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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Forty years ago, one of Motown's greatest soul singers released a ground-breaking album.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying...

MONTAGNE: Today, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" is considered one of his finest albums. But in 1971, it was a major departure from the radio-friendly Motown sound he was known for.

Mr. AUDLEY SMITH (CEO, Motown Historical Museum): You would be fascinated to see how his music transitioned to more socially conscious lyrics, reflective of the times of the late '60s and '70s.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

That's Audley Smith. He's the CEO of Detroit's Motown Museum, and he's been looking at some of the original sheet music in Marvin Gaye's own handwriting, which is on display at the museum.

MONTAGNE: When the album was first released, Audley Smith was a college student in Detroit which had seen its share of riots and racial strife. He says the song "What's Going On" was an anthem of social awareness.

Mr. SMITH: It was important to be a part of what was happening in terms of social activism in the city of Detroit. And to have Marvin Gaye come out with a song that reinforced that necessity to be conscious, to be active, was a wonderful thing.

MONTAGNE: While many associate Marvin Gaye with the city of Detroit, he was born and raised in the nation's capital.

KELLY: And his spirit lives on at a small Washington bistro that's named for him. Marvin features a combination of soul food and Belgian cuisine in honor of the time Gaye spent living in Belgium.

We caught up with Eric Hilton, one of the owners of the restaurant. He's a musician in his own right. He's half of the electronic duo Thievery Corporation, and he explained to us why "What's Going On" is his favorite album.

Mr. ERIC HILTON (Co-owner, Marvin Bistro): When you listen to the lushness of that record and the orchestration and the intricacies of the production, it's pretty mind-boggling if you're a music producer.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Happening Brother")

Mr. GAYE: (Singing) Hey, baby. What you know good? I'm just getting back but you knew I would. War is hell. When will it end? When will people start getting together again? Are things...

Mr. HILTON: It's interesting. You could almost, like, draw comparisons to, like, the last several years in the U.S. You know, I think we're in three wars and the country itself is going broke. You know, if Marvin was here in he'd probably be singing about it.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Happening Brother")

Mr. GAYE: (Singing) Say, man, I just don't understand what's going on across this land. Ah, what's happening, brother? Yeah...

MONTAGNE: Next week, the label Motown UME will release a special CD and vinyl box set with rare recordings to commemorate the 40th anniversary of "What's Going On."

KELLY: And you can read appreciations of the album from NPR staffers as part of our Songs We Love series. Go to NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Happening Brother")

Mr. GAYE: (Singing) How in the world have you been? Tell me, I want to know what's still happening, brother. What's happening? Ah, what's happening brother? What's happening, my man? Woo. Ah, what's happening, brother? Hey, man, woo. What's happening, brother? What's been shaking up and down?

KELLY: This is NPR News.

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