Marvin Gaye’s 11th studio album was released on 21 May 1971. It was the first album where Gaye was credited as producer of his own material, and the concept album, told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran, was an immediate critical and commercial success. The album, however, almost never happened.
By late 1967, Gaye was struggling with depression and despair after his singing partner Tammi Terrell had collapsed in his arms at a concert and was diagnosed with brain cancer (the 24-year-old Terrell died in April 1970). Gaye developed a cocaine habit, was having financial difficulty (including troubles with the IRS), and his marriage to Anna Gordy (the sister of Gaye’s boss, Berry Gordy) was in trouble, all of which resulted in a suicide attempt (Gaye was saved by his father-in-law).
After Terrell’s death, Gaye retreated from the music business and seriously considered playing professional football. The 31-year-old began working out with the Eastern Michigan University football team and had planned to tryout with the Detroit Lions before reconsidering and returning to music.
When Gaye’s younger brother, Frankie, returned from fighting in the Vietnam War, Marvin Gaye was profoundly moved by his brother’s experiences, which he related in long, emotional conversations and letters. “I didn’t know how to fight before, but now I think I do,” Marvin Gaye told his brother. “I just have to
do it my way. I’m not a painter. I’m not a poet. But I can do it with
Gaye entered the recording studio in June 1970 and recorded the title song “What’s Going On“ with Funk Brothers members Jack Ashford, Eddie Brown, and James Jamerson. Gaye proudly played the song for Berry Gordy, who called it "the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Motown executive Harry Balk and sales exec Barney Ales released the single without Gordy’s knowledge and it became the fastest-selling single in Motown’s history. Gordy then agreed to let Gaye record the album.
What’s Going On peaked at #6 on the US Billboard charts, remained on the charts for more than a year, and by the end of 1972 it had become Motown’s best-selling album of all-time.
On this day in music history: May 21, 1971 - “What’s Going On”, the eleventh studio album by Marvin Gaye is released. Produced by Marvin Gaye, it is recorded at Motown Studio A, Golden World Studios (Motown Studio B), United Sound Studios in Detroit, MI and the Sound Factory in Hollywood, CA from June 1970, March - May 1971. A concept album focusing on the subjects of poverty, drug abuse, and war, its messages immediately resonate with the public. Following the huge success of the title track as a single, Motown demands a full album to go with it ASAP. Recording with Motown’s studio band The Funk Brothers, the basic tracks and vocals for the album is recorded in only ten days of studio time. The initial version of the album, now known as the “Detroit Mix” is mixed by Motown engineers while Gaye is off in California filming a movie. After hearing the initial mix, Gaye orders them shelved and send for the tapes while in California. He adds additional overdubs to several tracks, and completely remixes and re-sequences the album with engineer Lawrence Miles. The album is immediately recognized by critics and the public as an important artistic musical statement upon its release, as well as being a major commercial success. It spins off three singles including “Mercy Mercy Me” (#1 R&B, #4 Pop), “Inner City Blues” (#1 R&B, #9 Pop) and the title track (#1 R&B, #2 Pop). “What’s Going On” spends nine weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B album chart, peaking at number six on the Top 200, is certified 6x Platinum in the US by the RIAA, and is inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1998.