Today in Music History: Marvin Gaye releases "What's Going On" (May 21)

May 21, 1971 - Marvin Gaye releases What's Going On

It was a response to personal grief, a statement of independence, and a message for a troubled nation. And it became one of the greatest - maybe THE greatest - soul albums of all time. On May 21, 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, and he helped change music forever.

It was 1970, and Gaye had lost his duet partner, the great Tammi Terrell. At the same time, Gaye was a brilliant, developing artist who wanted to write about what he was observing in the world, but who was trapped by the tight restraints imposed by the incredible success of the Motown formula of hitmaking, which fastidiously avoided lyrics of controversy or confrontation.

May 21, 1971 - Marvin Gaye releases What's Going On

It was a response to personal grief, a statement of independence, and a message for a troubled nation. And it became one of the greatest - maybe THE greatest - soul albums of all time. On May 21, 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, and he helped change music forever.

It was 1970, and Gaye had lost his duet partner, the great Tammi Terrell. At the same time, Gaye was a brilliant, developing artist who wanted to write about what he was observing in the world, but who was trapped by the tight restraints imposed by the incredible success of the Motown formula of hitmaking, which fastidiously avoided lyrics of controversy or confrontation.

Marvin Gaye was a poet watching the country around him, a nation seemingly tearing apart by a war in Vietnam (where his brother served); being reshaped by the emergence of a rebellious baby boomer generation and new social mores; and beginning to address an undercurrent of racial strife that had often been kept under a lid by means of violence.

Out of all that came an album – reluctantly approved by Berry Gordy - that went headlong into the issues of the day, from the war, to race relations, to problems facing inner city youth. It was not an in-your-face album of loud protest, but rather an album of honest observation that preached love and faith, even as it soothed with incredible melodies and production that still sounds fresh today. It opened the door for other songs that addressed the problems of the world, from the next generation of Motown stars all the way to hip-hop of the 1990s and beyond.

Many consider What’s Going On the greatest soul album of all-time, and they’ll get no argument from me. It is perfect from start to finish. And at a time now that, by cruel irony, is one where our world is divided by issues of war, racial strife, and justice, it is a musical collection that resonates as loudly as it did in 1971.

By Chris Rizik

 

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