Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) is one of my favorite albums. As I've posted in this space in the past, the album has an unmatched sophisticated and sensitive tribal jazz-soul feel and a powerful socio-political message. For those unfamiliar with What's Going On, the album's vision and success changed soul music, giving artists greater latitude to express their opinons about injustice, poverty, war, pollution and other topics controversial at the time. In today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I interview Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. on Gaye and the making of What's Going On. [Photo of Berry Gordy Jr. by Matt Sayles/AP]
During my two hours with Mr. Gordy at his home in Bel Air, California, he spoke openly about his relationship with Gaye and his initial apprehension about What's Going On and the risks the single and album held for Motown and Gaye's star power. For years, the assumption was that Mr. Gordy stood in the way of their release. For the first time, Mr. Gordy offers his side of the story.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview featuring outtakes from my conversation with Mr. Gordy for the Wall Street Journal, the entrepreneur who used an $800 loan to build one of America's greatest record companies and stables of artists talks about his relationship with Gaye and his initial concerns about What's Going On:
Marc Myers: Looking back, what do you think about Marvin Gaye as an artist?
Berry Gordy Jr.: Marvin was a genius. I loved what Marvin could do with his music. It was always so meaningful, especially when he got into his own thing. It was an interesting thing between Marvin and me, an incredibly interesting relationship. When Marvin first came to me, he wanted to do Frank Sinatra-type music, American songbook stuff. He insisted, so I let him. He was so good. The album was called The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye . After it bombed, I talked him into being more about himself.
MM: Did you think the album was appropriate for him?
BG: I thought it wasn’t quite right. But Marvin was so good I let him do what he wanted. The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye could have been a hit. But it wasn’t really who Marvin was, and the listener could hear it. When the album flopped, Marvin, of course, was furious and said that the reason it didn’t do well was because we hadn’t pushed it hard enough.
MM: What did you say?
BG: I said, “Well, Motown has never done an album like that before, and you aren't known for singing like that. Records don’t just pop out and become big hits that easily.” Marvin understood. Then he recorded songs that were much more in step with who he was. His first single was a song he wrote with my brother George and Mickey Stevenson. It was called Stubborn Kind of Fellow . He sang it with conviction, because that’s exactly who he was—a stubborn fellow [laughs].
BG: Yes, Marvin could be stubborn just for the sake of being stubborn. But when he started writing and singing things that reflected who he was, his songs became hits, and he became this great sex symbol and Motown’s greatest male pop artist.
MM: You two were very close.
BG: We were. He married my sister Anna [in 1964] for a time. Marvin was a very interesting person. He was always kind of troubled by his life. Inside he was restless. He was a divided soul because of his father, who was a minister, and the religious thing, which was always confusing for him. Marvin also was caught up in to his own genius. He had these thoughts and wanted to be something, but he didn’t know exactly what that was. He was spiritual on the one hand and confused on the other. [Pictured: Marvin and Anna Gaye]
MM: When you say you two were close, what do you mean?
BG: I played many figures in his life. I was a father, a brother, a friend and a competitor. Motown was built on competition and love. Smokey [Robinson] and I still compete today about everything.
MM: Built on love?
BG: Love was unquestioned with the Motown artists. It never mattered what people said about us on the outside. People who wrote articles and books got everything wrong all the time. According to them, Marvin and I were supposed to be the biggest enemies, that we were fighting all the time and that I was doing this and that to him. But within our company and within us, it was different. [Pictured: Berry Gordy Jr., left, and Marvin Gaye]
MM: How so?
BG: When things came out in the press about us, I’d say to Marvin, “We’ll ignore that stuff. The only thing we need to be concerned about is making hit records. Let them say whatever they want. If we stop to fight and spend time defending ourselves or correcting what they’re saying, we’ll become distracted and unhinged.” I told him we had to keep moving forward with a positive attitude. That’s what Motown was about—love, competition and moving forward with a positive frame of mind.
MM: Was Gaye liked at Motown?
BG: Within Motown, everybody adored Marvin. He was Marvin Gaye, a good storyteller. He would tell us the same jokes endlessly. We’d all listen to them as if for the first time. In one joke, he’d get this accent going of an English woman, and we’d listen in awe. You loved to hear his jokes again and again because each time he’d tell them, they would tickle him so much. Everyone loved to see Marvin happy.
MM: What’s the biggest misconception about What’s Going On?
BG: That I somehow wouldn’t release the single and that Marvin threatened to never record for me again unless I did. None of that is true. Marvin would never defy me or threaten me by saying, “If you don’t do this, I won’t do that.” That just built up over the years because it made for a good story. He never, ever said that.
MM: How did that story surface?
BG: I have no idea. I suspect it was said by somebody else to a writer. Or somebody else said that he said it. Or someone wrote it that way and it just built up as more writers read it before they wrote something. I was always the only family he felt he really had. The Gordy family was his family. And I was his manager. [Pictured: Berry Gordy Jr. and Michael Jackson]
MM: Was that hard for Marvin to keep in perspective?
BG: He thought it was always complicated for me but it wasn’t. It was complicated for him because I was his wife’s brother. I thought Anna handled him very well. My sister, who is still living today, was Marvin’s backboard. She was [17 years] older than Marvin, more mature and very cool. She never worried about anything. And never once in their marriage did she talk to me about him or about him doing something.
MM: Did Gaye think she spoke to you about him behind his back?
BG: He was always paranoid about that. He’d constantly say, “I know your sister is telling you things.” I’d say, “No, no, she has never told me anything. First of all, I manage you. You are my main thing. As for you and my sister, that’s a different situation that’s out there. I want your career to be the greatest thing in the world, and I don’t want you to kill it. I don’t want you to ruin it.” The truth is Anna never said anything to me about him. And he never said anything about her to me. He would confide in me about other women though.
MM: That must have been hard for you.
BG: It was separate. I knew Anna was strong and that no matter what happened, she’d be tough. Anna Gaye is strong. She was very understandable and very self-sufficient. She has always been a queen. She’s always been a queen in my life. I wouldn’t have come out to California if it hadn’t been for her. I first came out here when I was a boxer in the ‘50s. She was the only person I knew here, and I stayed with her. Anna has always been a very solid, cool, beautiful person. The only thing she ever asked me about Marvin was if I would meet him. After that, not a word.
MM: But Gaye told you a lot about his other personal matters, yes?
BG: I was Marvin’s confidant. And that was where it was a little strange for me. It wasn’t that tough, but it was strange. I knew when he would meet girls because all of us—Smokey [Robinson], Harvey Fuqua [whose Harvey label and artists were purchased by Motown in 1963], [songwriter and producer] Mickey kitStevenson—we were hip cats. We’d play poker at night and talk. Marvin also could be very spiritual. [Pictured: Berry Gordy Jr. and Smokey Robinson]
MM: How so?
BG: He was a deeply religious and honest person. One day we were playing golf with a bunch of people. Marvin and I were betting $5,000 on a round. I lost on the last hole to Marvin. But the day I was going to give him the money, he came over and handed me $5,000. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “That last shot I made? I cheated. I couldn’t sleep all night. You saw me hit a great shot to the green but when I got up there, I couldn’t find my ball. My ball hit this skinny little tree and wound up in the weeds. So I picked it up and threw it onto the green.” Marvin was going to cheat but couldn’t because he was that spiritual.
MM: He must have felt comfortable with you.
BG: He had confidence that I would not talk to my sister about what he’d tell me. It was not my business, and I made that clear. I knew Anna was a happy person and that she could handle herself no matter what happened. Before Marvin died, he was trying to get back to Anna because she was always solid. Anna told me that Marvin would come by and that they had done this and that. She told me that he wanted to come back but that he wasn’t ready.
MM: Looking back, what did you think about What’s Going On back when it was being made in 1970?
BG: What’s Going On was a very different record for us. When I first heard about it, I didn’t want Marvin to do it. I was in the Bahamas when Marvin called and told me he was working on a protest song. To understand my first reaction, you have to understand Marvin. He was always coming to me with crazy ideas. I always had trouble with Marvin trying to get him to see things consequentially—"If you do this, this is going to happen. If you do that, that is going to happen." Marvin didn’t tend to think things through like that.
MM: For example?
BG: Marvin would come to me for advice all the time about things that seemed crazy. “What do you think about this or that BG?” And I was always telling Marvin, “This is a crazy idea. You have a career and a family, why would you do that?” But Marvin had a lot of friends with cash money who could bankroll him in whatever he wanted to do.
MM: But he was grounded, yes?
BG: Oh sure. Marvin was a genius who was a little crazy. He was impulsive and pained, like a genius. I always likened him to Billie Holiday who had sung through her pain. He was the truest artist I had ever known, and he, too, sang through his personal pain.
JazzWax tracks: Universal today released What's Going On: 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, which features two remastered CDs and a vinyl LP of Gaye's original mix, known as the "Detroit Mix." There are 16 previously unreleased tracks.
Combined with the 2001 two-CD set, the new release provides a vivid picture of this masterpiece's development and how the album evolved from spare instrumentation to a full orchestral frame.
You'll find this at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Marvin Gaye performing two tracks from What's Going On in concert. Dig the words, the expressions on the audience's faces as the lyrics connect, and the honey-rich quality of Gaye's gospel voice. And yes, that's the famed James Jamerson on bass...