Marvin Gaye was already a megastar thanks to hits “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and his duet with Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Terrell’s tragic early death from a brain tumor in March 1970 had plunged Gaye into an introspective mood. His disquiet was further sparked by his brother Frankie’s return from the war—and the senseless killings of civilians and racial injustices toward black soldiers he’d witnessed firsthand in Vietnam.

Gaye was ripe for artistic change, and it came in the form of a song given to him by Renaldo Benson of The Four Tops. He’d written an epic tale of antiwar outcry and social protest, coupled with the need for love and understanding. Though never a prolific songwriter (his strong suit was his baritone singing), Benson became inspired during a Four Tops tour stop in the San Francisco Bay Area that coincided with the violent protests at People’s Park in Berkeley. The vacant city lot became a battleground during the spring of 1969 between local residents (led by Yippie Stew Albert) who wanted the space as a public park and the police—acting on behalf of the University of California Berkeley, which wanted it for an athletic field.

Berry Gordy refused the song at first. According to Marvin's brother, the Motown chief said, “Nobody will buy this garbage.”

Benson became enraged at the sight of cops beating on the innocent long-haired kids gathered at the park—kids just like the ones being shipped off to Vietnam against their will. With the help of his next-door neighbor, Al Cleveland (who occasionally wrote lyrics with Smokey Robinson), Benson sketched out his thoughts. The Four Tops refused the song, deeming it too political.

Soon after, the group performed in England, where Benson ran into folksinger/activist Joan Baez backstage on a TV show. He played his work in progress, and she was interested (like Benson, Baez wasn’t a prolific songwriter, though she was and is a brilliant interpreter of other writers’ material). The two didn’t stay in touch, but their momentary connection kept Benson’s idea alive—and the rest, as they say, is history.

Marvin played around with the lyrics, adjusted the melody, and “What’s Going On” was born. It was exactly the statement he yearned to make. On June 1, 1970, Gaye, on piano, led a group of Motown session players in recording the basic tracks; vocals were laid down a month later. With the eventual addition of strings, the song was ready to be released. But Berry Gordy refused the song. According to Gaye’s brother, Frankie, the Motown chief said, “Nobody will buy this garbage.”

A standoff ensued, with Gaye refusing to record more music for Motown until “What’s Going On” was released. The artist eventually prevailed, and the song dropped in January 1971, hitting #2 at Pop and #1 on the Soul charts. Gaye was further vindicated when the song outlasted “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Gordy, having seen the light, wanted a full album, with “What’s Going On” as its centerpiece.

While working on the project, Marvin took a break to do press in Chicago. During these conversations, Frankie Gaye recalls in his memoir, “[Marvin] made highly publicized remarks in support of the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement. Marvin loved the Panthers, even though he never completely agreed with their policies. ‘What I like, I really like,’ he admitted. ‘The brothers need waking up, because so many of us are being killed and hurt. There’s no need for the beatings and shootings that go on in the inner city. And too many of our people are homeless and going hungry. The Panthers go door-to-door for donations of food or money to help the poor. I support that.’” According to Ben Edmonds’ 2001 volume Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and the Last Days of the Motown Sound, it wasn’t uncommon for the superstar to turn up at interviews carrying well-read editions of Malcolm X and the Peruvian-born shaman Carlos Castaneda.

Gaye’s milestone recordings weren’t Motown’s first explorations into the social-political arena, nor would they be its last. The 1969 Temptations album Puzzle People featured a standout 
Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong composition, “Message From a Black Man,” which was as provocative as anything Gaye had done. A funky, Sly Stone-esque psychedelic groove gives way to a distorted guitar a la Hendrix. Then the deep bass of Melvin Franklin speaks: “Yes, my skin is black, but that’s no reason to hold me back.” The high falsetto of Eddie Kendricks adds, “I have wants and desires just like you, so move aside, because I’m coming through.” The Temps then sing collectively, “No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop me now.” Declares Franklin: “Yes, your skin is white—does that make you right?”

It’s a long way from “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” but just as Gaye segued from his earlier hits to “What’s Going On,” the Temptations maneuvered from love songs to political material with ease. Such was the genius of Motown.

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