If I had written one song I wish that it had been the title track of Marvin Gaye's thirteenth album, “What’s Going On," written by Marvin Gaye, Renaldo "Obie" Benson of the Four Tops, and Al Cleveland.
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's too many of you dying
You know you've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today
After the death of his musical partner Tammi Terrell in 1970 and with his marriage falling apart, Marvin Gaye's personal life was in a shambles. In need of some direction, the singer decided to take charge of his career. Despite Berry Gordy and Motown's wishes, he participated in the songwriting and produced the album himself.
The song opens with two men greeting each other at a party, then Eli Fountain's searing alto saxophone kicks in. These notes never fail to move me, sometimes to tears. Here are three more reasons why I wish that I had written this classic song:
Marvin Gaye was inspired by the stories his brother Frankie told him when he returned from the Vietnam War. “What mattered,” said Marvin, “was the message. For the first time, I felt like I had something to say.” Gaye's musings on war, poverty, police brutality, unemployment, and poverty make "What's Going On" the most vital R&B song of all-time.
Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
"What's Going On" was one of the first Motown songs that made a political statement. Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Edwin Starr were recording more socially conscious songs, which was a departure from the Motown hits of the '60s, but it was Marvin Gaye's concept album that would emerge as a modern masterpiece.
The album's cover depicts a reflective and somber Gaye, looking off in the distance, flecks of snow on his head. "What's Going On" is a highly personal album. Marvin Gaye's singing captures the tormented soul of a man returning home from war only to see his own country in turmoil.
Earl DeRouen's congas compliment Gaye's smooth tenor. Its rhythm urges the tortured performer onward, encourages him to trudge through his suffering.
Ironically, Gaye is singing about hardship and sorrow, while in the background a party is in full swing. Perhaps Marvin is reminding us that without pain and sorrow we wouldn't appreciate joy and happiness.
Berry Gordy thought that Gaye's scat singing was archaic, but in true Marvin style he opposed Gordy and improvised much of his performance throughout the album.
Marvin Gaye was soul personified. His vocal performance is truly haunted, but it's nothing short of tour de force. In fact, Marvin does all of the singing, including the backing vocals.
Once again Gaye refused to listen to Berry Gordy and Motown when he hired the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to accompany him along with Motown's session musicians, the Funk Brothers. The original funk master himself, bassist James Jamerson was acknowledged on the record sleeve as "the incomparable James Jamerson."
David Ritz, author of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, says "the self-produced suite reflects a whirl of crosscurrents — silky rhythm-and-blues, string-laden pop, gospel sensibilities, free-form jazz."
Berry Gordy was concerned with the album's format, each song leads into the next. According to Gordy, it lacked commercial appeal. However, Marvin stayed true to his vision and all nine songs are powerfully cohesive.
"What's Going On" is a gem. I listen to it all the time; I never get tired of it and it never grows old.
That's why I wish that I had written it.