Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' gets its own day, 50 years after release

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Fifty years to the day after its release, Marvin Gaye's iconic "What's Going On" single is getting its own day and Motown Museum officials want to use the moment as an opportunity to start conversations about bettering the world "we live in today."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declared Wednesday "What's Going On" Day. The Motown Museum, meanwhile, is kicking off a series of events to be held throughout the year to commemorate Gaye's entire "What's Going On" album, considered one of the greatest of all time, and its impact.

Marvin Gaye produced "What's Going On" and composed it with Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Al Cleveland.

“Having this tribute on the calendar provides us with an important moment — one where we can come together as a unified state to pause, reflect and appreciate the need for ideas, perspective, love and understanding. These are values that mean more today than ever before,” said Whitmer in a press release. “Through the recognition of 'What’s Going On' Day, we hope to bring awareness to Marvin Gaye’s profound words as his timeless music remains in our hearts and minds and continues inspiring generations to come.”

"What's Going On," released on Jan. 20, 1971, was recorded in Motown Studios' A and B in Detroit. It was inspired by an incident of police brutality the late singer-songwriter and Four Tops member Renaldo "Obie" Benson saw in California.

Benson and Al Cleveland, also a songwriter for Motown, wrote the song with Gaye and Gaye produced it himself. It was the first album to credit Motown’s in-house studio band, The Funk Brothers. In September last year, Rolling Stone named it the greatest album of all time on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Motown Museum Chairwoman and CEO Robin Terry said Gaye used to call "What's Going On," a song he was passionate about, "divinely guided."

"Marvin was really responding to the Vietnam war and it was a protest song," said Terry who noted that Gaye had a brother and uncle who'd served in Vietnam. "What’s really profound about the lyrics is the way in which those lyrics, written 50 years ago, are still so relevant and even more relevant as we listen to them today."

In honor of the song's 50th anniversary along with the album, the Motown Museum is asking fans to share the personal impact "What's Going On" on their lives on social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum also will hold a series of virtual events throughout the year, including a spoken word poetry competition, Motown MIC: The Spoken Word, and a singing competition, AMPLIFY: The Sound of Detroit. 

A day after "What's Going On" was released, Motown was flooded with 100,000 requests for the single. Gaye finished an album to support the single in just 10 days.

Terry said partnering with the state on "What's Going On" Day is about starting a conversation with people about what lessons can be taken from Gaye's song "to better the world we live in today."

"That’s been the legacy" of Motown music, said Terry. "It's a safe space for people to have conversation and to have common ground." 

"What's Going On" was considered a remarkable departure for not just Gaye but Motown. According to a biography of Gaye written by historian and Detroit native Michael Eric Dyson, Motown Founder Berry Gordy didn't like the song. It was released for radio play by two other Motown executives without Gordy's knowledge.

Terry says her Uncle Gordy was reluctant because Gaye had created such a following with his more seductive lyrics and music.

"My uncle thought that was risky" to depart from that, said Terry.

A day after "What's Going On" was released, Motown was overwhelmed with orders for 100,000 copies of the single, according to Dyson. Gordy then asked Gaye for an album to support the single. The album, also called "What's Going On," was recorded in 10 days and released on May 21, 1971.

It's "widely considered the greatest album in popular black music, and arguably in all of American pop music," wrote Dyson.