May 21: Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On (album) in 1971

Marvin Gaye - whatsgoing


May 21: Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On (album) in 1971

What’s Going On is not only Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, it’s the most important and passionate record to come out of soul music, delivered by one of its finest voices, a man finally free to speak his mind and so move from R&B sex symbol to true recording artist.
~John Bush (

… Marvin Gaye then did something no other Motown artist had ever dared. With What’s Going On (1971), he started a revolution. Although it spawned three hits—the antiwar title song, the ecological plea “Mercy Mercy Me,” and “Inner City Blues”—this was Motown’s first true album. Its blend of unembarrassed spirituality and unflinching social realism, as well as relentless percussion set against lush orchestration, was unlike anything that came before it in both form and content. For Gaye, it was a self-produced declaration of independence.
~ The New Rolling Stone Album Guide

What’s Going On:


Released May 21, 1971
Recorded June–September 1970; March–May 1971
Hitsville U.S.A.
Golden World
United Sound Studios
(Detroit, Michigan)
The Sound Factory
(West Hollywood, California)
Genre Soul, R&B
Length 35:38
Label Tamla
Producer Marvin Gaye

What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album by soul musician Marvin Gaye, released May 21, 1971, on the Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records. Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California.

The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends on a reprise of the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.


Mercy Mercy Me:

What’s Going On was the first album on which Motown Records’ main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit. The album features introspective lyrics and socially conscious themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. What’s Going On was both an immediate commercial and critical success and has endured as a classic of early-1970s soul. A deluxe edition set of the album was released on February 27, 2001, and featured a rare live concert shot at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center from May 1972.

In worldwide critics’, artists’ and public surveys, it has been voted one of the landmark recordings in pop music history and is considered to be one of the greatest albums ever made. In 2003, the album was ranked number six on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, placing that same position nine years later.

marvin gaye

In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say… I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.
—Marvin Gaye (to rollingstone magazine)

Released on May 21, 1971, What’s Going On became Gaye’s first album to reach the Billboard Top LPs top ten, peaking at number six, and staying on the chart for nearly a year, selling over two million copies, by the end of 1972, becoming Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling album to that date..


  • In 1985, writers on British music weekly the NME voted it best album of all time
  • In 2004, the album’s title track was ranked number 4 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time
  • A 1999 critics poll conducted by British newspaper Guardian/Observer named it the “Greatest Album of the 20th Century”
  • In 1997, What’s Going On was named the 17th greatest album of all time in a poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV GroupChannel 4The Guardian and Classic FM
  • In 1997, The Guardian ranked the album number one on its list of the 100 Best Albums Ever
  • In 1998 Q magazine readers placed it at number 97, while in 2001 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 4
  • In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry
  • What’s Going On was ranked #6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, one of three Gaye albums to be included, preceded by 1973’s Let’s Get It On (#165) and 1978’s Here My Dear(#462). The album is Gaye’s highest-ranking entry on the list, as well as several other publications’ lists

marvin gaye

Track Listing:

Side one

  1. “What’s Going On” (Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye, Renaldo “Obie” Benson)
  2. “What’s Happening Brother” (James Nyx, M. Gaye)
  3. “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” (M. Gaye, Anna Gordy Gaye, Elgie Stover)
  4. “Save the Children” (Cleveland, Benson, M. Gaye)
  5. “God Is Love” (M. Gaye, A. Gaye, Stover, Nyx)
  6. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (M. Gaye)

Side two

  1. “Right On” (Earl DeRouen, M. Gaye)
  2. “Wholy Holy” (Benson, Cleveland, M. Gaye)
  3. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (M. Gaye, Nyx)



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-Egil & Hallgeir