Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song What’s Going On. This is one of the most powerful and moving soul songs ever recorded. We will start with the original song by Marvin Gaye, and then we will review covers from Cyndi Lauper and by Hall & Oates.
Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On:
Marvin Gaye is one of the greatest rock and soul musicians of all time. We discussed Marvin’s version of Heard It Through the Grapevine in an earlier blog post. We also discussed his performance of our national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in another blog post.
I have always regretted the fact that I never got to see Marvin Gaye in live performance. He was fantastically talented. In addition to a three-octave vocal range, Marvin also displayed amazing versatility. He could switch from baritone to tenor, adopt a raspy “tough man voice” inspired by Motown stablemates David Ruffin and Levi Stubbs, and even produce a lovely falsetto.
Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Gay, Jr. but added an “e” to his name in the same way that Sam Cooke did. Much of his early experience at Motown was as a session drummer, and his initial singles as a singer bombed. However, he soon found commercial success and eventually became a real Motown powerhouse.
The photo below shows Marvin Gaye recording at Golden West studios in L.A. in 1973.
What a terrific vocalist Marvin was! From the mid to late 60s, Marvin collaborated in best-selling duets with several of the women at Motown. He had hits with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell and even a couple with Diana Ross.
His duets with Tammi Terrell were particularly successful, until Tammi collapsed into Marvin’s arms during a concert in 1967. Terrell was then diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died 30 months later at the age of 24.
Songwriting credits for What’s Going On are listed for Obie Benson, Al Cleveland and Marvin Gaye. Benson was a member of the Four Tops. He and his group arrived in Berkeley, CA for a concert in May, 1969.
This was a point at which anti-Vietnam war protests were at a peak. The group watched a demonstration in Berkeley. The University of California had bought a number of houses and demolished them, intending this to be part of a development.
Before the development could take place, Berkeley activists then announced their intent to turn the large empty lot into a “People’s Park.” They converged on the area with topsoil, grass, flowers and shrubs with the notion of turning the space into a “freak out and rap center.”
Then-governor Ronald Reagan saw this as an opportunity to take on Berkeley’s counterculture elements. He authorized law enforcement authorities to use “whatever force is necessary” to evict the yippies and anti-war activists from the square.
The police converged on the square with shotguns filled with buckshot, and fixed bayonets. Helicopters fired tear-gas canisters into the crowd. In the resulting melee, one student was killed and another blinded. Over 100 civilians were injured in this confrontation, and several police also suffered injuries.
The Four Tops witnessed these events from their tour bus. Obie Benson recalls thinking
‘What is happening here? … Why are they sending kids so far away overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets?’
Afterwards, Benson discussed the incident with songwriter Al Cleveland. Cleveland then composed a song that expressed Benson’s feelings. Benson then offered the song to his Four Tops mates, but they vetoed it, declaring they would not record protest songs.
Benson then gave the song to Marvin Gaye. Apparently Marvin made some significant changes and added new lines to the song. Eventually, Marvin decided to record and produce the song himself.
For some time, Marvin had been ambivalent about continuing to sing love songs when riots had devastated urban areas like Watts. In addition, Marvin’s brother Frankie had served three years in Vietnam, and had discussed his experiences with Marvin.
Here is a sample of the lyrics to What’s Going On. The singer talks to his mother, father, and brothers, urging them to love one another and avoid conflict.
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
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
… Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
After the song was recorded, Marvin Gaye played it for Berry Gordy. Gordy responded, “That’s the worst thing I have ever heard.” Gordy’s response was rather remarkable.
One of the hallmarks of Motown songs was the exceptionally high production values, and a major part of that was due to Berry Gordy’s impeccable taste. For most Motown songs, Gordy had an amazing intuition for what would be successful.
However, in this case Gordy’s response was 100% wrong. There were a couple of reasons for Gordy’s negative reaction. The first was his determination that Motown not release anything political or controversial. In addition, Gordy and Gaye had a highly adversarial relationship, for a number of different reasons.
What’s Going On is now universally recognized as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. It was ranked #4 on the Rolling Stone list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Marvin Gaye certainly understood that his song was a masterpiece. He basically went on strike at Motown, refusing to record additional material until Gordy would let him release the song. This standoff continued for several months.
Eventually the stalemate between Gaye and Gordy was broken when the song was released without Gordy’s approval. Copies of What’s Going On were sent to radio stations around the country. Immediately after the song was played, there was tremendous demand for the single. At that point, Gordy had no choice but to distribute the song to record stores.
What’s Going On hit #1 on the R&B charts and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song became the fastest-selling Motown record to that point in time. Gordy finally relented and allowed Marvin to produce the album What’s Going On.
Here is the audio from the record What’s Going On. The song contains some fascinating elements.
The song begins with an animated conversation between a group of people. For this, Gaye invited his friends, professional football players Mel Farr and Lem Barney from the Detroit Lions, into the studio. They and a few others provided the dialogue that is heard throughout the song.
Next, there is a short but beautiful soprano saxophone solo by Eli Fontaine. This was not intended to be part of the song, but after Marvin heard Fontaine goofing around between takes, the sax solo was included.
The bass part was supplied by James Jamerson, the bassist for the Motown house band the Funk Brothers. Jamerson was not only a marvelous bass player, but he was extremely creative. He can be heard (although, like the other Funk Brothers, he was never credited on the albums) on an amazing number of Motown hits.
Gaye considered Jamerson’s bass to be an essential ingredient for this song, but Jamerson did not show up for the recording session. Gaye knew that Jamerson would frequently hang out in bars, so he set out looking for him.
Jamerson had consumed a large quantity of alcohol. As a result, he was unable to sit in his chair, but was still able to play the bass. Apparently, Jamerson played his part while lying flat on his back on the floor of the studio. Marvin acknowledged his contribution by including a thank-you to “the incomparable James Jamerson” on the sleeve of the album What’s Going On.
Next we have a live performance by Marvin Gaye. This took place at the concert Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. This was a made-for-TV special taped in March, 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
For this event, the producers had assembled an extraordinary roster of Motown musicians. However, it was not clear until the last minute whether Marvin Gaye would appear. Gaye had recently begun recording with a new company, and as I have mentioned he had a rocky relationship with Berry Gordy.
However, Marvin did show up, and here is his performance from that show.
Dressed in a white suit, Marvin appears and noodles around on the piano while providing a fascinating synopsis of the history of black music.
He then steps away from the piano and launches into What’s Going On. The crowd, realizing that they were witnessing a very special performance, went wild. Think of it – a performance by Marvin Gaye that might not have taken place, where he sings a timeless classic tune that was almost never released.
Prior to the Motown 25 concert, Marvin had experienced a very difficult period. Marvin’s marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy’s sister, had collapsed, leading to an extremely messy divorce.
His tax problems with the IRS were sufficiently dire that he did not return to the U.S. following a European tour in 1980. In addition to Marvin’s tax difficulties, he had experienced bouts of depression at various times.
The depression may have been related to his serious cocaine addiction. Eventually, Marvin moved to Ostend, Belgium, where he stayed in the house of a close friend who was a music promoter. There, Marvin sobered up. He then signed a new deal with Columbia Records before returning to the States and appearing at the Motown 25 show.
Following the Motown 25 show, Marvin embarked on an American tour; however, he became ill during the tour and suffered from paranoia that was triggered by cocaine. After the tour he moved to his parents’ house in L.A. to recuperate.
But on April 1, 1984, Marvin got into an argument with his father. His father grabbed a gun, shot him in the heart, and Marvin died, one day before his 45th birthday.
What a tragic end to a brilliant career. Motown produced such great artists, it’s hard to pick a ‘greatest’ vocalist between musicians like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. But Gaye was a tremendously versatile singer, and left behind a stunning catalogue of work.
Cyndi Lauper and What’s Going On:
Cyndi Lauper is a singer-songwriter who came to prominence in the early 80s, and has had quite an amazing career. As we will see, she seems to be one of those people who can be successful at just about everything.
Cyndi had a difficult time in her youth. She was expelled from high school, and left home at age 17 to escape an abusive stepfather.
She then began singing with various cover bands; however, in 1977 she damaged her vocal cords and was told that she would likely never sing again. Luckily, Cyndi found a vocal coach who helped her recover.
In 1978 her band won a recording contract and issued an album. The album was critically acclaimed but no one bought it, so the band broke up. Their manager filed suit against them, which forced Cyndi into bankruptcy.
However, in 1983 everything finally turned around for Ms. Lauper. She released her first solo album, She’s So Unusual. It became a blockbuster, with two of the singles, Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Time After Time, becoming iconic pop hits.
Cyndi Lauper became famous not only as a talented singer, but as a feminist cultural symbol. With her multi-colored hair, style sense and her affinity for professional wrestlers, Lauper became a real trend-setter. The photo below shows Cyndi as a punk icon.
Lauper was named Best New Artist at the 1985 Grammy Awards, and her album She’s So Unusual was nominated for a gaggle of Grammys. In addition, the music video for Girls Just Want to Have Fun won the first-ever Best Female Video category at the 1984 MTV Music Video awards.
A hallmark of Lauper’s career is her innovative use of music videos. Several of these are creative and very humorous. Her music videos helped make Cyndi a superstar, as well as a feminist icon.
Cyndi Lauper’s second solo album was the 1986 release True Colors. The title cut of this album hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts. In addition, her cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On reached #12 on the pop listings.
Here is Cyndi Lauper in a live performance of What’s Going On. This is from the UKTV show in late 1986.
I really enjoy this. Not only does Cyndi Lauper have a phenomenal vocal range, she is also a highly versatile singer. The song begins very softly, but then builds progressively.
Lauper’s presentation is highly theatrical and very emotional. She emphasizes the line “there’s far too many of you dying.” Lauper’s cover represents a successful fusion of soul music with punk.
In addition to her stellar career as a vocalist, Cyndi Lauper has branched out all over the place. She has composed the music for a slew of movies, and has garnered acting roles in a number of movies and TV shows. For example, she has a recurring role as a psychic in the TV series Bones.
Cyndi was one of the performers in the VH1 benefit Divas Live 2004. She is sufficiently famous as a cultural icon that she has appeared as herself in an episode of The Simpsons, and in 2010 Mattel released a Cyndi Lauper Barbie doll as part of their Ladies of the 80s series.
If that weren’t enough, in 2012 Lauper wrote a best-selling memoir in which she chronicled her experiences dealing with child abuse and depression.
Then in 2013, Lauper collaborated with Harvey Fierstein in composing the music to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. This was a smash hit. It dominated the 2014 Tony Awards, with 13 nominations and 6 wins, including Best Original Score for Cyndi Lauper.
Lauper was the first woman to win solo in this category.
Cyndi Lauper has also been a trail-blazer and a social activist. An entire generation of women musicians who followed Cyndi cite her as a role model, including Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Jewel, Li’l Kim, Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga.
Lauper has also been an LGBT supporter throughout her career. She has raised funds for charities and appeared at gay rights functions. In this regard, she has been inspired by her sister Ellen who is a lesbian.
Lauper co-founded the True Colors Fund that supports the Human Rights Campaign. And she founded the True Colors Residence in New York City that provides temporary shelter and job placement information for LGBT homeless youth.
What an impressive woman. Rock on, Cyndi!
Hall & Oates and What’s Going On:
Daryl Hall and John Oates make up one of the most successful duos in rock music history. They have sold more than 40 million records in their career, including 6 records rated #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The photo below shows Daryl Hall (L) & John Oates performing at Chicago Stadium in Nov. 1981.
The two met in a most interesting way. In 1967, they were each performing with separate groups at a band competition when they heard gunshots from an altercation between rival gangs.
Hall and Oates both took refuge in the same service elevator, and began to compare notes. Grew up in Philly? Check. Currently attending Temple University? Check. Interest in R&B-oriented pop music? Check.
The two began hanging out together, and eventually formed a group. However, success would still be a ways off. At first, they experimented with various genres, including folk, rock ‘n roll, and soul, in an attempt to develop a unique sound.
They had impressive backing, as fellow Philly native Todd Rundgren produced some of their records. Nevertheless, their early albums were unsuccessful, although the single She’s Gone reached #1 on the R&B charts in 1974 when covered by the disco-funk group Tavares.
However, things turned around for the duo after they moved from their original label Atlantic Records to RCA Records. In 1976, their song Sara Smile, written by Daryl for his girlfriend and songwriting collaborator Sara Allen, reached #4 on the Billboard pop charts. One year later, they had their first #1 hit with Rich Girl.
Here are Hall & Oates performing their cover of What’s Going On in Tokyo in 1991.
This is a most impressive performance. Both Hall and Oates give a great ‘blue-eyed soul’ presentation of the Marvin Gaye classic.
They put together a great jazz-soul fusion instrumental backing for this song. And the boys are fine form. In particular, I think that Daryl Hall has an absolutely lovely voice. Hall combines a stunning versatility with impressive range.
On the other hand, I don’t want to give short shrift to John Oates. The two have been a successful duo for a very long time. They write their songs in a collaborative fashion, and each of them reportedly has significant input into the production of their music.
Now, back to the career of Hall & Oates. After their first #1 hit in 1977, one would have expected them to remain atop the charts for a long and successful career. But this was not the case.
In the mid-70s, disco was king. And in the late 70s, Hall & Oates experienced a drought before they once again gained commercial success.
Things turned around for the duo when they took direct control of their music. They started recording in New York City, where they now lived. They used their own touring band as their studio musicians.
And for their 1980 album Voices, they wrote all the songs, supervised the arrangements, and produced the album themselves. The result was a commercial blockbuster, with several single hits.
Hall & Oates created a sound that comprised
a fusion of their doo-wop and soul roots with New Wave energy and hard rock grit.
After that, they continued to have sustained success through the 80s. In recent years, they have continued to tour and release albums, and more recently ‘greatest hits’ compilations.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. The boys are reported to dislike the term Hall & Oates, which is how virtually everyone refers to the group. Apparently, on every album released since 1988, the name of the group is listed as “Daryl Hall and John Oates.” Well, how about that!
Hall & Oates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
I wish the boys all success. Recently I have caught several episodes of “Live From Daryl’s House,” a monthly internet broadcast. Instead of touring, Daryl welcomes guest artists who travel to his place.
In addition to some fascinating live music, each show ends with a big meal where Hall and the guest artist prepare food from different cuisines. The chefs also discuss how the dishes are produced.
The show initially was filmed at Hall’s home in Millerton, NY. After the first few years the show shifted production to a club (called, confusingly, Daryl’s House) in Pawling, NY.