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What’s Going On

3 Things you Didn’t Know about Marvin Gaye’s ‘Whats Going On’

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The What’s Going On album was released in 1971, but shelved by Motown records and Berry Gordy for months in fear of poor record sales. As Marvin Gaye grew anxious to release the album, he would often perform song after song at Detroit’s historic Baker’s Lounge, the world’s oldest operating jazz club.

The simplicity and humility of Marvin Gaye’s state of mind while making What’s Going On impacted the world. The album cover was shot in the backyard of his home off Outer Dr. & Livernois on a rainy fall day.

Comedian Richard Pryor attributes Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album as the catalyst to his more honest and unapologetic brand of comedy, exploring race, sex, and American society. Prior to the release of What’s Going On, Pryor’s comedy followed the styling of Bill Cosby. Upon Pryor’s purchase of the album, he listened to the album six plays through in totality, which led to Pryor becoming recognized by many as the greatest comedian ever.

In recognition of the revolutionary sound, this Sunday, April 3, 2016 at 6PM at Tony V’s Tavern (5756 Cass Ave Detroit MI), Detroit Hip-hop artist Khary WAE Frazier will be joined by Joe “Pep” Harris of The Undisputed Truth for a musical celebration of the radical legacy of Motown. The Undisputed Truth became well known after the 1971 #1 single “Smiling Faces”, produced by Norman Whitfield. Frazier will blend his brand of Hip-hop with the Soul of the city to perform Motown Message: a Revolution in Song. Tickets and information available online at


What if Motown stayed in Detroit

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In 1972 Motown Records officially moved from Detroit MI to Los Angelos CA. The move was primarily based upon Berry Gordy’s (Motown Record’s Founder and President) interest in the movie industry. The success of the most lucrative record label ever carried on. Performers like Rick James, Teena Marie, Lionel Richie, and Boyz to Men added to the legacy. Films such as ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’ ‘The Last Dragon,’ and ‘The Wiz’ expanded the legacy. Here is my take on if Motown were to stay in Detroit.

1972 was a pivotal year in American, Black, and Detroit history. The honorable Erma Henderson (RIP) was elected to her first term as a Detroit City Council member, Angela Davis was acquitted of murder, and Richard Nixon was re-elected as President of the USA. The pulse of the people (I believe) was charged up from a politically active close to the 1960’s. The Vietnam War, murders of: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; Malcolm X; and John F Kennedy, and rebellions (or riots) in Detroit, Boston, and South Central respectively changed the course of American history. This time is characterized best in Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ album.

Berry Gordy, Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, Erma Henderson
Berry Gordy, Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, Erma Henderson

The 1971 release was Marvin’s interpretation of expressing a relationship between consciousness, spirituality, and artistry (read the album notes which have Gaye’s letter to the Lord). The commercial success of ‘What’s Going On’ changed the imagery of the clean and friendly Motown Records artists, and music.

Motown records shelved ‘What’s Going On,’ for years as Marvin Gaye performed most of the album throughout Detroit in places such as Baker’s Keyboard Jazz Lounge. Experiences like this would have been abundant with the new music from Motown records in the 1970’s.

The foundation of the Motown sound was built on the production of Holland-Dozier and Holland, Barrett Strong, and Smokey Robinson. The 1970’s ushered in the styles of Norman Whitfield, Clay McMurray, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, and Rick James. The changing of the guard in production brought Motown into the Funk. This matched Detroit’s political Black power structure developing in the 1970’s. Anchors like Ed Vaughn, Judge Claudia Morcom, and Congressman John Conyers were all setting their respective marks in Detroit. Funk mirrored the ‘take now’ attitude. Beginning music on the down beat captures the ears of a listener. Mayor Coleman Young’s 20 year reign in Detroit matched that spirit.

Rick James, Emanuel Stewart and Tommy Hearns, the Fox Theater
Rick James, Emanuel Stewart and Tommy Hearns, the Fox Theater

The gregarious demeanor of Rick James creating a record like ‘Street Songs’ is meant for Detroit. Detroit’s 1980’s prominent sports figures embody the Rick James spirit. Kirk Gibson, Isaiah Thomas, and Tommy Hearns (Motor City Cobra with the Jheri Curl and slow jab) are loved and hated. This individuality represents the ‘vs the World’ mentality Detroiters needed. After the rebellion in 1967 Federal and State funding due to the city of Detroit dwindled (this is a focus in Coleman Young’s autobiography Hard Stuff). Businesses, jobs, and educational programs subsequently vanished as well. I feel Motown records would have kept a social identity, and shared the America’s disparities through music.

The big opportunity of Motown staying in Detroit would have been in film. As Motown began producing movies the cinematic interests of many young Blacks would have been drawn to Detroit. Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Pam Grier, Samuel L Jackson all studied and started their careers in the 1970’s. Films require huge staffs, facilities, and budgets which would have given Detroit assets.

Finally, Motown staying in Detroit would have led to ‘Motown 25’ being held in Detroit. Michael Jackson performance of ‘Billie Jean’ during ‘Motown 25’ is the greatest television performance the world has witnessed. That would have been fitting for the Fox Theater.

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