Category Archives: Berry Gordy

‘What’s Going On’ at 45: The Time Marvin Gaye Reminded Us That Only Love Could Conquer Hate

Marvin Gaye (1971) - What's Going On (Deluxe Edition 2001) (A)

Marvin Gaye had to fight Berry Gordy at Motown to get this album made and released. The label was transitioning from Detroit to Los Angeles at the time. Vietnam kept raging on,President Nixon was blowing a dog whistle to bring down the sociopolitcal revolts of the 60’s and Marvin was depressed. He decided to write an album from the point of view of his brother Frankie-coming back into an unwelcoming America from Vietnam. With the help of the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Motown’s bass maestro James Jamerson, Marvin came up with a musical masterpiece whose appeal is still evolving.

What’s Going On has a basic groove-a cinematic soul jazz sort of sound on just about every song. Marvin scats and improvises many of the vocal adlibs himself. The title song begins the album on a happier note-hoping that people will come to deal with the racial,political and ecological concerns Marvin is so troubled by. By the time of the instrumentally brilliant,percussive Latin soul stomp of “Inner City Blues”,Marvin has given up. He sings “make me wanna holler/throw up both my hands”. To this day,it’s really up to the given listener whether they feel Marvin’s mixed emotions here are cathartic or enervating.

Berry Gordy turned out to be very wrong that this album had no potential. Not only was it a huge commercial success for Marvin Gaye,but he could hardly go one concert after this without inserting the title song of this album into his set. That goes to show how sometimes,the artist making the music really has more of a finger on the pulse of the people than those peddling their raw creative material. In 2001,the album was expanded into a 2 CD deluxe edition. Upon hearing it,I went to Amazon.com and reviewed this new presentation of this 1971 classic on thoroughly musical terms:

How do you make a overly reissued album classic better? Well actually this one DOES-I love all the songs on ‘What’s Going On’-it’s a great album but I always felt that it was highly overproduced.This one starts with the original followed by a different variation on the same album called ‘the original Detroit Mix’-THIS version is far more understated in the finest Donny Hathaway tradition and truly brings out the richness of Marvin’s voice and the depth of his vision-the sparer arrangement actually better expresses the music’s message of urban and environmental blight.There’s still orchestration but it isn’t mixed so high.

It’s also forcing one to acknowledge how great a pianist Gaye is.And that’s why I highly recommend that those who purchased previous issues of this CD should go out and pick this set up-that along with a bonus disk of live material and outtakes make this the definitive version of this album-to such an extent myself bought this and gave my original CD issue of this album (in this case the tepid ripoff of 1994’s so called ‘deluxe edition’) to my dad,a fellow music lover who I felt would benefit from having the album in his collection alongside his other classics like The Beatles White Album,Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ and John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ where it belongs!For those who want to replace an old copy of this CD with a better one LOOK NO FURTHER!For those you for whatever reason haven’t been initiated-well,what more can I say-there is no better place to come!

Marvin was seeking with this album,to quote George Clinton about funk in general,not to tell people what to think but that they CAN think. It begins with a black man who’d made good in the world. And him looking through the eyes of a loved one who wasn’t so lucky in that regard. He starts out with a degree of optimism. By the end of the album,one realizes how much of a thoroughly human figure Marvin Gaye was. By the time it ends, he has almost lost  hope. Especially with Jamerson’s bass lines,the instrumentation is what tends to carry the positivity through when even Marvin can’t anymore.

This is the type of album inspired a lot of artists to make what I refer to as “people music”-a type of message music that takes the ethnocentric melodies and rhythms of the artists back-round to express important ideas. Unintentionally, this album became the “people music” for Generation X . This is an intelligent and aware generation of Americans who often lacked focus and interest. And with the election of Gen Xer Barack Obama for two presidential terms in America, this album seemingly succeeded in getting a generation who didn’t want to get involved to find that way to bring  loving here today.

 

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Filed under 1960's, 1971, Berry Gordy, cinematic soul, Detroit, Frankie Gaye, Generation X, James Jamerson, Los Angeles, Marvin Gaye, message music, Motown, people music, Renaldo Obie Benson, Vietnam War, What's Going on

Stevie Wonder’s ‘Up-Tight’ album turns 50!

Uptight

Stevie Wonder’s 1966 album Up-Tight is likely the most important album in his entire career. After a few years of releasing albums of standards,beach party pop and soul jazz with the moniker “little” attached to his name,the Motown record label wanted to drop Wonder from their roster. A lot of this had to do with his voice changing during puberty. Songwriter Sylvia Moy,also the label’s first female songwriter,saw 15 year old Wonder as being on the cusp of breaking through into someone musically enormous. So she got Berry Gordy to agree to keep Wonder on Motown if she could write a new hit for him.

One of the most important thing about Stevie Wonder in the mid 1960’s was bought up during a conservation between myself and friend Henrique Hopkins. And that is that unlike some child prodigies whose careers flow forward with age. Wonder had two separate careers. First was that of Little Stevie Wonder,a high voiced teen singer and harmonica virtuoso. Then came Stevie Wonder,a talented composer/musical/vocalist who was on the way to becoming a major musical icon of his generation. So on the album Up-Tight,Stevie Wonder was reborn as a maturing artist on the way to adulthood.

Sylvia of course came up with the classic Motown soul stomp of “Uptight (Everything Is Alright)”. Of course “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby” and “Ain’t That Asking For Trouble” both tell the story of that song,both musically and lyrically,ongoing. For the most part however this album finds Stevie forging ahead. My favorite here is actually “Love A Go Go” which,in Motown recycling song style,takes the opening horn charts of “Dancing In The Streets” and applies them to a breezy,catchy pop/soul number showcasing Stevie singing in his breathy falsetto we rarely hear from him.

“Blowing In The Wind” has this musicality similar to “A Place In The Sun” putting Bob Dylan’s rhetorical protest anthem into a rhythm & blues vocal and instrumental context. “Hold Me”,”I Want My Baby Back” and the poignant “With A Child’s Heart” are smooth,creamy numbers again anticipating his funky soul sound of his 70’s breakthrough by half a decade. “Teach Me Tonight” and the stomping “Music Talk” are hard edged,funky soul-the latter being one of Stevie’s strongest uptempo numbers of the 60’s. Only “Contract On Love”,recorded before Stevie’s voice had changed, represents the “Little Stevie Wonder” sound at all on this album.

One thing that really shines about this album was Stevie Wonder being presented once and for all as an uptempo based artist. His dance songs not only had an energetic stomp somewhat different than other Motown hits of the mid 60’s. But his thematic persona was starting to developing as well. On the title song,he speaks of being “a poor mans son”. And by covering Bob Dylan protest folk standards,it’s becoming clear that Wonder is already deeply connected to the social conscientiousness  that defined many of his generation. It not only reinvigorated his career,but started a new movement at Motown.

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Filed under 1960's, Berry Gordy, child stars, classic albums, message songs, Motown, Motown Sound, soul pop, Stevie Wonder, Sylvia Moy, Uncategorized