Detroiters gather to celebrate street being renamed Marvin Gaye Drive

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Fifty years after his landmark "What's Going On" album was released, legendary Motown soul singer Marvin Gaye now has a street named after him in Detroit.

More than one hundred people stood in the rain Saturday to watch as a portion of Outer Drive at Monica Street on the city's northwest side was renamed Marvin Gaye Drive. The intersection is just yards from the home where Gaye lived with his first wife, Anna, for seven years and where the album art for "What's Going On" was taken.

"Here we are 50 years (after the album) and every word, every lyric and every message is still relevant today," said Miller London, a former Motown executive who was friends with Gaye and remembers his struggle to get the protest album released.

"But the most important thing that we have to remember is that the legacy of Marvin Gaye and this album, (is that it) meant so much to so many people. It didn't matter what nationality or what religion you were."

Two of Gaye's relatives attended Saturday's renaming ceremony, Antwaun Gay, Marvin's youngest brother, and Dylan Holley, his grandson, along with dozens of local and state officials, including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence.

Antwaun Gay, right, brother of Marvin Gaye, hugs Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan during a street naming ceremony for Motown great Marvin Gaye on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

Antwaun Gay said he was only 1 when "What's Going On" was created but he remembers listening to it when he was 8.

"I was sitting in the house and I heard the song and I just remember it moved me to tears," said Antwaun. "I grew up listening to gospel music from my mother and my grandmother and aunts and uncles but when that came across, tears started coming up in my eyes. ... It moved my heart."

Saturday's renaming — held on Juneteenth, now a federal holiday that marks the end of slavery — was the latest in a series of events held through the year by the Motown Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of "What's Going On," both the single and album. Rolling Stone named "What's Going On" the greatest album of all time last year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer named Jan. 20 "What's Going On" Day earlier this year and special Marvin Gaye-themed tours were held at the museum in May.

Now, a special one mile walking tour and exhibit called "What's Still Going On" that leads from Woodward and West Grand Boulevard to the Motown Museum also is available. It includes images relevant to Gaye's album. 

"He shows you the things that are still struggles for us and our community," said Robin Terry, CEO and chairwoman of the Motown Museum.

Gaye lived with Anna, Berry Gordy's sister, in the light brown brick ranch at Outer Drive and Monica for roughly seven years, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s when he relocated to California.

Berry Gordy bought the house originally in the early 1960s and then gifted it to Anna, said Paul Barker, director of development & community activation at the Motown Museum.

People hold umbrellas during the unveiling of the Marvin Gaye Drive street sign on Saturday, June 19, 3021.

To shoot the album art for "What's Going On," Barker said Gaye and photographer Jim Henson spent three days looking for the right place. They settled on shooting the album cover in Gaye's backyard in the snow.

Still, Gaye had to fight to release "What's Going On," said London. Motown executives worried about Gaye, known for singing love songs, releasing a protest album.

"Somehow the song got to radio," said London. "And I'm going to leave it at somehow. Once it got to radio, it became history."

Duggan said the new street sign is a reminder that Motown stars were a part of Detroit's community. He was a teen when "What's Going On" was released and remembers going by Gaye's home all the time on his way to high school. He said Gaye's album came out in the aftermath of the Detroit's riots in 1967 and the Vietnam War.

"Every teenager in this country was thinking when we turned 18 we were going to be drafted and Marvin Gaye was speaking out against it," said Duggan. "When I was listening to Marvin Gaye at 13, 14, I thought he wrote that for teenagers in the city of Detroit. I realized later that people, all walks of life, all around the world thought he wrote that song for them."

As a cover was pulled from the new street sign Saturday, fans — many wearing Marvin Gaye shirts — cheered and clapped. "What's Going On" blared in the background. 

Former teacher Gwen Burton came to see the new sign and snap a picture. She lives nearby in Detroit's Green Acres neighborhood.

"He spoke about the truth," said Burton. "He sang about the truth. The revolution is still going on."