Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. conceived the company as a paragon of integration and inclusion, a hit factory producing music for audiences of all races and creeds — and to that end, Motown in its early years assiduously avoided overt political statements. “What’s Going On” wasn’t the first Motown hit to challenge Gordy’s mandate, but it was the most impactful, condemning America’s ongoing involvement in the Vietnam War by spotlighting the conflict’s effects on the lives of both the young men sent overseas and the families they left behind.
The Four Tops’ Renaldo "Obie" Benson penned the first version of “What’s Going On” after witnessing a police attack on antiwar protesters; when the other members of the venerable vocal quartet declined to record the song, Benson presented it to Gaye, who added a new melody and new lyrics, drawing inspiration from the wartime experiences of his brother and cousin (the latter one of the more than 58,000 Americans killed in combat). The resulting single, which Gaye produced himself, is both searing and soaring, a gospel-inspired celebration of peace, love and understanding in the face of American brutality and bloodlust.
While “What’s Going On” went on to sell more than two million copies, liberating artists like Gaye and Stevie Wonder to make increasingly personal, ambitious records, Gordy initially discouraged Gaye from recording the song, saying "Don't be ridiculous. That's taking things too far." Given that America still refuses to learn from its mistakes more than half a century later, perhaps Gaye didn’t take things far enough.
Originally composed by Four Tops member and songwriter Renaldo Benson. What's Going On was a response to police brutality against anti-war protesters, he witnessed while on tour in Berkeley, California. The final version was credited to Benson, fellow Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, and to Marvin Gaye who ultimately performed and produced the song.
Gaye’s approach to the song, and to the album of the same name, was to tell the story of an African American soldier returning home from the Vietnam War. This was partly inspired by discussions with his brother Frankie, who had served three years in the war, as well as the turmoil engulfing the country at the time.
Through this vehicle, Gaye went on to create a truly landmark recording which was groundbreaking in many ways. For one, it is widely considered the first concept album of the soul / R&B genre, and is is structured as a song cycle, with each cut flowing seamlessly into the next. What’s Going On is also a commentary on the fragility of the environment, and the need to protect and preserve the earth - a fairly novel and revolutionary stance for 1971.
Initially rejected by Motown chief Berry Gordy and his record company gatekeepers, the single was released and became an instant sensation. Despite Gordy’s earlier fears that a “political” message would ruin Gaye’s career, he predictably had a change of heart after seeing the sales, and immediately supported the recording of the rest of the album. This marked a turning point in Gaye’s career in which Motown subsequently allowed him to fully produce his own material moving forward.
What’s Going On is the first Motown album to credit the “Funk Brothers.” These seminal Detroit session players provided the music to nearly all Motown recordings from 1959 until the company moved to Los Angeles in 1972.
Session Musicians and Special Guests
Members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Conducted and Arranged by David Van De Pitte
Violin: Gordon Staples, Zinovi Bistritzky, Beatriz Budinzky, Richard Margitza, Virginia Halfmann, Felix Resnick, Alvin Score, Lillian Downs, James Waring
Viola: Edouard Kesner, Meyer Shapiro, David Ireland, Nathan Gordon
Cello: Italo Babini, Thaddeus Markiewicz, Edward Korkigan
Double Bass: Max Janowsky
Carole Crosby – harp
Dayna Hardwick, William Perich – flutes
Larry Nozero, Angelo Carlisi, George Benson, Tate Houston – saxophones
John Trudell, Maurice Davis – trumpets
Nilesh Pawar – oboe
Carl Raetz – trombone
Mel Farr and Lem Barney of the Detroit Lions
Bobby Rogers of The Miracles
From the original liner notes:
WHAT'S GOING ON*
Written by Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye & Renaldo Benson
Published by and © 1971 Jobete Music Co., Inc./Stone Agate Music (BMI). All Rights Reserved. Lyrics reproduced by kind permission.
After some several days of reflecting and pondering and general thought (which is very unusual), I still can't think of any non-complimentary things to write about myself. And I ain't gonna write no general information type stuff either, so I guess I'll just give credit to some good people who, without their help, I could have completed this project a lot faster. More about them later. And anyway, if you like the artist well enough to buy his or her album, you don't have to be told how groovy it is, or which tunes you should dig, or how great his or her majesty is. I mean the fact that people just won't let us think for ourselves really bugs me! Now just because I like "Mercy Mercy Me" and the one that says "Save The Children," shouldn't influence anyone. And you shouldn't have to pay any special attention to the lyric on "Flyin' High In The Friendly Sky" just because I think you ought to. It's ridiculous. While I've got you reading, I'd like to first give thanks to my parents, The Rev. & Mrs. Marvin P. Gay, Sr., for conceiving, having and loving me. And special thanks to my wife Anna for buggin' me into working…or else I wouldn't do nothin' I guess but test shade trees. Thanks also to Elgie and Kenneth Stover who are certainly instrumental in provoking my thought process. Moreover, tho, I got to thank my wife for that too. Then thanks to Gwen Gordy Fuqua for just being nice to me, and that's hard to do. Hi Sua, Doe Simms and Wardell, and thanks to Lem Barney and Mel Farr for singing background on "What's Going On." Right on brothers! Thanks too to James Nyx, a gentleman and a scholar (which I'm apparently not).
Here are some people I love, so I dedicate this album to Mrs. Alberta Gay, Mr. Marvin P. Gay, Sr., Anna Ruby, Gordy Gaye, Marvin Pentz Gaye III, Mike Cooper, Frankie Gay, Paul and Gerald Comedy, Zeola "Sweetsie" Gay, Mable Jean Gay, Clarence Paul, Aunt Zeola, Parisee Monyel, Harvey Fuqua and George Maximillian.
Find God: we've got to find the Lord. Allow him to influence us. I mean what other weapons have we to fight the forces of hatred and evil. And check out the Ten Commandments too. You can't go too far wrong if you live them, dig it. Just a sincere and personal contact with God will keep you more together. Love the Lord, be thankful, feel peace. Thanks for life and loved ones. Thank you Jesus.
And about the job of putting this son-of-a-gun together:
Orchestra Conducted & Arranged By: David Van dePitte (Fastest Pen Alive)
Copying: Mrs. David Van dePitte (A very thrifty move, Dave)
Background Voices: The Andantes, Mel Farr, Bobby Rogers, Elgie Stover, Lem Barney
Guitars: Joe Messina, Robert White
Drums: Chet Forest
Tambourine & Percussion: Jack Ashford
Vibes & Percussion: Jack Brokensha
Soprano Saxophone: Larry Nozero
Baritone Saxophone: Tate Houston
Celeste: Johnny Griffith
Tenor: George Benson
Piano: Marvin Gaye
Alto Saxophone: Angelo Carlisi
Bongos & Conga: Eddie Brown, Earl DeRouen
Flutes: Dayna Hartwick, William Perich
Bass: James Jamerson
Trumpets: John Trudell, Maurice Davis
Solo Work: Eli Fountain (Alto Saxophone), William "Wild Bill" Moore (Tenor Saxophone)
Trombone: Carl Raetz
Violins: Gordon Staples, Zinovi Bistritzky, Beatriz Budinszky, Richard Margitza, Virginia Halfmann, Felix Resnick, Alvin Score, Lillian Down, James Waring
Violas: Edouard Kesner, Meyer Shapiro, David Ireland, Nathan Gordon
Cellos: Italo Rabini, Thaddeus Markiewicz, Edward Karkigian
Harp: Carole Crosby
String Bass: Max Janowsky
Produced by: MARVIN GAYE
Recorded by: Lawrence Miles, Art Stewart, Joe Atkinson & James Green
Mixed by: Lawrence Miles
Art Direction: Curtis McNair
Graphic Supervision: Tom Schlesinger
Front & Rear Cover Photography: Hendin
Montage Photography: The Gaye and Gordy Family Archives