persona as one of Motown's romantic leading men. Born as Marvin Gay in Washington D.C., he was the son of a Pentecostal preacher and he endured a harsh childhood, escaping his father's frequent beatings through the comfort of church music. As a teenager, Gaye sang in early doo-wop and R&B groups like the D.C. Tones, The Marquees and The Moonglows. He was a session drummer too, eventually crossing paths with Motown founder Berry Gordy in 1960, and signing to the label's subsidiary Tamla.
Gaye released his first album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye in 1961. But his first hit wasn't until 1963 with "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," a song Gaye allegedly wrote about Anna Gordy, early in their courtship. He also co-authored songs like "Dancing in the Street," which became a hit for Martha and the Vandellas, but mostly recorded songs written by others, like Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Can I Get A Witness," which became a hit for Gaye in 1963, or Whitfield and Strong's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," which catapulted onto the charts in 1966. He recorded duets with Mary Wells (1964's Together), Broadway tunes (1964's Hello Broadway), and eventually, a Top 40 charting solo album for Tamla, 1969's M.P.G., that found Gaye mostly covering the songs of other writers.
But after working with Wells and Kim Weston, it was his transcendent collaboration with Terrell that showed just how magical those two united voices, male and female, could be.
What's Going On, a nine-song conceptual suite and one of the greatest masterpieces of American music, was released on May 21, 1971, a few weeks after the first anniversary of the Kent State shootings. It was an album born of Gaye's turbulent personal life (even his failed attempt to play pro football with the Detroit Lions fed into the recording of the title track), and his dissatisfaction with Motown's control and the music industry as a whole. But Gaye was mostly driven by his need to address, as a songwriter and artist, a ruptured United States, torn asunder by war, racial inequality, poverty, crime and pollution. In a perfect storm of despair and determination, Gaye not only transformed his own career, but the trajectory of contemporary protest albums. He also gave black Americans an album that defined their concerns—a direction also taken by Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield who would tackle tough, sociopolitical topics too.
Following What's Going On, Gaye wrote the music for his one and only soundtrack for the 1972 crime thriller Trouble Man, directed by Ivan Dixon, again writing in character, as "Mister T." But it was Gaye's his own sexual worries, dysfunctions and fears—which traced back to his father's abuse and austere attitude towards sex—that led him in a more sensual, rather than sociopolitical, direction. He chose to weave spirituality, romance and desire via 1973's seductively funked-out Let's Get It On.
"I contend that SEX IS SEX and LOVE IS LOVE," boldly wrote Gaye in the album notes, as a means of briefly explaining erotic, jazzy, late night come-ons like "Just To Keep You Satisfied" or "You Sure Love To Ball." He continued: "I don't believe in overly moralistic philosophies. Have your sex, it can be very exciting. If you're lucky. I hope the music that I present here makes you lucky."
Let's Get It On, a smooth combination of lush production and lusty provocation, became a cornerstone in the "quiet storm" wave of soul music and gave Gaye the freedom he desired too: he recorded the album after signing a $1 million contract in 1971 with Motown. The title track, released as a single, sold over three million copies and became Motown's biggest hit to date at that time.
Three years later, he released I Want You, inspired by his ongoing love affair with Janis Hunter, who would become his second wife in 1977 after a bitter (and expensive) divorce from Anna Gordy. But while Let's Get It On and I Want You earned Gaye many accolades, they certainly brought him no contentment. Gaye's heavy cocaine habit and alcoholism lay waste to his personal life; in the throes of addiction, he wasn't a good husband or a father to his three children in. His 1978 album Here, My Dear is a brutal, autobiographical account of his broken marriage to Anna, albeit a stunning examination of the dissolution of a relationship. It stumbled commercially and critically, but more recently has gained traction as one of Gaye's strongest albums.
But the late '70s were devastating for Gaye. Estranged from Hunter, he was forced to tour due to a massive tax dept to the IRS. He was bankrupt and struggling with depression and drug abuse. He confessed to attempting suicide. The rush release of 1981's In Our Lifetime was not what Gaye had intended (he'd abandoned another album, Love Man) and he exited Motown. His first album for Columbia Records—his seventeenth and final album—was 1982's Midnight Love. The release gave Gaye the resurrection he needed as a musician; not only did it spawn the massive hit "Sexual Healing," but it was the most commercially successful album of Gaye's career. Most importantly, perhaps, it earned him the respect and affirmation he sought, especially as a middle-aged man looking anxiously at the fast-rising ascension of the very young Prince and Michael Jackson.
"That Gaye not only commands our attention so forcefully but that he commands it so effortlessly should remind us that he has been one of our most underrated musical forces for a long time," wrote Dave Marsh for Rolling Stone in a January 1983 review of the album.
But barely a year and four months later after that glowing review and the singer's return, Gaye would be dead, shot by his father on April 1, 1984, a day before Gaye's 45th birthday. (Marvin Gay Sr. was later charged with voluntary manslaughter.)
Marvin Gaye has been gone for over 32 years; had he lived, he'd be 77 years old. In an alternate world, he might still be making music, like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. But Gaye's death hasn't entirely dimmed the magnificence of his music to younger listeners; he has inspired contemporary artists like Flying Lotus, Blood Orange, Esperanza Spalding, and Lenny Kravitz. Gaye's own feisty heirs still make headlines when his influence is too easily discerned in others' songs; his estate has recently sued over Pharrell and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and Ed Sheerhan's "Thinking Out Loud."
Gaye and Terrell's version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" serenades those who attend the rallies of Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In Britain, Roy Williams' play Soul, about the troubled relationship between Gaye and his father, premiered in Northampton and London earlier this year. A documentary called "Marvin, What's Going On" has been announced too; it's the first such film made with the approval and support of Gaye's family and it is slated release in 2017.
In this tumultuous year, one that feels particularly fraught and tense for many Americans, revisiting What's Going On feels particularly apt. Listening to it, there's no real sense of the passage of 45 years; the songs could have been written yesterday. We can't help but wonder what Gaye would make of 2016 or the songs he might have written about the world today. A brilliant, difficult and complex man and musician, Marvin Gaye is absolutely one of our FUV Essentials.
More on Marvin Gaye:
Marvin Gaye Mixtape: