Remembering Marvin Gaye's Iconic 'What's Going On' Marvin Gaye released his landmark album What's Going On 50 years ago today. We hear from artists and activists who were deeply inspired by the album's music and its messages.

Remembering Marvin Gaye's Iconic 'What's Going On'

Remembering Marvin Gaye's Iconic 'What's Going On'

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Marvin Gaye released his landmark album What's Going On 50 years ago today. We hear from artists and activists who were deeply inspired by the album's music and its messages.

Marvin Gaye, photographed in 1970, one year ahead of the release of What's Going On. Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images hide caption

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Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NPR is celebrating 50 years on the air, so we're looking back to our birth year, 1971. On this day 50 years ago, Marvin Gaye released an album still considered a masterpiece, "What's Going On." The record was a complete departure for the Motown star. Up to that point, Gaye was known for R&B pop hits like "Heard It Through The Grapevine" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Tammi Terrell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Listen, baby, ain't no mountain high, ain't no valley low, ain't no river wide enough, baby.

TAMMI TERRELL: (Singing) If you need me call me, no matter where you are, no matter how far.

GAYE: (Singing) Don't worry, baby.

MARTIN: Tammi Terrell's death in 1970 devastated Marvin Gaye. With the battle for civil rights going on at the time and anti-Vietnam War protests, he decided to turn his focus to songs that addressed real-world anger and fear. He was motivated in part by what he learned from his younger brother, who served in Vietnam. The album includes the title track, "What's Going On," "Mercy Mercy Me" and "Inner City Blues." We're going to hear now from three people who were deeply inspired by these songs. And we start with Kimo Williams, a Vietnam veteran and composer.

KIMO WILLIAMS: One of my favorite albums was by Chicago Transit Authority. I loved Grand Funk Railroad, The Supremes, really loved The Temptations and then suddenly, "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, man, what's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everything was everything (ph).

WILLIAMS: It had this kind of smooth flow to it, and for the first time, I connected to the lyrical content.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying.

WILLIAMS: I think it's genius at how he's able to talk to all of us through the verses of mother, mother, father, father and then brother, brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying.

WILLIAMS: That song is about a Vietnam veteran who's wondering what's going on now that he's back from Vietnam. So that one speaks to me very, very closely because that's the same question I was asking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) What's going on? What's going on? What's going on? What's going on? What's going on? What's going on?

WILLIAMS: What's going on with the hippies? What's going on with the music? What's going on with the protests? Where do I fit in? What is it that I should do? Where should I go? You're asking these questions. And how can it be that we're still asking that question?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Vocalizing).

EVA JEFFERSON PATERSON: I think the plight and the history of Africans in this country is one of brutality. So when Gaye sings about don't punish me with brutality, that hit you in 1971 and it hits you in 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) Don't punish me with brutality.

JEFFERSON PATERSON: I'm Eva Jefferson Paterson. I'm a civil rights lawyer in Oakland, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) What's going on? What's going on? What's going on? What's going on? What's going on? What's going on?

JEFFERSON PATERSON: The lyrics speak of American failure, of American oppression, of the fact that America still mistreats many of its citizens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, man, what's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Right on. Right on.

MICHAEL CERMAK: My name is Michael Cermak. I am a Ph.D. in environmental sociology from Boston College.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "MERCY MERCY ME")

CERMAK: The song "Mercy Mercy Me" sort of stood out to me - oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERCY MERCY ME")

GAYE: (Singing) Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas, fish full of mercury.

CERMAK: That one really hit me because I was an environmental science scholar studying the world's oceans, literally, and studying the creatures in the oceans and starting to learn that same bad news all over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERCY MERCY ME")

GAYE: (Singing) Oh, mercy, mercy me.

CERMAK: In the late 2000s, I found myself doing outreach education with high schoolers and teaching this environmental science using standardized textbooks and realizing that I wasn't really engaging the students - right? - seeing a kind of a wall of blank faces. But, of course, when we could talk about Marvin Gaye, several of them knew who he was. And so that was a great bridge to how we could teach in a more diverse manner about environmental issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "MERCY MERCY ME")

JEFFERSON PATERSON: The other song that actually guts me is the song - and I feel like I'm going to choke up now talking about it, but it's the song "Inner City Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

GAYE: (Vocalizing).

JEFFERSON PATERSON: And there's that lyric - makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

GAYE: (Singing) Oh, make me want to holler the way they do my life, yeah, make me want to holler the way they do my life.

JEFFERSON PATERSON: He just goes through a litany of all the terrible things that have happened and are continuing to happen to Black people and other people, Latinos, Asian Americans are catching hell now, progressive people, trans people - makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands - and you just wonder why these injustices go on and on and on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

GAYE: (Singing) Bills pile up sky high, send that boy off to die. Oh, make me want to holler the way they do my life, yeah, make me want to holler the way they do my life.

JEFFERSON PATERSON: So we thank you, Marvin Gaye. I love this song. I'll play it until I die. And maybe someday I'll come back and say, you know, things are better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

GAYE: (Vocalizing).

MARTIN: That was Eva Jefferson Paterson, a civil rights lawyer who co-founded the Equal Justice Society and also sings in a Motown cover band in Oakland, Calif.; Michael Cermak, an environmental sociologist who co-owns Green Dragons, a health and wellness program for youth in the Boston area; and Kimo Williams, a Vietnam veteran and composer who recently created a video memorial to the more than 58,000 Americans who died during that war. They were paying tribute to Marvin Gaye's classic album, "What's Going On," released 50 years ago today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

GAYE: (Singing) Natural fact is, oh, honey, that I can't pay my taxes.

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