Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

April 17, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Despite a volatile temper and an extremely troubled personal life, Marvin Gaye was one of many Motown talents whose smooth tones and distinctive rhythms filled the rock ‘n roll airwaves during the 1960s. Not only could he croon with hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Too Busy Thinking about my Baby,” but he also had a talent for writing and producing hit records.

By the spring of 1970 when you could still purchase AK47 rifles without a worry, Gaye’s successes could not shield him from the depths of depression.

His muse treatment for drug addiction, his constant fighting with his family, his endless professional disputes with Motown’s founder Berry Gordy weighed in on him as did his social concerns — the continued war in Vietnam, the persistence of poverty and social injustice, and the broken promises of the civil rights movement.

Most of all, however, Gaye felt deeply the loss of Tammi Terrell, his sometime-lover and his partner in songs such as “It Takes Two,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” among others. Terrell had collapsed while on tour with Gaye in 1967 and had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She had stopped touring but continued to record while also undergoing numerous operations.

She died on March 1, 1970, just a month short of her 25th birthday.

Three months later, Gaye began the recording work on What’s Going On, an album that would eventually reach the top of the charts and would be the definition of Gaye’s musical legacy. It was a concept album full of questions and protest where the songs blended into one another. Not only was the album a million seller, but three singles from the album reached the top of the charts.

Berry Gordy at first resisted releasing the album, thinking that it was too political for playing on the radio. He did not want Motown to stray from its original concept of making music recorded by black artists appealing to white audiences. Gaye insisted on its release, and when Gordy continued his refusal, Gaye went on strike and refused to work with Motown any longer.

Finally, Gordy gave in and the album was released in March 1971. Within a month it was at the top of the R&B charts and soon reached iconic status.

In the long run, the album’s success failed to save Gaye from himself or his circumstances. He spent much of the 1970s outside the U.S. and in the throes of drug addiction and professional and personal disputes. On April 1, 1984, Gaye intervened in a fight between his mother and father at their home in Los Angeles. Gaye and his father had never gotten along, and his father took a gun and shot his son in the heart, killing him instantly. 

Gaye died one month before his 45th birthday.

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