*On May 21, 1971, 50-years ago, Motown Records (Tamla) released Marvin Gaye’s iconic album “What’s Going On.” Yet, when it was released, many at Motown – including the label’s chief architect Berry Gordy – didn’t think it would do much on the music charts. More on that shortly.
Marvin’s baby sister, Zeola Gaye, who was a teenager in 1971, recalled hearing the album for the first time when Marvin sent an advance copy to the family in Washington, D.C., where he was born and raised.
“The songs from the album were so different than what was coming out of Motown in those days,” Zeola told EURweb.com’s Lee Bailey in an exclusive interview recently. “When I put on Marvin’s ‘What’s Going On’ in the living room, with a glass of wine and a joint, I started listening to it and reading the lyrics on the album cover. It blew my mind and touched my heart because everything that he was singing about was happening then.”
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Zeola’s reaction fifty years ago was what music lovers would eventually feel after listening to Marvin’s concept and pioneering album. The LP contained nine songs, all of which were written exclusively by Marvin or in conjunction with other songwriters. The songs, in the order they appeared on the album, are “What’s Going On,” “What’s Happening Brother,” “Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky),” “Save the Children,” “God is Love,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Right On,” “Wholy Holy,” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”
Marvin Gaye fans and music enthusiasts of R&B, pop, and soul attempted to categorize what they were hearing, but it was difficult. The music was mystically orchestrated, where pop, jazz, R&B, folk, and gospel merged into a spectrum of heavenly sounds. Some called the nine recordings “a cosmic gallery of interconnected, non-stop songs and music, mirroring what Marvin saw happening in a changing world. He appeared to tap into the very essence of his mind, body, soul, spirit, talent, and life, and as he said later, “at the direction of God.”
“That’s when Marvin, my brother, became Marvin Gaye, to me!” Zeola said. “The album was unbelievable. I was proud of my brother, and I was so proud to be his sister.”
Zeola was super proud of her brother’s groundbreaking album and avant-garde sound because she knew that Marvin was in a state of depression before recording the album.
“I knew at the time for sure Marvin had been in exile,” said Zeola. “He didn’t want to record anything. Marvin didn’t want to do anything. He was very distraught over Tammi Terrell’s death and carried a lot of pain.”
Terrell, a Motown artist, often teamed with Marvin to record and perform as a duet. Terrell died on March 16, 1970. She was 24. Zeola credits Marvin’s mother, Alberta, for talking her son through the tough times and encouraging him to start recording again. And he did!
“He would call our mother every day and tell her he was working on something, but we didn’t know exactly what,” said Zeola, “until he finished the recording project and sent the album home for us to hear. We loved it. My mother loved everything that Marvin recorded.”
While the album’s title, ”What’s Going On,” was a salutation that Black people regularly used to greet each other in social settings – back in the day and now – Zeola said Marvin’s inspiration for the album’s title and first single was because of his brother Frankie. She explained how Frankie, a Vietnam veteran, told her and Marvin the horror stories of war and what was going on with him and other fighting soldiers.
“Marvin was always so quiet when listening to the war tales and what Frankie and others experienced,” recalled Zeola. “Frankie was so honored when Marvin wrote ‘What’s Going On’ about him and the other soldiers. The two had lots of conversations about what was going on.”
Armed with Frankie’s war stories and the American stories that Marvin saw on the nightly news about racism, police brutality, a struggling economy, an eroding ecology system, and some people moving away from God, Marvin was compelled to record the collection of songs under the banner name, “What’s Going On.” The album was recorded in its entirety in Detroit.
Now, back to Berry Gordy. Zeola said he wasn’t thrilled with Marvin’s new musical directions, believing the lyrics about politics, the ecology, and war, wasn’t the “Motown way” and didn’t fit the label’s slogan, “The Sound of Young America.” Nevertheless, Marvin was now more interested in “The Sound of All Citizens of the Universe.”
“Berry basically told Marvin that he was a soul, pop, and R&B artist,” said Zeola. “The album, in Berry’s mind, was too political.”
Marvin, said Zeola, stood his ground and pushed as the album’s producer until he got what he wanted from Motown: the right to ask the world musically, ‘What’s Going On.” When the album was finally recorded, it reportedly sat on the shelf for months, prompting Marvin to front Berry Gordy.
“If I can’t release it, then I won’t be singing here anymore,” Marvin said, according to Zeola. “After Marvin went through what he went through with Berry, Berry finally released the album.”
Zeola remembered her brother’s first performance after releasing the album “What’s Going On.” She said he performed in his hometown of Washington, D.C. She told Lee Bailey that Marvin performed the entire concert singing only songs from the album for the first and only time ever.
“I had seen Marvin perform hundreds of times, but after he performed the entire album in D.C., I was mesmerized,” she said. “I’m in the audience, looking at him in awe. The setting and the lighting for the show were right. He performed the entire album in D.C., just like the album was recorded.
It was absolutely beautiful!”
For many people, “What’s Going On” is “one” of the greatest albums ever recorded. However, “Rolling Stone” magazine, perhaps the world’s most respected and revered industry publication, went a step further, ranking it “The Greatest Album of All Time,” which topped an impressive list of 500 songs by some of the most iconic artists ever.
Zeola said that when Marvin was living, he never took credit for making the album into what it was and has become.
“He always told me that he didn’t write the songs,” recalled Zeola. “He said God gave him the words and the will to do the album. Marvin gave all praises to God. Marvin considered himself the disciple and fulfilled a prophecy. Because of his personal relationship with God and his spirituality, his inner thoughts about the making of the album remained between him and God.”
While Zeola admits that she loved “What’s Going On” when it was released 50 years ago, she now has another perspective.
“Today, I realize it is a timeless masterpiece performed by Marvin,” she said. “I can’t think of any other album recorded 50 years ago that is as relevant now as it was then. As I listen to people talk about ‘What’s Going On” during this time, a lot of people are relating it to Black Lives Matter, which I understand. But I believe the album relates to everybody, not just one group.”
Zeola adds, “Marvin was singing to the world,” she said. “He was singing to mankind what he was receiving from God. Marvin wanted people to learn from the songs, change their ways, love each other, and love their children.”
Unfortunately, Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his own father on April 1, 1984 in Los Angeles.
Zeola Gaye vows to keep her brother’s legacy alive as long as she can. She has written a book titled “My Brother, Marvin” and produced a stage play by the same name. Following the recent CNN Special, “What’s Going On” hosted by Don Lemon recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the iconic album, Zeola management team has received many phone calls and emails about bringing back the stage play. There are also inquiries about whether Zeola’s book on Marvin will be turned into a documentary.
“I want to thank everybody for the love that was shown to my brother,” she said. “I want to thank them for showing me so much love for being his sister. I always wanted Marvin to know that he was loved, but if he knew – and I think he does – how much people really loved him, then and now, he would be very happy and satisfied. This (the 50th anniversary) celebration of ‘What’s Going On’ would have blown his mind.”
To learn more about Zeola Gaye and her quest to keep Marvin’s legacy alive, log on to her website: www.zeolagaye.com. She invites messages to come to her through Facebook and Instagram. She says that she reads all messages and answers accordingly. For future bookings and interviews, contact Chrystal Wyman at [email protected].