Marvin Gaye almost single-handedly revolutionized soul music when Motown released his self-produced What’s Goin’ On on March 20, 1971. The first overtly socially and politically charged soul album, it’s full of statements (hence no question mark in the title) about war, race, hate, inner cities, abandoned children. It rolled up all of the late-60s social issues into one neat package that Motown leader Berry Gordy would have rejected save for Marvin’s threat to walk if Gordy withheld the album.
But What’s Goin’ On is far more than a period piece. It was a radical departure from the upbeat, soul-pop of 60s Motown. It’s lush and languid and it flows without the sugar coating of Gaye’s earlier Motown classics. It allows long-time Motown session band the Funk Brothers to open up and deliver a jazzy river of drifting funk underneath Gaye’s experimental double vocals. It led the way to a new Motown sound from Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and others. And it was the last Motown release before Gordy left Detroit for Los Angeles, leaving Hitsville, USA and all that great music behind.
The best soul album ever? Possibly. The best Motown album by a solo artist? Absolutely! What’s Goin’ On sat at the top of the U.S. R&B charts for 9 weeks and reached a remarkable but not surprising #6 on the pop album chart. It’s ranked #1 on my Top 25 R&B/Soul album list and Marvin Gaye’s best tracks are in the Playlist Vault at DrRock.com. What’s Goin’ On can be downloaded or purchased as a CD from Amazon and iTunes.