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'What's Going On': A Departure That Defined A Generation

Marvin Gaye.
Gilles Petard/Redferns
Getty Images
Marvin Gaye.

Forty years ago, one of Motown's greatest soul singers released a groundbreaking album. Today, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is considered one of his finest albums, but at the time, it was a major departure from the radio-friendly Motown Sound he was known for.

"You would be fascinated to see how his music transitioned," says Audley Smith, CEO of Detroit's Motown Museum, "from predominantly soulful R&B to more socially conscious lyrics reflective of the times of the late '60s and '70s."

Smith has been looking at some of the original sheet music in Marvin Gaye's own handwriting, on display at the museum. When the album was first released, 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" served as an anthem of social awareness.

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

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

Eric Hilton, one of the owners of the restaurant and one half of the electronic duo Thievery Corporation, says What's Going Onis his favorite album.

"When you listen to the lushness of that record and the orchestration and the intricacies of the production," Hilton says, "it's pretty mind-boggling if you're a music producer."

Hilton says What's Going On, an album filled with introspective lyrics regarding a country divided by war, could be applied to what's happening today.

"It's interesting: You could almost draw comparisons to the last several years in the U.S.," Hilton says. "We're in three wars, the country itself is going broke. You know, if Marvin was here, he'd probably be singing about it."

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

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