From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

I’ve been thinking a lot about Marvin Gaye recently.  He is, for me a least, the yardstick that all R&B singers (hell, all singers) are measured by.   His life was also something of a contradiction.  He could be religious, profane, introspective, romantic, highly political, debauched and raunchy in his music– and his personal life.  Like all of us, Marvin Gaye had a lot of layers.  His battles with his personal demons and his tragic murder at the hand of his own father are something out of a Greek tragedy.  He’s been gone for some time now, yet his music (like all great music) sounds like it could have been made today.

By the end of the ’60s Marvin was tired of the music he was making– and fed up with the state of the world.  Having built his career on the highly produced, highly stylized singles produced out of Berry Gordy’s Motown, he fought for the artistic right to do an about face and write, produce, and record “What’s Going On” in 1971.  It is without question one of the finest albums of that decade, and perhaps in all of popular music.

“What’s Going On” changed everything for Marvin– he was now perceived as a serious and complex artist.  It also veered R&B off into completely new territory.  Heavily influenced by the politics of the day, the hippie culture, and the Black Power movement– the record is a high water mark for records of that time.  It’s equal parts concept album, political album, and religious preaching.  It’s also the only album I have ever listened to that combines all these elements and puts you squarely into the black, urban neighborhoods of the early 1970s.  The joy, pain, longing, uncertainly, and ultimately wanting to escape that experience are powerful themes explored over the course of the nine songs.


“If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else”

Marvin Gaye (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

This was uncharted territory for a black artist at that time.  While some, notably Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes had explored the true album format versus a collection of singles–Marvin was the first to do it.  It was also a massive risk for both Marvin and Motown to release this album.  Motown was largely known for radio friendly, crossover singles, not albums that lamented the Vietnam War, drugs in the ghetto, pollution, racism, and overtly religious themes.  There was a lot of fear the album would flop, especially with the white audience Motown had worked hard to cultivate.  The album broke to enormous critical and fan approval.  Anyone who listens to “What’s Going On” will be greeted by a sound experience not unlike listening to other epic recordings such as– “Blood on the Tracks”, “The White Album”, or “The Wall”.  It is that complex, that immense, and that good.  It listens more like an opera or symphony then a pop album.

It shows how diverse, some would say crazy Marvin was that the follow-up was the equally legendary “Let’s Get it On”, which celebrates, eh-hem, the arts of the bedroom.  By this point Marvin was heavily into drugs and his life, like a lot of artists of his generation, had spiraled out of control.  He still managed to make a few great songs– I mean you could not start a party back in the day without “Got to Give it Up”, and “Sexual Healing” was a comeback for him.  But Marvin could never re-channel the creative energy from the early ’70s.

Marvin himself said it best, “As an artist, my purpose is to awaken the human spirit.”


Eli Getson

Marvin Gaye (Photos by Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Marvin Gaye (Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Marvin Gaye walking ahead of his Rolls Royce in Notting Hill, London. (John Minihan / Evening Standard / Getty Images)

Marvin Gaye performing on tv show (Photo by David Redfern / Redferns/ Getty Images)

1964, London– Marvin Gaye Holding a Sign with His Name –Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis


  1. Marvin himself said it best, “As an artist, my purpose is to awaken the human spirit.”
    I hope you will always live in Spirits. You have mine forever and a day…love & peace…

  2. Marvin was my John Lennon. And for black folks (and white folks like me growing up in Flint, Detroit – and inner-cities all over the country) his loss was profound.

    It was the day after my 12th birthday that we lost him, and only 4 years after Lennon. The circumstances and tragedy were almost identical.

    Marvin was his own genre. How often would you say to someone “What do you feel like listening to? Jazz? Blues? Rock?”

    “Put on Marvin Gaye” – he was his own genre.

    The author of this article is 100% correct. Barry Gordy thought Marvin was out of his mind wanting to release “What’s Going On” and fought it all the way. When it was released, Marvin went from entertainer to prophet overnight.

    When Marvin died I cried and cried. I miss him so much. But his music makes me smile, groove, laugh, and experience joy on levels that few people can understand, and for that gift, I will be forever eternally grateful.

    I highly recommend the special 30th anniversary two-disc deluxe edition of “What’s Going On” which has all sorts of varying versions of the original cuts, 35 songs in total…

  3. Marvin was a master. “What’s Going On” speaks as much to today as yesterday. Hope Obama has got it on his iPod. Must go and listen…

  4. Marvin Gaye — I just love his music. Listening to him, it’s as if his music works his way through my body and spirit. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Marvin led an extraordinary life. No question. His music is timeless.

    I listen to his duets with Tammy Terrell is it’s well, magic.

  6. Your blog is the shit!!!! I love it. I spend most of my days listening to older music & lamenting that music is so dang horrible these days. I noticed that you haven’t done a post yet on Otis Redding or Nina Simone. Is such a post in your future?

  7. There’s only three things that’s for sure; taxes, death and trouble…this I know.

    I come up hard…I be for real.

  8. Got my 14 year old daughter listening to Marvin and Tammy Terrell… And I second the comment about this blog: It’s a daily stop. Thank you.

  9. I really don’t know what to say… I’m truly speechless. Your website is charming, authentic and relevant. It’s voice is audible and clear without being arrogant or obnoxious. It is smart without being too cute or clever. It is the best blog on the web. I would love for you to checkout my website/blog if you ever have the time. I do not want to leave the my websites name because I don’t want it to be confused as a shameless plug to your readers. If you could email at your earliest convenience I will give you my site’s url. Again, I will be back again… and again… and again. Thank You

    • My god, I remember this like is was yesterday. Marvin looked flawless, sang beautifully, and Julius Erving was All Star MVP. The tab collar, the tie, the pocket square the voice, the rendition of the Star Spangled Banner…he was one of a kind.

      Thanks everyone for all your comments. I miss Marvin quite a bit.

  10. His music is funky, sexy, beautiful and he’s one of my absolute favorites. I really enjoyed reading this Eli. Cheers.

    • Don’t sell the album “I Want You” short. It followed WGO and LGIO and is just as strong as those two. I would say that was his high-water mark as an artist. He would never again reach such heights.

      Your blog is a delight. Thanks.

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