Fourty years ago this month, R&B/soul singer, Marvin Gaye, asked the world, ‘What’s Going On?’ in the midst of The Vietnam War and the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights, with the violence and upheaval that it brought to the nation. So it seems perfectly apt in the current crisis of financial insecurity, nations at war and terrorism, that we are once again asking, ‘What’s Going On?’ with the re-release of this epic album.
Born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. in 1939, Marvin Gaye (as he later became known) started his musical career in the 1950s with doo wop group, The Moonglows, but launched his solo career after the group disbanded in 1960.
Marvin had solo success with hits including; How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) and I Heard It Through The Grapevine. His success earned him the crown “Prince Of Motown” and “Prince Of Soul”. However, Marvin struggled with success and endured an ongoing battle with depression and, later, drug addiction.
Marvin Gaye duetted with singer, Tammi Terrell, throughout his musical career, including the famous Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. He described her as “his perfect partner” musically. Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1967, Marvin was so upset he attempted suicide. Terell died in March 1970 and Marvin never came to terms with her death.
Marvin’s personal life was somewhat rocky, the singer married and divorced twice; in 1964 to Anna Gordy, when he was 24 and Gordy 42, but the couple divorced in 1975. He married Janis Hunter in 1976, but the marriage dissolved within a year. He had three children. In his final years, Marvin was plagued by drug addiction and was in a poor state, both mentally and physically.
On April 1st 1984, following his intervention in an argument between his parents, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father – he would’ve celebrated his 45th birthday the following day. Despite Doctor’s discovery that Marvin Gaye Snr had a brain tumour, he was deemed fit for trial. However, charges of first degree murder where dropped when it was revealed that Marvin Jr had beat his Father prior to the shooting.
Marvin Snr was sentenced to five years probation after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He spent his remaining years in a retirement home before dying of pneumonia in 1988.
‘What’s Going On?’ is, 40 years on, one of the most important soul albums to date. It spawned hit singles, Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues and has inspired a generation of R&B, pop and soul singers.
‘What’s Going On?’ was released by a host of artists under the name All Star Tribute in October 2001, as part of an anti-aids campaign. This version of Gaye’s classic included, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Michael Stipe, Mary J Blige, Nona Gaye (his daughter) and Destiny’s Child, and was produced by U2 singer, Bono.
‘What’s Going On?’ may be celebrating it’s 40th anniversary, but is as significant today as it was in 1971.