Marvin Gaye at the piano (public domain)

Marvin Gaye at the piano (public domain)

There are so many places where we can begin the story of Marvin Gaye’s seminal album What’s Going On.  It seems unfair to pick only a single starting point for an album that ranges through so much musical and thematic territory, and that feels so personal to the Gaye.

But if we have to pick a place, we might as well begin on October 14, 1967. That evening, Gaye was in Virginia performing a concert with his new duet partner Tammi Terrell. Terrell and Gaye had been recording duets for Motown since early in the year, and by all accounts, she was his ideal duet partner, easing his shyness and easily blending her voice with his. They had scored a pop hit with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and they had another on the way in “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You.”

That night in Virginia, though, made their commercial success pale in comparison. Terrell collapsed on stage and had to be helped off by Gaye. Soon after, she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She worked through the initial stages of her fight against the disease, but by the end of 1968 she had retired from performance. She died in March of 1970 at the age of 24.

Marvin Gaye took Terrell’s deteriorating health very badly, and after her death he withdrew from performance for some months. His seclusion could not have come at a worse time for Motown. Gaye had scored Motown’s biggest hit to date with 1968’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and he had rapidly become one of Motown’s most in-demand artists.

The Factory

Gaye’s withdrawal from recording was not only tied to his grief over Terrell’s death, though. Gaye had long had a tumultuous relationship with Motown head Berry Gordy (which was not helped by his tumultuous marriage to Gordy’s sister Anna). The primary point of contention between Gordy and Gaye was Gaye’s desire to work as a producer and a songwriter, as well as a singer, for Motown’s famous factory system of record production.

Unfortunately for Gaye, such a transition was made almost impossible by that very separation of labor that characterized Motown’s corporate structure. Gordy’s vision of the label relied on individuals performing there connected by separate functions: songwriter/producer teams wrote songs and produced recordings; artists went into the studio and sang; the back up band, known collectively as the Funk Brothers, provided the backing tracks; engineers recorded the music; and Gordy reigned over it all. The only major case of an artist making the transition to record production was Smokey Robinson, and Robinson’s relationship with Gordy was as positive as Gaye’s was combative.

Bibliography

Edmonds, Ben. 2003. What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye and the Last Days of the Motown Sound. Edinburgh: Mojo Books.