Song Lyric Sunday – What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye

Brother, Brother, Brother

This week, our host for Song Lyric Sunday, Jim Adams, has prompted us with Brother, Sister and Siblings. I can think of several songs but I’m curious to see what others come up with today. Maybe some siblings in a duo or band.

My choice is a great song by Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” from the controversial album of the same name released in 1971. The album was ahead of its time with references to protests, anti-war and climate change in songs such as What’s Going On and Mercy, Mercy, Me.

When you read the story behind this song and album you will realize that history continues to repeat itself. What was happening then in the 60s is happening right now in 2020.

The song topped Detroit’s Metro Times list of the 100 Greatest Detroit Songs of All Time, and in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the fourth-greatest song of all time; in its updated 2011 list, the song remained at that position. It is included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, along with two other songs by the singer. It was also listed at number fourteen on VH-1’s 100 Greatest Rock Songs. 

The song’s inspiration came from Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown vocal group the Four Tops, after he and the group’s tour bus arrived at Berkeley on May 15, 1969. While there, Benson witnessed police brutality and violence in the city’s People’s Park during a protest held by anti-war activists in what was hailed later as “Bloody Thursday”.  Upset by the situation, Benson said to author Ben Edmonds that as he saw this, he asked, “‘What is happening here?’ One question led to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets?” 

Upset, he discussed what he witnessed with friend and songwriter Al Cleveland, who in turn wrote and composed a song to reflect Benson’s concerns. Benson wanted to give the song to his group but the other Four Tops turned down the request. “My partners told me it was a protest song”, Benson said later, “I said ‘no man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what’s going on.” In 1970, Benson presented the untitled song to Marvin Gaye, who added a new melody and revised the song to his liking, adding in his own lyrics. Benson later said Gaye tweaked and enriched the song, “added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story than a song… we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.”  Gaye titled it “What’s Going On”. When Gaye initially thought the song’s moody feel would be appropriate to be recorded by The Originals, Benson convinced Gaye to record it as his own song.

Gaye, himself, had been inspired by social ills committed in the United States, citing the 1965 Watts riots as a turning point in his life in which he asked himself, “‘With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”  Gaye was also influenced by emotional conversations shared between him and his brother Frankie, who had returned from three years of service at the Vietnam War and his namesake cousin’s death while serving troops.  During phone conversations with Berry Gordy, who was vacationing in the Bahamas at the time, Gaye had told Gordy that he wanted to record a protest record, to which Gordy said in response, “Marvin, don’t be ridiculous. That’s taking things too far.”  Courtesy of Wiki

One of Motown Records’ most successful artists, Gaye was married to Anna Gordy, who was the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. The singer met Anna in 1960 after the disbandment of the Doo-Wop group Harvey and the Moonglows led him to follow leader Harvey Fuqua to Detroit. He began working as a drummer for Anna Records, a short-lived label run by the Gordy sisters (Anna and Gwen) along with songwriter Billy Davis.

Although Anna was 17 years older than Gaye, the pair married in June of 1963, a month after the singer released his first top-10 single, “Pride and Joy.”

The marriage ended in divorce, and Gaye named his 1976 album Here, My Dear after agreeing that royalties from the album would be used to pay alimony to Anna. Even though Gaye knew he would not see any money from the album, he still gave it his best effort.

Early in his career, Gaye was teamed with female Motown artists including Mary Wells and Kim Weston. It was his match with Terrell, however, that made magic. The duo recorded several hits together, often penned by the songwriting team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “Your Precious Love.”

Ashford recalled the duo’s chemistry in an interview with Tavis Smiley: “The two of them together, that blend, I mean, it was like ice cream and cookies or whatever you want to call it, you know, just a good blend.”

Little did they know, their last concert performance together would be at a Homecoming celebration at the Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in 1967. Terrell collapsed onstage as Gaye rushed to catch her, a result of a brain tumor that would take her life three years later and leave Gaye devastated. According to John Pumilia’s article “Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell: Perfect Together,” Gaye recalled: “I think maybe what scared me the most was that I was so angered by the senselessness of it all. I had to accept that it was God’s will, but it was difficult to understand at the time. I grieved for years, and the fact that deep down inside I hated performing with somewhat of a passion made it even easier for me to stop. After taking time off, I developed a real fear of performing and it was even more difficult to come back.”

One of his last public performances was singing the US national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. At the time, performers were expected to give a restrained and traditional performance when singing the national anthem, but Gaye delivered an emotional performance similar to other songs he would sing in concert. This caused some controversy, but the idea of personalizing the national anthem caught on, and singers often add personal touches to the song even today. >>

One day before the singer’s 45th birthday, an argument between Marvin Jr. and Marvin Sr. escalated into violence. The reasons behind the confrontation are murky. Some claim it was the conclusion of a decades-long period of abuse that the singer endured from his father. Others say depressed Marvin Jr. used his father’s rage as a way to commit suicide without actually having to pull the trigger himself. Regardless, on the night of April 1, 1984, Marvin Jr. was shot twice: once in the chest, once in the shoulder. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, but his heart had stopped beating and attempts to resuscitate him failed. His funeral took place three days later at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, with notable mourners including Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Berry Gordy.

According to David Ritz’s Divided Soul: The Life Of Marvin Gaye, Marvin Sr. died without any recollection of shooting his son. After a six-year suspended sentence and a five-year probation period for voluntary manslaughter, he lived the rest of his life in nursing homes in Southern California. He died on October 10, 1998 at the age of 84..

Marvin Gaye always knew he was destined for greatness, but at 17 years old he wasn’t just thinking about singing; he was thinking about flying. As his home life became increasingly volatile, Gaye decided to escape to the United States Air Force and enlist as a Basic Airman. The reality of service and authority didn’t match his romanticized vision of soaring the skies. He realized all too quickly that he didn’t like peeling potatoes and certainly didn’t like taking orders.

“I needed to see the world. I thought that’s what the Air Force would be, but the Air Force was prison,” author David Ritz quotes Gaye in his biography, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. The singer remembered writing his superior officer a letter detailing everything that was wrong with the Air Force. That didn’t go over well.

After just eight months of duty, Gaye was desperate to be sent home. He disobeyed every order he could in an attempt to be kicked out. Eventually, he faked mental illness to get out of service with an honorable discharge in 1957.

In 1974, Marvin Gaye was coming back into the spotlight in more ways than one. He was embarking on his first tour since the tragic death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell four years earlier. Elsewhere, the singer was making a different kind of debut in the pages of a novel. 

A Motown memorabilia collector from Detroit came across Marvin Gaye’s passport from 1964 tucked inside an old record sleeve. He made the discovery after buying a collection of LPs and singles from the family of a deceased former Motown musician. During an appearance on the February 3, 2014 episode of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, the passport was valued at a minimum of $20,000 by the show’s appraiser Laura Wooley.

Marvin Gaye’s real last name was “Gay.” However, he was a target of bullying in his young days as his father was a crossdresser. It was because of this, added with rumors of the singer’s own homosexuality, that Marvin added an “e” to his last name when he became famous.


Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today, yea

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going on
Ya, what's going on
Ah, what's going on

In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on
Right on

Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
What's going on
Ya, what's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you what's going on - Uh
Right on baby
Right on baby

Written by Marvin Gaye

Courtesy of Songfacts

  33 comments for “Song Lyric Sunday – What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye

  1. October 5, 2020 at 7:00 pm

    Hi Christine I think that there are gremlins in the system I tried to reply to your comment re but it just keeps disappearing. The show I referred to is The Happening on 08/06/2020 What’s Going On? on by Bernadette Hawkes DanceQueendq. If you still have problems finding it, I posted the show and blog on here with the same details my blog name is The Happening by DanceQueendq

    • Christine Bolton
      October 5, 2020 at 11:57 pm

      Thanks Bernadette! I really appreciate that and will listen first thing in the morning. I’m looking forward to it. Marvin Gaye was really special and I have wonderful memories of his life and music. Gone too soon 😢

  2. October 5, 2020 at 2:13 am

    Always one of my desert island discs. You might want to listen to my show on called What’s Going On…I wrote a blog which is on here to accompany the The Happening show, which I put together as a response to the death of George Floyd and COVID_19. I’m saving your post for future reference. 📚🎶🎛🎙

    • Christine Bolton
      October 5, 2020 at 12:39 pm

      That’s great! I was at Mixcloud but couldn’t find your show. There were several called the happening show. Are you able to send me a link so that I can get to it? I would love to listen! ☺️👍

      • October 5, 2020 at 6:28 pm

        I’m about to post it direct to WordPress. Thanks for trying.

      • October 5, 2020 at 6:51 pm

        I blogged about this show on it should be at The Happening 08/06/2020 – What’s Going On

  3. October 3, 2020 at 5:09 am

    I’ve always loved this song. Great choice!

    • Christine Bolton
      October 3, 2020 at 8:50 am

      Thank you! ☺️

  4. September 27, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    This is such a great choice! What a write up on him too. You gave it to us. There were a few things I didn’t know so I learned something here today. Thanks for that! 🙂

    • Christine Bolton
      September 28, 2020 at 10:02 pm

      My pleasure Lisa. MG was a very unique person and an amazing performer ☺️💕

  5. September 27, 2020 at 6:06 pm

    Great choice. The historical information of his life is appreciated. He was ahead of his time. Marvin was one of my favorite artists. May he RIP.

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 6:48 pm

      Thanks Darnell. He was most special. I’ve been a fan since my teens. Yes may he RIP. 😢

  6. Marleen
    September 27, 2020 at 12:25 pm

    So sad that a love, and wanting to know, song is a protest song. Wonderful song.

    • Marleen
      September 27, 2020 at 1:01 pm

      I read your moving background for the song to someone else.

      • Christine Bolton
        September 27, 2020 at 3:46 pm

        That’s so nice, thank you. His life was colorful and tragic. He was a wonderful performer who stood for his beliefs and principles and like a true artist believed in his work. 🥰

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 3:44 pm

      Yes Marleen. I suppose to some critics, questioning our humanity is protesting. It is such a lovely song 🥰 Thank you for listening.

  7. September 27, 2020 at 9:13 am

    Spectacular song Christine and you are right about this song still being relevant today. I learned a lot about Marvin Gaye for your fantastic post.

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks Jim. I watched a musical about his life and learned so much about him. His difficult father and Marvin’s crazy love life etc. it was a fabulous show with all his music.

  8. September 27, 2020 at 7:44 am

    Great Choice! Love this song. Marvin Gaye was awesome. Good info, too!

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 9:18 am

      Thank you! I’m so happy you liked it too. It’s a wonderful song ☺️

  9. September 27, 2020 at 7:31 am

    Brilliant track!

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 12:39 pm

      Thanks Mel. I’m happy you liked it🙂❤️

  10. September 27, 2020 at 2:21 am

    This was one of the songs I was considering for this week. Great choice.

    • September 27, 2020 at 2:26 am

      What a great choice, I really loved it when the song came out and still do. You have done a great job on the background information. Well done 💜

      • Christine Bolton
        September 27, 2020 at 3:43 pm

        Thanks Willow. He had a very interesting life considering his father cut it short 😕. I always loved his music.

      • September 27, 2020 at 3:59 pm

        Yes indeed so do I 💜

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 3:42 pm

      Yes! It was that Brother, brother, brother line that popped straight into my head! ☺️

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 8:40 pm

      It’s a great song isn’t it? ☺️

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 8:40 pm

      It’s a great song isn’t it? ☺️

  11. September 26, 2020 at 11:46 pm

    An absolutely tremendous song. Always one of my favorites.

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 3:41 pm

      Thank you John. Mine too. He is an artist I miss very much along with his message ☺️😢

  12. September 26, 2020 at 11:41 pm

    Yes !! .. even 50 years on, the song is even more poignant today Christine… a superb choice 😎🖤💜🌏🌎

    • Christine Bolton
      September 27, 2020 at 3:40 pm

      Yes Ivor! So very true, this one and Mercy, mercy me in particular. Thank you my friend ☺️🥰

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: