It is undeniable that the ‘60s and ‘70s were a time of great social change in this country and in the world. In January 1971, a song was released that would not only reflect that change, but miraculously remains relevant 4 decades later. That song was the elegant and moving, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. I had been a fan since the early to mid-‘60s. Even going so far as to perform “I’ll Be Doggone” in a school talent show. Songs like “You”, “Chained”, How Sweet It Is”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and “That’s The Way Love Is” all solidified my love and respect for the preacher’s son from Washington D.C. (Not to mention his passionate duets with Tammi Terrell). Not as well known to his millions of fans, was the fact that Marvin was a great songwriter. He had even written the gorgeous, “If This World Were Mine”, for one of the Tammi Terrell duets. That song should have been an indication of his great talent. That is not to say that all the other pop/R&B hits he wrote or co-wrote before the ‘70s, were not worthy of his artistry. However, little could have prepared anyone for what he delivered to the airwaves that January ’71.
It just so happened to be my final year of high school and my first year in college. Surely, my musical taste had become sophisticated enough to fully appreciate the depth of what he bestowed on my ears as my commencement ceremonies dominated a lot of my world. I loved the passion and sentiment of “What’s Going On”. It was a heady time when Americans headed to the streets in search of correcting the ills of our country. WHAT’S GOING ON was the soundtrack to that humanitarian sentiment.
The album spawned 3 hits including the title track, “Mercy, Mercy Me” (about the eco-system) and “Inner City Blues” (an homage to the pains and ills of life’s less fortunate). If that album were placed in a time capsule for the year 2025, it would be a near perfect snapshot of the American people’s struggles entering a new decade, the exciting changing times of the ‘70s.
In speaking to Harry Weinger, VP of A&R for Motown/Universal, about WHAT’S GOING ON’s endurance, he stated that it can be attributed to the fact that “the subject matter spotlighted by Marvin has remained real and relevant for 40 years. Marvin has never gone out of style”.
In 2001, Motown/Universal released the “Deluxe Edition” of the album. It was an elaborate 2-CD set which included the unreleased “Detroit Mix” of the album and also an impressive full concert of the album recorded in June 1972 at the Kennedy Center Auditorium. The Kennedy Center Auditorium also marked a coming home of sorts as this was Marvin’s birthplace.
Now with the 40th Anniversary of this monumental album, Mr. Weinger states “When I was considering what might work for a 40th Anniversary edition of WHAT’S GOING ON, I saw a beginning and an end: Marvin deciding to tackle the topic in late spring and summer of 1970 with the title tune, wrapping up in the spring of 1972 with Marvin, like most of the rest of the Motown staff, leaving Detroit for Los Angeles”. He continues, “With the album in essence the last major Motown album recorded in Detroit, although, for one, The Temptations cut the ALL DIRECTIONS album with Norman Whitfield after that.....I felt everything on the set had to be Detroit-centric. Those instrumental jams may have been a holding pattern, but they were a vital part of the story, so I dove further back in”.
‘The first mix’ of the title song was known about but not in the sense of what it really was. I didn’t realize, until recently, it was mixed before Marvin and David Van DePitte added more elements. I’d dismissed it from the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition because the live recordings were the real story of that release. When I went back to it a few months ago to check the various mixes, my mouth fell open, there was the first version heard by Motown’s Quality Control committee. The first one following the horn and background vocals overdubs was the released single version. Motown engineers actually created a few more ‘single’ mixes, but beyond the single, the album and that first undubbed mix, the nuances are pretty minor”, he reveals.
This conversation with Harry Weinger, a Grammy® award-winning producer, proved so compelling that we decided to continue our conversation with an overall view of Marvin’s career at Motown.
Q: What are the best-selling titles in Marvin’s catalog?
A: In general, like many artists, it’s his greatest hits collections. (RIAA® states that Marvin has over 23 gold & platinum audio & video titles. Six are greatest hits collections).
Q: After WHAT’S GOING ON, Marvin recorded “You’re The Man”. It appears as if he were staying political and topical. Was “You’re The Man” a lead-in to a different album from Marvin?
A: Possibly. He cut it three different ways: were they bookends to an album? Were the instrumentals demos for further development? Was he recording at home, trying other things out? Judging by Marvin’s usual response, we might have seen a YOU’RE THE MAN album if the song had hit the pop top 10. But it didn’t, and we can only sift through what was left behind.
Q: He surprised fans by recording the sexually charged LET’S GET IT ON album. Were some of the tracks that have ended up on this Super Deluxe version of WHAT’S GOING ON intended for that album or a different project? Do you really think LET’S GET IT ON surprised fans?
A: Three of the four songs on Side Two of the original LET’S GET IT ON album – “Come Get To This,” “Distant Lover” and “Just To Keep You Satisfied” – originated in Detroit in the fall of 1970, while Marvin was supposedly “on strike” and not recording. The backing tracks remained intact, and Marvin added to and embellished them to make then what we know as those songs. The only vocal remnants from the “WGO” period are on the Originals’ version of “Just To Keep You Satisfied,” and Marvin’s “Head Title,” which became “Distant Lover” – you can hear Marvin say, “I know I’m supposed to have a new record out about now…”
The only reason we have “Head Title,” or knew it existed, was because the engineer Steve Smith had a rough mix of it. Though it was water-damaged, and we had to edit out chunks of material, that’s the tape we used on the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. A little while later, I discovered the original session tape in the vault, from which we could do a proper mix.
Q: When I first heard the single, "What's Going On", it still had a Motown feel to it. Legend has it that Berry Gordy initially rejected the album because he felt it wasn't commercial enough. Do you think the single and/or the album still sounded like a Motown copyright?
A: BG first rejected the single. When the single sold, he a assuredly wanted the album. I taught a course on Motown at NYU and used this album as a cornerstone of the curriculum – because if one says, the single was rejected, the follow-through to a younger generation is, what system allows for a song to be rejected? If you point out the uniqueness of Marvin’s producer credit, you open the door to an explanation of the Artist Development system. And so on. So, if you put this song in context with Marvin’s sound up to that point, and with Motown’s general direction, and consider Marvin’s complex relationship with the company, yeah, you might well reject the single. But if you side with sales and with Smokey Robinson, who considered the social vibe and other instincts, you wanted that sucker out fast. Are “Ball Of Confusion” and “War” Motown? Sure. I don’t think you can separate Marvin from Motown. He made the album Motown.
Q: Marvin worked on an album called LOVE MAN. Was this an extension of IN OUR LIFETIME or a completely different album?
A: LOVE MAN was the first version of what became IN OUR LIFETIME. Marvin kept returning to the material, fine-tuning it, deepening its meaning.
Q: Marvin was quite a prolific writer, not sure if many people knew this. You included his elegant ballad he wrote and produced for The Miracles, "I Love You Secretly" and the two hits for The Originals amongst many. Are there versions of Marvin singing some of the songs that were recorded by others? (Harry included The Miracles version of “I Love You Secretly” on the 30th Anniversary Edition of WHAT’S GOING ON).
A: Only “Just To Keep You Satisfied.”
Q: Rolling Stone stated that both I WANT YOU and HERE, MY DEAR were not fully appreciated when they first were released. Why do you think that is, because they actually were instant favorites of mine?
A: Rolling Stone, at the time, may not have been the best outlet for understanding those albums. Speaking generally to make a point, would you ask a writer from Vibe magazine to review the latest Neil Young album?
But there is a reconsideration of those records now, of course, and your taste won out. Both, according to the magazine, rank among the greatest albums of all time.
Q: Do you know if the Washington D.C. concert, where he performed the entire album, was ever filmed?
A: I don’t believe so. No one is quite sure it was even photographed. The local papers covered the event and the only photos from their coverage are of the day’s events leading up to the show. Remember, the show started unbelievably late, around 11PM, and by that time, the newspapers were already mocking up the next morning’s edition for printing.
Q: Marvin, Stevie, Smokey and Diana are the Mount Rushmore artists of Motown. Any particular thoughts why these artists still endure 50 years later?
A: And the Temps, the Tops, the J5, et al. All of them had or were given great songs. And they were the best to sing them.
Q: Marvin made two movies, “Chrome and Hot Leather” and “The Ballad of Andy Crocker” that are very rare. Do you know who owns those films?
A: Both are on DVD.
Q: Who are your favorite artists to source in the vaults?
A: Unfair question.
Q; Do you know why WHAT’S GOING ON was the first album to give credit to The Funk Brothers?
A: Valerie Simpson’s album actually was, a month earlier. Both had a kinship with the musicians and wanted to give credit where credit was due.
Q: Is there a dream Motown project that you would like to see come to fruition as VP of A&R?
A: Since we’re talking about Marvin, his ballads sessions – the full Vulnerable project. And all of these albums, ’60s and ’70s, in a box set, like the great classical composers. Of course, we should do that for all of the artists.
Harry Weinger is Compilation Producer of “What’s Going On (40th Anniversary/Super Deluxe Edition)”.
This 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition contains 2 CDs + Vinyl LP + Gatefold Booklet with Rare Photos, Lyrics and New Essays.
* A remastered version of the album plus 28 bonus tracks - 16 unreleased.
* Original mono versions of the LP's hit singles.
* A previously unreleased original `Quality Control test mix' of "What's Going On," mixed before Marvin had added strings, horns and additional vocals.
* Several pre-album outtakes, recorded while Marvin was "on strike," waiting for his single to be released, including "Head Title," now in unedited form for the first time.
* Several post-album instrumental jams with local musicians who included Ray Parker Jr. - a series of recordings made in Detroit before Marvin followed Motown to Los Angeles.
* The original single version of a sequel to the album, "You're The Man," as well as two alternate versions.
* The album's rare, original "Detroit Mix," previously issued on CD for the 30th anniversary, now on vinyl for the first time.
About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.