Jump to content

Mercy Mercy Me - The Marvin Gaye Story


Recommended Posts


Mercy mercy: A new look at Marvin Gaye's life

Susan Whitall / Detroit News Music Writer

Motown's ultimate love god, Marvin Gaye, has to be one of the most complex and fascinating characters ever to come out of the legendary Detroit record company.

"One of the most musically creative minds ever," his colleague Smokey Robinson says of Gaye in a new PBS documentary, "Marvin Gaye: What's Going On," that airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Detroit Public Television Channel 56. "He was also a very troubled man," Robinson adds.

Gaye's life and career epitomized the highest highs and lowest lows that befell any Motown artist. His 1968 hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" became the longest-running Motown No. 1 hit ever (seven weeks) and his 1971 album "What's Going On" is widely considered a masterpiece.

But Gaye led a tumultuous, drug-fueled life. His earliest family life was dysfunctional, and it played out in his death at the hands of his father, the Rev. Marvin Gay Sr., who shot him in 1984, the day before his 45th birthday.

For this documentary, producers were able to talk to Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who famously opposed the release of "What's Going On" at first ("I was petrified he was going to ruin his image," Gordy says). Among the others who speak on camera are the singer's second wife Janis (mother of his daughter Nona and son Frankie), his sister Jeanne, Motown singers Kim Weston, Mary Wilson, Bobby Taylor and Gladys Knight, and his biographer ("Divided Soul") David Ritz.

Born in Washington, D.C., Gaye (who added an "e" to the family name) started singing in his father's church. He came to Detroit in 1960, slogging away at Motown for several years as a drummer and then, trying to make it as a suave, finger-snapping Rat Pack wannabe. Once he gave up the dream of being a sepia Sinatra, Gaye finally hit with soulful pop hits like "Hitchhike" and "Pride and Joy."

Along the way, he married Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy's chic older sister (some 15 years Gaye's senior). In clips from an interview done late in his life, Gaye admitted that he took full advantage of his in-law status as the prince of Motown.

"I enjoyed being able to say, I don't have to do that ...you guys do that," Gaye says, laughing.

Gaye's relationship with his mother was very close; she was his protector from his eccentric, often hostile, pastor father. Friends and relatives describe Gaye's bewilderment over his father's habit of cross-dressing, and how it affected the younger man psychologically, spurring him to overcompensate by womanizing and throwing himself into competitive sports.

Interestingly, Gaye admits in an interview clip that he sometimes had "semi-violent disagreements" with his brother-in-law/boss Gordy.

Torn musically and personally between the pleasures of the flesh and spirituality, Gaye was a living, breathing mass of contradictions

His handsomeness impressed every woman he met, but the singer couldn't dance "a lick," as his Motown friends laughingly recall, and as the film clips bear out.

Fortunately, when Motown teamed Gaye up to sing duets with Tammi Terrell, he didn't have to dance at all, just tower over the petite dynamo, gaze into her eyes and sing.

Songwriter/producer Nick Ashford described why they worked so well together: "She was very sassy, and he had that growl in his voice ..."

Terrell's death from a brain tumor in 1970 haunted Gaye to the end of his days. His downward spiral into drugs and alcohol, leading to his violent final confrontation with his father, is documented here.

It's bittersweet, because after some years off, including a stint living in a bread truck in Hawaii, Gaye was able to rally enough to produce "Sexual Healing" in 1982, which earned him two Grammys -- incredibly, his first ever.

The world, and Gordy, caught up with the greatness of that album.

"Probably the greatest piece of music Motown put out," the Motown chairman says.

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@det news.com.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is why i claim to be the whitest black man, because i love Marvin Gaye and Al Green, but Gaye the most. I just love the groove of the songs and it turned out that the same bassist was used on each of their songs. James Jameson. But you got to love a man who's father shot him down. IM going to have to catch this.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Great special !

Being the "son of a preacher man" brings it's own baggage. Being the son of a cross-dressing preacher man can obviously f*ck with your head. :blink:

Marvin couldn't dance. :D That was some funny stuff there.

Even after almost 40 years, I think a good argument can be made that "What's Going On" is the most important American album ever. Even when you listen to it now, it's not really jazz, pop, rock, or rythym & blues. It can't really be classified, it just kind of stands on it's own. Lyrically, it just nails everything. A must for any record collection.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 12 years later...



Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' still relevant and revealing, 50 years on

“What’s Going On,” crafted in a season of unease, persists as a backdrop to another heated summer, half a century later, when the world feels upside down.

Brian McCollum, Detroit Free Press6:00 a.m. EDT July 12, 2020

Fifty years ago this summer, vibrating with agitation and energy, Marvin Gaye headed down the wood steps into a Detroit studio and made his anthem for the ages. 

“What’s Going On,” a poignant musical masterpiece crafted in a season of unease, persists as a timely backdrop to another heated summer, half a century later, when the world feels upside down.  

Racial tensions, police controversy, environmental anxieties, a globe on edge — they were the topics on the front burner when Gaye rebooted his musical career and took control of his creative vision inside Motown. 

Marvin Gaye

His voice — voices, actually — hit the tape the second week of July 1970. 

“There’s too many of you crying … there’s far too many of you dying …" 

The song with the silky, layered vocals and an emphatic protest message was topical when Gaye cut it in 1970. It was still relevant when a newly freed Nelson Mandela recited its lyrics for a packed Tiger Stadium in 1990. And it resonates in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police — the 8 minutes and 46 seconds stark enough to slice their way into a pandemic lockdown. 

“In these times of crisis and challenge, we still go to those lyrics for strength,” said Detroit author and historian Ken Coleman. 

The making of “What’s Going On” is a pillar of Detroit music lore. 

Three years after the 1967 riot and rebellion that transformed his adopted hometown, the 31-year-old Gaye was in a deep and evolving head space. Shaken by the death of singing partner Tammi Terrell, haunted by the Vietnam War stories of his younger Army vet brother, Gaye was an emotional lightning rod waiting to be zapped with creative energy when Motown’s Obie Benson and Al Cleveland brought him their new composition about troubles across the land. 

His textured recording was constructed over a series of sessions in 1970: the instrumental foundation in June, the vocals in July, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s sweetener in September. “What’s Going On” then sat for several months, a hot potato for Motown Records brass who fretted it was too controversial. 

When the single finally went public in January 1971, it was an instant, massive hit. A full album was quickly commissioned, and four months later, Gaye’s groundbreaking LP of the same name was out. 

The “What’s Going On” single, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart, was a mainstream breakthrough for conscious soul music. Its stature remains immense — Rolling Stone ranks it No. 4 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list — and it set the stage for themes now essential to hip-hop, resounding through artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill and Joey Badass. 

“It allows someone experiencing oppression and trauma — all these tragic moments that the government is often ignoring — to just ask the questions,” said Eldric Laron, a 19-year-old Detroit musician and spoken-word artist. “It’s so relevant today because that’s what a lot of us are doing. We’re asking questions before acting: the what’s and why’s and who’s and when’s. Saying ‘what’s going on?’ is a good starting point for yourself.”  

And Gaye’s song, he says, has special meaning as a homegrown treasure. 

“Being in Detroit, which is birthed from arts and Black experiences and Black stories, it reminds me of how blessed I am to be a Black man from such a city. I could have been born anywhere,” said Laron. “The song allows me to remind myself of my own power and uniqueness.” 

To say “What’s Going On” captured a moment doesn’t entirely do it justice. The song is certainly of its time, a snapshot of a strained America as the '60s bled into the '70s. But unlike many other protest songs of the era, it shimmers with a spiritual quality. When it comes to endurance, the song is far more “We Shall Overcome” than “Eve of Destruction.”    

Master tape box for the "What's Going On" album.
Master tape box for the "What's Going On" album. UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP

Gaye's masterwork is assertive but not aggressive. It’s as much pain as anger, as much news broadcast as sermon. Like the best popular music through the decades, it achieves the universal by going personal — addressed to “mother,” “brother,” “father,” “babe.” The song is a call for tolerance, a plea for trust. 

Gaye was the ideal messenger for that job. He wasn’t new to opening up emotionally: The Washington, D.C.-born artist made his name singing the ups and downs of romantic relations, including a hit two years earlier — “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” — that stood as Motown’s bestseller to that point. 

Now he was directing that bold vulnerability to something bigger. 

"He was highly sensitive. He would talk about being afraid,” recalled Louvain Demps, a member of the Andantes vocal group and a longtime friend of Gaye. “But to stand next to him, it was like he had all the confidence in the world. Like he wasn’t scared of anything.” 

'Lived and breathed right there and then'

Some great music, like much important art, gets mythologized late. Courage is easy to endorse with the comfort of time.

But “What’s Going On” resonated immediately in its hometown in 1971, said Matt Lee, who grew up in Detroit and was close to co-writer Benson: “This thing lived and breathed right there and then.” 

“It was Marvin’s statement of independence and artistic freedom,” Lee said. “But it was also a commentary on who we were, in real time. The impact of that record is impossible to overstate, not only in retrospect, but for what it meant at the time.” 

The song had arrived “by some sort of divine guidance,” as Gaye told the Detroit Free Press in 1971. 

About 4,000 mostly black demonstrators gathered in downtown Detroit on Sept. 23, 1971, to protest the Detroit Police Department
About 4,000 mostly black demonstrators gathered in downtown Detroit on Sept. 23, 1971, to protest the Detroit Police Department JOE LIPPINCOTT, DETROIT FREE PRESS

Benson, on tour with his group the Four Tops, had conceived the song during a visit to San Francisco, where he watched police clash with hippie protesters.  

As Benson reflected for Ben Edmonds’ 2001 book, “Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On,” an indispensable account of the song and album: 

“The police was beatin’ on them, but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this and started wondering what the f--- was going on. What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?” 

Back in Detroit, Benson fleshed out his creative kernel with Motown house writer Al Cleveland. Benson's own Four Tops didn’t want the song; he thought it would be perfect for Gaye.

Feeling through the composition in the living room of the latter’s northwest Detroit house — Benson on guitar, Gaye on piano — Gaye was moved, but was eager to present it to the Originals, a Motown group he was now producing. 

Benson pressed his case: This piece was perfect for Marvin. It needed to be his. He offered Gaye a songwriting credit. 

“Marvin already felt like this,” Benson told Edmonds. “He was a rebel, and a real spiritual guy.” 

Gaye relented, committed and promptly “fine-tuned the tune,” as Benson put it, tacking on jazzy flourishes and a sense of realism. 

“He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song,” Benson said. “He made it visual.” 

Now a decade into his Motown tenure, Gaye was at a career crossroads, restless to grow. Inside the studio that summer, he took firm control of the recording process: With this new song at hand, he had the opportunity to make not just a social statement, but a musical declaration — a sophisticated step forward. 

Unable to read or write music, Gaye detailed his sonic vision to jazz arranger Dave Van De Pitte, who set about translating to the musicians. As chronicled in Michael Eric Dyson’s book “Mercy, Mercy Me,” the “weed smoke was thick” in the studio nicknamed the Snakepit as the Funk Brothers laid down the track’s instrumental bed on June 1.  

The open spirit produced some happy accidents, including the distinctive opening sax line by Eli Fontaine — plucked from his warm-up noodling. 

Marvin Gaye, photographed in the Motown studio console room in early 1971 by Gordon Staples, concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Marvin Gaye, photographed in the Motown studio console room in early 1971 by Gordon Staples, concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. DETROIT FREE PRESS ARCHIVES

In July, Gaye did four days of vocal work, stumbling onto an effect that would become his signature production technique. 

Having cut multiple lead vocals, Gaye asked engineer Ken Sands to create a stereo tape with two strong takes — one in the left channel, one on the right — so he could take notes. While the singer listened, Sands inadvertently switched the playback to mono. A pair of velvety Marvin Gaye voices now rode along together.  

"That's where the multiple lead vocals came from," said engineer Bob Olhsson. "He liked the sound of both. It was a process. You don't preconceive that it's going to be like this. You don't know where it's going to go."

More voices were recorded that week in July, including a track of party chatter by a group of friends that included Detroit Lions Lem Barney and Mel Farr. 

And then there was the background singing, added during an evening session with the Originals and the Andantes — the unheralded female trio whose voices adorned countless Motown hits. 

Gaye set a fitting mood that night in the studio, soprano Demps recounted last week during an emotional interview looking back on the song. 

“By his request, we sang with the lights out,” she said. “That session was really different than any other, because there were a lot of specifics that he wanted. There were intricate notes that weren’t really easy to do. They were sounds in his head and heart. It was beautiful.” 

A Detroit effort 

On Sept. 21, the track got its final piece as musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra recorded at Motown’s Studio B on West Davison. 

"We knew it was something pretty special," said Olhsson.

“What’s Going On” was richly Detroit. Gaye had been “all over the city, soaking up Detroit’s vibes and moods as he was recording,” wrote the Freep’s Bob Talbert, who was tight with Gaye at the time. With its seasoned jazz and big-band players, Motown’s ace Funk Brothers and the DSO, the track was a collective hometown feat. 

Chris Collins
This really was a hometown effort that went worldwide.

“People always talk about various influences out of Detroit. This really was a hometown effort that went worldwide. It captured that community sensibility and coming-together during a challenging time,” said Chris Collins, a music professor and director of jazz studies at Wayne State University. “The production — the openness of the music involved — was a pretty spectacular example of what can come out of that.” 

Collins said his 22-year-old son is enamored with the song and album. 

“It's in his musical life as a young person,” said Collins, also director of the Detroit Jazz Festival. “I think that speaks to the power and sincerity of that recording. It spans generation and communities.” 

If Gaye was scanning the front pages of the Detroit Free Press landing on his doorstep in July 1970, he saw plenty of headlines setting the mood he would take to the vocal booth — a daily drumbeat of stories about protesters clashing with police, Detroit air pollution, congressional battles over the Vietnam draft. All there in a visceral black-and-white. 

Marvin Gaye at home with his son Marvin Gaye III.
Marvin Gaye at home with his son Marvin Gaye III. ED HAUN, DETROIT FREE PRESS

“What immediately strikes me about the time Marvin was recording and where we are in 2020 is that he uses the term ‘brutality,’ which is certainly front and center in the news today,” said Coleman, the Detroit historian. “Within that context, people like Marvin Gaye were saying ‘Black lives matter’ before it became part of the American lexicon.” 

That forceful turn wasn't met well by Berry Gordy Jr. Though Motown had recently hit big with a pair of politically tinged Norman Whitfield productions — the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War” — Gaye’s leap made the label chief nervous. 

Gordy worried Gaye’s move into social commentary would derail a long-cultivated image as a romantic crooner. For 10 years, he'd had helped groom the mercurial singer into a suave star making the charts with the likes of “I’ll Be Doggone.”  

In his 1994 memoir — where he owned up to his shortsightedness — Gordy recounted their contentious first phone call about "What's Going On,” as Gaye declared his wish to “awaken the minds of mankind.” Gordy thought the idea was “crazy.” 

"What's Going On" vinyl 45
"What's Going On" vinyl 45 DISCOGS.COM

He fought “What’s Going On” all the way through its release in early ‘71, when the single was quietly greenlighted by several key Motown execs for a limited pressing. 

Gordy’s issue with the track wasn’t just its lyrical theme. He may have regarded the music as too good for its own good: Musically, “What’s Going On” had a cosmopolitan feel that sent alarm bells ringing for an entrepreneur whose first musical venture was an east-side jazz-record shop that flopped.   

“Berry actually thought it was a cool record. He just couldn’t see Marvin restarting his career,” said Olhsson. “In fact, if anything, Berry was hesitant about it because he was such a jazz lover. It’s almost like, if he liked something too much, he was afraid of it from a commercial point of view.” 

While the parallels between now and 1970 are clear and daunting, there were changes afoot. Three years after Gaye’s recording, Detroit elected its first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, who, in 1976, appointed the city’s first Black police chief. A civilian police commission — long called for by groups such as the NAACP — soon followed. 

“That was revolutionary,” said Coleman. “And I think music like 'What’s Going On’ helped people realize these changes could happen.” 

Marvin Gaye, clutching one of three Image Awards received at the NAACP's 5th Annual Image Awards Show in Hollywood, sings "Lift Every Voice and Sing" with awards chairman Maggie Hathaway and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on Nov. 21, 1971
Show caption
Marvin Gaye, clutching one of three Image Awards received at the NAACP's 5th Annual Image Awards Show in Hollywood, sings "Lift Every Voice and Sing"... WIRE SERVICES

With the 1980s and the rise of hip-hop, reports from the street and calls for justice became staple material. 

At Wayne State, ethnomusicologist Josh Duchan’s course on 20th century popular music zeroes in on “The Message,” the pioneering 1982 rap hit by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. 

“A song like that — which is much more explicit in its lyrics — is kind of the extension of what Marvin Gaye and ‘What’s Going On’ did years earlier,” he said. “It’s looking around at the world and saying: These are not the conditions we all hoped for.” 

Jessica Care Moore
We have a lot of Marvin Gayes, speaking to the times and pushing culture forward.

Detroit poet Jessica Care Moore, whose book “We Want Our Bodies Back” was published in March, recently teamed with techno music producers Jeff Mills and Eddie Fowlkes for “The Crystal City is Alive,” due July 24.

They dubbed themselves “The Beneficiaries” — a nod to the Detroit greats whose legacy they’ve inherited. 

“Artists who are radical don’t always get the record deals, the radio play, the attention,” said Moore. “Marvin’s piece did, and that was really remarkable.” 

Like Gaye in 1970, Moore is fueled by the moment at hand. Having felt “frozen” during the first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak — which hit Detroit early and hard — she said she has returned to the front lines of art, galvanized by Floyd’s May 25 death. Moore has been prolifically writing, frequently appearing online, and performing at one of comic Dave Chappelle’s socially distanced Ohio gatherings in June. 

“There’s a lot of weight on artists,” said Moore. “We may not have Marvin Gaye now. But we have a lot of Marvin Gayes, speaking to the times and pushing culture forward.” 

Bringing it home again

Gaye died in 1984, slain by his preacher father. This week, the legacy of “What’s Going On” will return to the place where it took flight. 

The song and album are central to a new Motown Museum exhibit, “Capturing A Culture Change: Motown through the Lens of Jim Hendin,” which will debut with the museum’s Wednesday reopening, four months after it was shut down by the pandemic. 

The cover image of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" album.
The cover image of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" album. UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP, UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP

Hendin was the Motown house photographer who shot the distinctive album art for “What’s Going On” in '71. 

As they worked together at the star’s Outer Drive home, Gaye took creative charge of the photo shoot, just as he had at his recording sessions. 

“That made my job a lot easier,” Hendin recalled. “I only had one day for this. I had to get everything done as fast as I could. Fortunately, it worked out, and I’m so grateful for that.”  

As the shoot moved to Gaye's backyard, a light snow began to fall, lending a peaceful glisten to the singer’s black jacket. And so Hendin captured the image that would ultimately present the new Marvin Gaye to the world: Bearded. Thoughtful. Noble. 

Like Gaye in that cover shot, “What’s Going On” stands tall 50 years later, a vital elixir of music, melody and groove with a message that rises above. 

“I believe it was a God thing. There’s a lot of spirit in that song,” said Demps. “There are some people who do great stuff in their life, extraordinary things. But there’s that one time when it’s something really, really special. It’s almost like they’re hearing something that is not normal, like the spirit of life itself. Marvin was driven to do it.” 

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

6:00 a.m. EDT July 12, 2020
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...