Category Archives: motown

Jimmy Ruffin: "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted"

ON THIS DATE (46 YEARS AGO)
June 3, 1966 – Jimmy Ruffin: “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” b/w “Baby I’ve Got It” (Soul S-35022) 45 single is released in the US.
“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” is a hit single recorded by Jimmy Ruffin and released on Motown Records’ Soul label in the summer of 1966. It is a ballad, with lead singer Jimmy Ruffin recalling the pain that befalls the brokenhearted, and their struggle to overcome their sadness so that they can find happiness in the future of their lives. In 1996, Robson and Jerome covered the song and topped the UK singles chart with it.
The song was written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, and James Dean, and the recording was produced by Witherspoon and William “Mickey” Stevenson. “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” was Jimmy Ruffin’s only Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and remains one of the most-revived of Motown’s hits.
Composers Witherspoon and Riser and lyricist Dean had originally written “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” with the intention of having The Spinners, then an act on Motown’s V.I.P. label, record the tune. Jimmy Ruffin, older brother of Temptations lead singer David Ruffin, persuaded Dean to let him record the song, as its anguished lyric about a man lost in the misery of heartbreak resonated with the singer.
Ruffin’s lead vocal on the recording is augmented by the instrumentation of Motown’s on-house studio band, The Funk Brothers, and the joint backing vocals of Motown session singers The Originals and The Andantes. “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” peaked at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100, and at number six on the Billboard R&B Singles chart.
The song originally featured a spoken introduction by Ruffin, similar in style to many Lou Rawls’s performances of the same time. The spoken verse was removed from the final mix, hence the unusually long instrumental intro on the released version. The spoken verse is present on the alternate mix from the UK 2003 release “Jimmy Ruffin – The Ultimate Motown Collection” and as a new stereo extended mix on the 2005 anthology “The Motown Box”:
A world filled with love is a wonderful sight.
Being in love is one’s heart’s delight.
But that look of love isn’t on my face.
That enchanted feeling has been replaced.

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Filed under 1966, Jimmy Ruffin, motown, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted

Marvin Gaye: Moods of Marvin Gaye

ON THIS DATE (46 YEARS AGO)
May 23, 1966 – Marvin Gaye: Moods of Marvin Gaye is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4.5/5
# Allmusic 4/5 stars
Moods of Marvin Gaye is an album by Marvin Gaye released on this date in 1966 on Tamla.  Six songs from Moods of Marvin Gaye were released as singles: impressively, all reached the Top 40 on the R&B singles chart and four of them reached the Top 40 on the Pop Singles Chart, a rare feat for a solo R&B artist even at that time. Gaye also scored his first two #1 R&B singles, “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar”, both co-written by Gaye’s friend, Berry Gordy’s right-hand man Smokey Robinson.
The album’s plan was to establish the singer as a strong albums-oriented artist, as well as a hit maker, although Gaye was still uncomfortable with performing strictly R&B. He had begun work on a standards album around this time after meeting musician Bobby Scott. However, sessions were unsuccessful. As a matter of fact, Gaye would successfully complete a standards album only in his later years, an album which would be released after his death. For the time being, Gaye was winning more fans and had become a crossover teen idol.
REVIEW
by John Bush, allmusic
After Marvin Gaye recorded tributes to Broadway and Nat King Cole in the previous two years, Motown fans may have had their suspicions raised by an LP titled Moods of Marvin Gaye. Yes, there are a few supper-club standards to be found here, but Gaye moves smoothly between good-time soul and adult pop. Most important are his first two R&B number ones, “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Particular,” both from 1965 and both produced by Smokey Robinson. Berry Gordy’s right-hand man also helmed “Take This Heart of Mine” and “One More Heartache,” another pair of big R&B scores, and just as good as the better-known hits. As for the copyrights not owned by Jobete, the chestnut “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” certainly didn’t need another reading, but Gaye’s take on Willie Nelson’s after-hours classic “Night Life” was inspired. Marvin Gaye was improving with every record, gaining in character and strength of performance, and Moods of Marvin Gaye is a radically better record than its predecessors.
TRACKS:
Side one                                             
1              I’ll Be Doggone (W. Moore, S. Robinson, M. Tarplin) 2:47
2              Little Darling (I Need You) (Holland-Dozier-Holland) 2:35
3              Take This Heart of Mine (Moore, Robinson, Tarplin) 2:49
4              Hey Diddle Diddle (Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Gaye) 2:30
5              One More Heartache (Moore, Robinson, Rogers, Tarplin) 2:42
6              Ain’t That Peculiar (Moore, Robinson, Rogers, Tarplin) 3:00
                                               
Side two                                             
7              Night Life (Walt Breeland, Paul Buskirk, Willie Nelson) 3:05
8              You’ve Been a Long Time Coming 2:13
9              Your Unchanging Love (Holland-Dozier-Holland) 3:13
10           You’re the One For Me (M. Broadnax, C.Paul, S.Wonder) 3:24
11           I Worry ‘Bout You (Norman Mapp) 3:24
12           One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) (Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer) 4:30

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Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On

ON THIS DATE (41 YEARS AGO)
May 21, 1971 – Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 5/5
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album by Marvin Gaye, released on this date in May, 1971 on the Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records. Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit, Michigan and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California. Upon its release in January 1971, “What’s Going On” became Motown’s fastest selling single at that point, going to the number-one spot on the R&B charts for five weeks and number-two for three weeks on the Pop listings, with “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night retaining the top spot.
In 1985, writers on British music weekly the NME voted it best album of all time. In 2004, the album’s title track was ranked number 4 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. A 1999 critics poll conducted by British newspaper Guardian/Observer named it the “Greatest Album of the 20th Century”. In 1997, What’s Going On was named the 17th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV Group, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998 Q magazine readers placed it at number 97, while in 2001 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 4. In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. What’s Going On was ranked #6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, one of three Gaye albums to be included, preceded by 1973’s Let’s Get It On (#165) and 1978’s Here My Dear (#462). The album is Gaye’s highest-ranking entry on the list, as well as several other publications’ lists.
The first Marvin Gaye album credited as produced solely by the artist himself,  What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle, since the album ends on a reprise to the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.
What’s Going On was the first album on which Motown Records’ Funk Brothers, received an official credit. Featuring introspective lyrics about drug abuse, poverty and the Vietnam War, the album was also the first to reflect the beginning of a new socially conscious trend in soul music. What’s Going On was both an immediate commercial and critical success and has endured as a classic of early-1970s soul.
In late March 1970, Marvin Gaye had fallen into a deep depression following the death of his singing partner and fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell, who died of a brain tumor earlier that month. Gaye refused to record or perform, going as far as to attempt an athletic career in football with the Detroit Lions of the NFL. After an unsuccessful tryout for the team, Gaye came in contact with musician Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson, who were working on a politically conscious song called “What’s Going On”. Gaye assisted Cleveland and Benson in completing the composition, and planned to produce the song as a recording for the Motown act The Originals. However, Cleveland and Benson persuaded Gaye to record the song himself.
In June 1970, Gaye recorded “What’s Going On” and his own composition, “God Is Love”, which further expanded Gaye’s inclusion of his spirituality in his music. Recording such material was a different direction for Gaye, who had previously performed and recorded radio-formatted and contemporary songs that were more representative of the Gordy-produced Motown Sound rather than politically or socially-conscious music. When Gaye delivered the songs as the sides for his next 45 RPM single his brother-in-law, Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy, Jr., objected to the material and refused to release the recordings. After already permitting other Motown artists to record and release material that hinted social and political themes – Edwin Starr’s “War”, The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, both released earlier in 1970, and Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All”, released later in the year – Gordy considered “What’s Going On” far too political to be released on radio and also too unfamiliar for the popular music and sound of that time to be commercially successful. Gaye, however, stood his ground and continued to lobby his case to label executives and to Gordy, as he did not want to be bound by Gordy’s or Motown’s version of music.
In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh full-length, non-duets studio album:
“In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say… I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
~ Marvin Gaye
Gordy eventually gave in, certain that the record would flop.
After this success, Berry Gordy requested an entire accompanying album. Gaye began recording the tracks that would eventually comprise his best-known work, the What’s Going On album, handling all of his own production and some of his own songwriting. The entire album was originally mixed in Detroit, with Marvin Gaye out of town and not present. This mix, dubbed “The Detroit Mix”, was scrapped and redone, with Gaye present, in Los Angeles.
The content of What’s Going On was that of a politically charged and deeply personal Motown album, and was notable for including elements of jazz and classical music instrumentation and arrangements. The record was among the first soul albums to place heavy emphasis on political and social concerns such as environmentalism, political corruption, drug abuse, and the Vietnam War, in which Gaye’s brother, Frankie Gaye, had served for three years for the U.S. Army. However, after hearing a preliminary mix of the record, Berry Gordy was not offended by Gaye’s embrace of countercultural politics, but was bothered by the album’s format, which had each song leading to the next. This flow of sound was unconventional and not suited for radio airplay, conflicting with Gordy’s main focus – the commercial aspect. The album’s stylistic use of a song cycle gave it a cohesive feel and led What’s Going On to become known as the first soul music concept album.
The critical and commercial success of the album was immediate and significant. What’s Going On remained on the Billboard Pop Album Charts for over a year and sold over two million copies until the end of 1972, making it Marvin Gaye’s best-selling album to that date until he released Let’s Get It On in 1973. In addition, What’s Going On received the highest ratings from several leading American publications, including Time, Rolling Stone (who named it “Album of the Year”), The New York Times, and Billboard, who gave it the Billboard Trend setter Award of 1971. Upon release, Rolling Stone magazine music critic Vince Aletti praised What’s Going On for its thematic approach towards social and political concerns, while also mentioning the surprise of Motown releasing such an album.
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they’re something new. These, from two of the Corporation’s Finest, represent a subversive concept, allowed only to producers the overseerstars of Motown’s corporate plantation as long as they didn’t get too uppity. Both Gaye and Wonder have been relatively independent at Motown, their careers following their own fluctuations outside the mainstream studio trends, but these latest albums are departures even for them.
Both are self-produced and largely self-composed (Wonder working with his wife Syreeta, Gaye with six others including his wife Anna) personal “statements.” For the first time on the label, both albums contain printed lyrics. Another unexpected precedent: after all these years. Motown has begun to give credit to its studio musicians, listing 39 of them on Gaye’s album and acknowledging for the first time that such people really exist.
Unfortunately, awkwardness easily slipped over in the flow of a song is painfully evident when that song is reduced to printed lines. Although both albums suffer from this over-exposure of lyric stiffness, Gaye’s work is much more supple and conversational ultimately smoothing itself out on what is a very fine record while Wonder’s is too self-conscious and edges into pretentiousness (“Suffocate the new high Ride the thorny mule that cries ‘Dig your grave and step right in'”) the recently-developed Curtis Mayfield Syndrome becoming nearly incomprehensible when sung.
This is not Stevie Wonder’s first self-produced album he did his last, Signed. Sealed and Delivered. as tight and soul-satisfying as any to have come out of Motown but clearly Where I’m Coming From is an attempt to establish a more completely personal, idiosyncratic style and project it on his own terms. Already one of the most inventive, expressive singers performing today, Stevie apparently wanted an opportunity to loosen up outside the confines of the typical Motown single. But he blew it. Not only are the lyrics sadly undistinguished, but much of the production and arrangement is unusually self-indulgent and cluttered with effects that too often obscure the utter virtuosity of Wonder’s singing.
At its worst, in “Do Yourself A Favor” and “I Wanna Talk to You,” both more than five minutes, Wonder gets so hung up on exploring this virtuosity that he runs it into the ground. Failing to realize that an extravagant vocal style draws a great deal of its strength from a contrasting, coolly-controlled arrangement which will set it off to greatest effect, Wonder tends to sink everything in thick studio veneer; the use of doubletracking for vocal self-accompaniment is especially overused.
The most successful cuts, “Think of Me as Your Soldier” and “If You Really Love Me,” are short, unassuming love songs, pleasant vehicles for the Wonder charm. Here his off-hand intensity, his intimate heavy breathing, his joyous yelps stand out clearly as exciting elements of a warm, sensuous style. In the end, though, even vibrant vocals fail to carry the album beyond its own excesses. Quite a disappointment.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is an even more ambitious effort. Where Stevié was content to deliver his messages–however blurred–in three or four songs, Gaye has designed his album as one many-faceted statement on conditions in the world today, made nearly seamless by careful transitions between the cuts. A simple, subdued tone is held throughout, pillowed by a densely-textured instrumental and vocal backing.
At first this sameness in sound persisting from one song to the next is boring, but gradually the concept of the album takes shape and its wholeness becomes very affecting. The style is set in the first cut, “What’s Going On,” with its sweet horn opening line; Gaye’s soft, simmering voice reflecting in on itself beautifully from two or three tracks; the contrast of congas and strings; the breaks an exciting jumble of street-corner jive and scatting. As they are throughout, the lyrics here are hardly brilliant, but without overreaching they capture a certain aching dissatisfaction that is part of the album’s mood.
“What’s Happening Brother” picks up from “What’s Going On,” strengthening its impact by making its situation more specific: a brother returning from Vietnam and trying to get his bearings on the block again, shifting between questions about old hang-outs and fears that there’s no work anywhere: “Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land.” “Mercy, Mercy Me” is one of the most bearable ecology songs, a genre that doesn’t seem to inspire especially subtle or intelligent lyrics; Gaye’s are inoffensive and the song itself is lovely. Considerably changed from the version that had backed the 45 of “What’s Going On,” “God Is Love” still has a strange attraction. It begins, “Don’t go and talk about my father/God is my friend,” and kinda grows on you.
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” ends the album and is one of its finest cuts. Again, an effective combination of latin drumming and strings with multitracked vocals make the most of direct lyrics: “Make me wanna holler/The way they do my life/This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’/No, no baby, this ain’! livin’.” Taking the album full circle, “Inner City Blues” blends back into “What’s Going On,” confirming itself nicely.
One or two other cuts don’t hold together quite as well (“Right On,” the longest number, misses) but the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again. (RS 88)
~ VINCE ALETTI (August 5, 1971)
TRACKS:
All songs produced by Marvin Gaye.
Side one
“What’s Going On” (Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye, Renaldo “Obie” Benson) – 3:53
“What’s Happening Brother” (James Nyx, M. Gaye) – 2:43
“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” (M. Gaye, Anna Gordy Gaye, Elgie Stover) – 3:49
“Save the Children” (Cleveland, M. Gaye, Benson) – 4:03
“God Is Love” (M. Gaye, A. Gaye, Stover, Nyx) – 1:41
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (M. Gaye) – 3:16
Side two
“Right On” (Earl DeRouen, M. Gaye) – 7:31
“Wholy Holy” (Benson, Cleveland, M. Gaye) – 3:08
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (M. Gaye, Nyx) – 5:26
In 2001, a “Deluxe Edition” 2-CD version of the album was released by Motown, which included the original LP as released, the discarded “Detroit Mix” of the album, and the mono 45 RPM mixes of the singles. Also included was a recording of Gaye’s first live concert performance after two years away from the stage following Tammi Terrell’s illness and death, performed at The Kennedy Center Auditorium in his native Washington, D.C., on June 1, 1972.
What’s Going On was reissued and remastered in a deluxe edition with 28 additional tracks. It was released on May 31, 2011 and received general acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 100, based on nine reviews, which indicates “universal acclaim”

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The Supremes: “Your Heart Belongs To Me”


ON THIS DATE (50 YEARS AGO)
May 8, 1962 – The Supremes: “Your Heart Belongs To Me” b/w “(He’s) Seventeen” (Motown M 1027) 45 single is released in the US.
“Your Heart Belongs to Me” is a 1962 song written and composed by The Miracles’ William “Smokey” Robinson and released as a single by Motown singing group The Supremes during their early years with the label. The song is about a woman whose lover is in the armed forces and has “Gone to a far-away land”; its narration has her tell him to always remember their love for each other if he ever gets lonely. Recorded at a time when Mary Wells and The Marvelettes were the dominant female recording acts of the label, the Supremes had struggled to release singles with Supremes members Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson switching lead vocal spots. After the failure of their first single, “I Want a Guy” with Ross in the lead, their second single, the Ballard-led “Buttered Popcorn”, also failed to chart. Wilson’s leads, meanwhile, had not been released on any Motown singles. For this record, Smokey Robinson decided to use Ross for lead vocals for the song. It would prove to be a modest success as the song became the Supremes’ first nationally charted hit at number 95 on the Billboard Hot 100 but failed to chart on the Hot R&B Sides chart. This became the last single that The Supremes made as a quartet. After this record, fourth member Barbara Martin left the group to start a family leaving Ross, Ballard and Wilson as a trio from then on. Martin is not pictured on the cover both due to her pending departure and because she was noticeably pregnant at the time of the photo shoot. Inspired by its modest charting, Berry Gordy would eventually make Ross the sole lead vocalist for the group.
It wouldn’t be until 1976 with the release of “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking” that a Supremes single would feature four Supremes.

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The Jackson 5: ABC

ON THIS DATE (42 YEARS AGO)

May 8, 1970 – The Jackson 5: ABC is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4/5
# allmusic 4.5/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
ABC is the second studio album by The Jackson 5, issued on May 8, 1970 on Motown Records. It featured the number-one singles “ABC” and “The Love You Save”. Also present on the LP are several notable album tracks, including a cover of Funkadelic’s “I’ll Bet You”, “I Found That Girl” (the only lead song from brother Jermaine – Michael takes most of the leads on the album), and “The Young Folks”, originally recorded by the Diana Ross-led version of The Supremes. It peaked at number-four on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart, and at number-one on the Billboard Black Albums chart. It was named number ninety-eight on the VH1 All Time Album Top 100. It remains of one of their most popular efforts selling over 5.7 million copies worldwide.
REVIEW
This is the Jackson Five’s first fully realized album. Their own previous album consisted mainly of earlier Motown songs done over with arrangements which were generally good, but which failed to express the spirit of the Jackson Five any more than they expressed the spirit of the original versions. ABC, however, is an album wholly in the spirit of those great Jackson Five singles, two of which, the title cut and the incredible “The Love You Save,” are included. Catchy melodies, explosive rhythm backgrounds and energetic vocals are the rule here, especially on the first side, which is as strong as anyone could want.
The second side does get into some slow stuff; “La La” and “I Found That Girl” aren’t really the type of material this group should be doing, though the arrangement of the latter (unlike that of “La La,” where the Delfonics’ understated force is replaced by Michael Jackson’s wonderful screeching) has some interest insofar as it shows Motown looking back over its shoulder at the Delfonics and at Gamble-Huff cuteness in general. But it took just the right exercise of imagination to borrow Funkadelic’s “I Bet You,” the most substantial song this minor Detroit group has done and one that would be a credit to any Motown group, and the result is a superlative arrangement.
The basic limitation of the album has to do, of course, with the fact that its material is necessarily the kind that can be handled by young voices. The only really heavy cut is “Don’t Know Why I Love You,” and this is the one for which a more mature vocalist would be most desirable. But aside from that, I like the album. A good Jackson Five song is one that is not only fast, with heavily accented rhythms, but also loose and playful, with built-in irregularities and breathing spaces that Michael and the others can fill with their delightful vocal improvisations. I’m happy to report that almost all the songs on ABC fit this description. (RS 65)
~ ARNOLD BRODSKY (September 3, 1970)
TRACKS:
1   The Love You Save (The Corporation)     3:01
2   One More Chance 2:59
3   ABC (The Corporation) 2:56
4   2-4-6-8 (Gloria Jones, Pam Sawyer) 2:55
5   (Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need (Holland, Dozier, Holland)    
6   Don’t Know Why I Love You (Hardaway, D. Hunter, P.Riser, S.Wonder)   
7   Never Had a Dream Come True (Stevie Wonder, S.Moy, Henry Cosby) 2:58
8   True Love Can Be Beautiful (L.Caston, Jr., Jeanna Jackson, B.Taylor) 3:24
9   La-La (Means I Love You) (Thom Bell, William Hart) 2:52
10 I’ll Bet You (George Clinton, Sidney Barnes, Patrick Lindsey)        
11 I Found That Girl (The Corporation) 2:57
12 The Young Folks (George Gordy, Allen Story) 2:50

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Diana Ross: “Touch Me In The Morning”


MAY 1973 (39 YEARS AGO)
Diana Ross: “Touch Me In The Morning” b/w “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” (Motown M 1239F) 45 single is released in the US.
“Touch Me in the Morning” is a popular song recorded by Diana Ross on the Motown label. In 1973 it became her second solo #1 single (and 14th careerwise) on the Billboard Hot 100 .
It was conceived by then-unproven songwriter and producer Michael Masser. He had been recruited by Motown CEO Berry Gordy and A&R chief Suzanne de Passe. Masser teamed up with the proven ballad lyricist Ron Miller to write it.
According to Masser, in a video documentary about Ross, she “always tried to push hard to get the vocals right for this particular song”, calling it a “draining experience” that resulted in several near-emotional breakdowns when she wasn’t up to her abilities. It was recorded in the early morning hours, as was her custom after she began raising her children. In a Barbara Walters Mother’s Day interview special, her second-oldest daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross, said Diana would put them to bed and record all night, in order to wake her children and send them to school the next morning.
Motown released the song as a single and it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, becoming her longest-charting record, remaining on the chart for 21 weeks. It also spent a week at #1 on the adult contemporary chart, her first #1 on that chart. Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King, and Venetta Fields sang background vocals.
It marked a turning point in both the careers of Diana Ross and Michael Masser: it reinvigorated her singing career, coming immediately after her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in her acting debut, Lady Sings the Blues; it introduced Masser to an audience that would become accustomed to his prowess at writing good love songs.

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ON THIS DATE (May 21) Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On is released.

ON THIS DATE (40 YEARS AGO)
May 21, 1971 – Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On is released.

RF Rating 5/5 stars
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Billboard (favorable)
# Chicago Tribune 4/4 stars
# Robert Christgau (B+)
# The Observer 5/5 stars
# Q 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone 5/5 stars
# Slant Magazine 4/5 stars
# Uncut 5/5 stars

What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album by Marvin Gaye, released May 21, 1971 on the Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records. Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit, Michigan and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California.

The first Marvin Gaye album credited as produced solely by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle, since the album ends on a reprise to the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.

What’s Going On was the first album on which Motown Records’ main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit. Featuring introspective lyrics about drug abuse, poverty and the Vietnam War, the album was also the first to reflect the beginning of a new socially conscious trend in soul music. What’s Going On was both an immediate commercial and critical success and has endured as a classic of early-1970s soul. A deluxe edition set of the album was released on February 27, 1972, and featured a rare live concert shot at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center where the singer was given the key to the city.

In worldwide critics/artists and public surveys, it has been voted as one of the landmark recordings in pop music history and is considered to be one of the greatest albums ever made. In 2003, the album was ranked number 6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

In late March 1970, Marvin Gaye had fallen into a deep depression following the death of his singing partner and fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell, who died of a brain tumor earlier that month. Gaye refused to record or perform, going as far as to attempt an athletic career in football with the Detroit Lions of the NFL. After an unsuccessful tryout for the team, Gaye came in contact with musician Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson, who were working on a politically conscious song called “What’s Going On”. Gaye assisted Cleveland and Benson in completing the composition, and planned to produce the song as a recording for the Motown act The Originals. However, Cleveland and Benson persuaded Gaye to record the song himself.

In June 1970, Gaye recorded “What’s Going On” and his own composition, “God Is Love”, which further expanded Gaye’s inclusion of his spirituality in his music. Recording such material was a different direction for Gaye, who had previously performed and recorded radio-formatted and contemporary songs that were more representative of the Gordy-produced Motown Sound rather than politically or socially-conscious music. When Gaye delivered the songs as the sides for his next 45 RPM single his brother-in-law, Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy, Jr., objected to the material and refused to release the recordings. After already permitting other Motown artists to record and release material that hinted social and political themes – Edwin Starr’s “War”, The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, both released earlier in 1970, and Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All”, released later in the year – Gordy considered “What’s Going On” far too political to be released on radio and also too unfamiliar for the popular music and sound of that time to be commercially successful. Gaye, however, stood his ground and continued to lobby his case to label executives and to Gordy, as he did not want to be bound by Gordy’s or Motown’s version of music.

In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh full-length, non-duets studio album:

In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say… I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.
—Marvin Gaye

Gordy eventually gave in, certain that the record would flop. Upon its release in January 1971, “What’s Going On” became Motown’s fastest selling single at that point, going to the number-one spot on the R&B charts for five weeks and number-two for three weeks on the Pop listings, with “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night retaining the top spot.

After this success, Berry Gordy requested an entire accompanying album. Gaye began recording the tracks that would eventually comprise his best-known work, the What’s Going On album, handling all of his own production and some of his own songwriting. The entire album was originally mixed in Detroit, with Marvin Gaye out of town and not present. This mix, dubbed “The Detroit Mix”, was scrapped and redone, with Gaye present, in Los Angeles.

The content of What’s Going On was that of a politically charged and deeply personal Motown album, and was notable for including elements of jazz and classical music instrumentation and arrangements. The record was among the first soul albums to place heavy emphasis on political and social concerns such as environmentalism, political corruption, drug abuse, and the Vietnam War, in which Gaye’s brother, Frankie Gaye, had served for three years for the U.S. Army. However, after hearing a preliminary mix of the record, Berry Gordy was not offended by Gaye’s embrace of countercultural politics, but was bothered by the album’s format, which had each song leading to the next. This flow of sound was unconventional and not suited for radio airplay, conflicting with Gordy’s main focus – the commercial aspect. The album’s stylistic use of a song cycle gave it a cohesive feel and led What’s Going On to become known as the first soul music concept album.

The critical and commercial success of the album was immediate and significant. What’s Going On remained on the Billboard Pop Album Charts for over a year and sold over two million copies until the end of 1972, making it Marvin Gaye’s best-selling album to that date until he released Let’s Get It On in 1973. In addition, What’s Going On received the highest ratings from several leading American publications, including Time, Rolling Stone (who named it “Album of the Year”), The New York Times, and Billboard, who gave it the Billboard Trend setter Award of 1971. Upon release, Rolling Stone magazine music critic Vince Aletti praised What’s Going On for its thematic approach towards social and political concerns, while also mentioning the surprise of Motown releasing such an album. In a review of the album and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From, Aletti wrote:

Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they’re something new… the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again.
—Vince Aletti

Later on, many artists from different musical genres covered songs from the album, most notably live recordings by Aretha Franklin (“Wholy Holy” on Amazing Grace) and Donny Hathaway (“What’s Going On” on Donny Hathaway Live), as well as Robert Palmer’s medley of “Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You”, among others. “Mercy Mercy Me” was featured as the b-side to The Strokes’ single “You Only Live Once”.

What’s Going On has been reissued on cassette tape and compact disc as well. In 2001, a “Deluxe Edition” 2-CD version of the album was released by Motown, which included the original LP as released, the discarded “Detroit Mix” of the album, and the mono 45 RPM mixes of the singles. Also included was a recording of Gaye’s first live concert performance after two years away from the stage following Tammi Terrell’s illness and death, performed at The Kennedy Center Auditorium in his native Washington, D.C., on June 1, 1972.

AWARDS & ACCOLADES
In 1985, writers on British music weekly the NME voted it best album of all time. In 2004, the album’s title track was ranked number 4 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. A 1999 critics poll conducted by British newspaper Guardian/Observer named it the “Greatest Album of the 20th Century”. In 1997, What’s Going On was named the 17th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV Group, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998 Q magazine readers placed it at number 97, while in 2001 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 4. In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. What’s Going On was ranked #6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, one of three Gaye albums to be included, preceded by 1973’s Let’s Get It On (#165) and 1978’s Here My Dear (#462). The album is Gaye’s highest-ranking entry on the list, as well as several other publications’ lists.

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