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The Story Behind the Album
“I remember I was listening to a tune of mine playing on the radio, “Pretty Little Baby,” when the announcer interrupted with news about the  Watts riot. My stomach got real tight and my heart started beating like crazy. I wanted to throw the radio down and burn all the…songs I’d been singing…. Why didn’t our music have anything to do with this?” —Marvin Gaye
During the 1960s, Marvin Gaye reeled off hit after hit for Motown Records, a company that specialized in rhythm and blues, soul, and pop music featuring African American recording artists. Movie-star handsome with a superhuman voice that could punch and growl as well as soar, he became the company’s most bankable hit maker.
Events of the decade, though, were battering Gaye’s view of the world. Racism, poverty, drugs, and urban violence were tearing apart black communities. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was causing many Americans to question their government’s policies. And the assassinations of leaders John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy rocked people’s faith in the American dream. To Gaye and many Americans, it seemed like the U.S. was losing its mind, heart, and soul.
Following the death of his singing partner, Tammi Terrell, Gaye fell into a depression and was reluctant to return to performing. The idea of singing silly love songs while the world was falling apart seemed sadly absurd to him. “[M]y phone would ring, and it’d be Motown wanting me to start working and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today?…’” Gaye told friend and biographer David Ritz. “The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me.”
Marvin found a different message was welling up in his soul. He wanted to sing about stuff he felt mattered more than bubblegum pop songs. His brother Frankie had recently returned from service in Vietnam with awful stories about what was going on there. He wanted to lift up cries for help, reasons for hope, as well as calls for understanding cutting across races, religions, generations, and attitudes.
In March of 1970, songwriters Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Al Cleveland brought Gaye a means for getting out of his depression. It was a rough draft of a song called “What’s Going On.” At first Gaye saw the piece as a good fit for another Motown group, The Originals. But Benson and Cleveland were determined Marvin should do it. Marvin played around with it on the piano and began to flesh out the song.
In June 1970, Gaye recorded the bare bones of “What’s Going On” as well as another new song, “God Is Love," embellishing them a few weeks later. He took them to Gordy, but after listening, Gordy asked his top star to reconsider releasing them, worried that singing about social injustice was not a formula for a pop hit, and worse, could wreck Marvin’s image and crash his career. Marvin prevailed.
After its release in January 1971, the single of “What’s Going On” rocketed up the charts and flew off the shelves. Gordy threw out his objections and asked Gaye for an entire album built around the hit song.
By mid-March, Gaye was in the studio. He had some of the finest musicians, songwriters, and studio technicians in the world on his team. But the pressure was on him—to produce an entire album of songs that would tell the story he wanted told.
He had the vision. But his task now was to help others see, hear, and understand what was churning in his heart and mind. It took ten days in the studios.