Meeting Berry Gordy Jr. while on assignment for the Wall Street Journal last week was quite a thrill. Having listened to Motown records since I'm a kid, it was quite something to spend an hour and a half with the person who built the label from scratch and developed the talent. And all of those skills Mr. Gordy learned on his own, without an apprenticeship or a relative in the business.
This is not to say that I'm smitten by the people I interview. As they all know, I ask tough questions on subjects that aren't always comfortable. And I never forget why I'm there and what I need to achieve for the reader and the point of the article I'm writing. But one of the perks of these assignments is interacting with legends who made a big difference in the quality of our collective lives, in this case through music.
In Part 2 of my interview outtakes from my Wall Street Journal article (go here), Mr. Gordy and I continue our conversation on Marvin Gaye and What's Going On—the seminal single and album that were released by Motown in 1971:
Marc Myers: Where did Marvin Gaye’s concerns about society and the Vietnam War come from?
Berry Gordy, Jr.: I think they came from his brother, Frankie, who had served in Vietnam. But when I first heard he was doing this protest single [What’s Going On], with things about police brutality, the war in Vietnam and stuff like that, I thought it was another one of his crazy ideas.
MM: A big difference from his earlier hits.
BG: He had had Pride and Joy, You're a Wonderful One—all of these great pop songs that were positive and made his fans love him. He had an image to uphold. So, man, when I heard that What’s Going On was a protest song, that he didn’t like how the war was going, that he didn’t like this and that, right away I could see disaster coming.
BG: Previously, he had come to me and said, “BG, I found out what I want to be in life. This is something I really want to do.” I was excited and figured he was going to say, “I want to sing what I do, what I know.” So I said, “What is it Marvin?” He said, “I want to be a professional boxer.” I was taken aback. I said, “Why would you want to be a boxer?” He said, “I could be the greatest champion.” I couldn’t believe it.
MM: What did you say?
BG: I said, “Great, we’ll talk about it again after your next record” [laughs]. Another time he came to me and said, “I know it, I’ve finally found my calling. You’re going to love this, BG.” I said, “What is it Marvin?” He said, “I’m going to be a football player. I’m going to play for the Detroit Lions.” I said, “Marvin, are you crazy? Are you mad?” He said, “No, no, man, those guys love me.” So boxer, football player and then he says protest album.
MM: What did you say?
BG: In that context, I said his idea was absolutely crazy. But instead of backing off, he said, “I already have some of the stuff cut, and it’s great, and you have to hear it.” Instinctively, I said, “No Marvin, this is ridiculous and crazy. You’ve already got an image.” Now, I’m thinking of my bottom line here. I said, “You’re a sex symbol, you’re our biggest pop singer, and we’re breaking new ground with Motown. And you are one of our leaders.”
MM: What did he say?
BG: He said, “No, BG, you don’t understand” and went on to tell me about the song. Finally, he said, “You have to let me do it, BG, because I want to awaken the minds of men.”
MM: What did you think?
BG: That’s what changed my mind. When I heard how serious he was. It hit me dramatically that this guy is serious. His passion for it is real. A lot of people were awakening the minds of men at the time. They were giving their lives as advocates for this cause and that cause. But when I heard what Marvin had said, it affected me.
MM: Was your change of heart immediate?
BG: No. We had more than one conversation about what he wanted to do. You had to with Marvin. You had to see how committed he really was to something. I was very much against it when he called me in the Bahamas. When I got back, we talked face to face. He had already started to cut the song. It’s then that I heard the music. I still wasn’t happy about the idea, but I loved the music. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing for him to do—for his career and for Motown. But never once in the conversation did he threaten me. We loved each other and respected each other. I was his family.
MM: Why did he confide in you?
BG: I was the only person he knew who would tell him the truth. I didn’t always have to be right, in his eyes, but he knew I’d tell him straight. He also knew I’d work through the implications of his actions that he probably didn’t think of. [Pictured: Berry Gordy, Jr., in 1973]
MM: Work through the implications?
BG: I’d say, “Marvin, if you do this, that will happen. You’re talking about police brutality in your song. The people in the Detroit Police Department are my friends. I know them. They’re not all brutal. When you talk about police brutality as a total picture, you’re talking about everyone.”
MM: What did he say?
BG: Marvin was like a kid when you give him logic. He’d just looked at me and would find ways to push back. But on this, I could see he was determined to go forward. There was no talking him down. He said, “It’s more than that police brutality. It’s the air we breathe, it’s the world.” I said, “Even though something is true, why should you and Motown be the ones to say it?” Marvin said, “Who else but us?” He had a stronger point. He said, “You have to let me do it, BG.”
MM: So he never threatened never to record again for Motown if What’s Going On wasn’t released?
BG: Marvin respected me, which is why he had come to me to talk about it. But never once did he ever say, “If you don’t do this, I won’t do that." That was not in his nature. He knew that Motown would not promote the record unless I was on board. I ran Motown. He had to get my permission to go with it, but he had already started cutting it.
MM: What did you think when you heard it? Did you sense you had a winner?
BG: [Pause] No, I probably didn’t. I loved it, but the context and what it was doing bothered me. I liked What’s Going On the song, but I didn’t like the whole concept of Motown coming out with a protest album.
MM: What changed your mind?
BG: Once he told me he wanted to awaken the minds of mankind, and I could see in his eyes how serious he was, I had to let him do it. At Motown, there were no stupid ideas. I had drilled all of our artists and staff members that no ego or office politics were allowed to get in the way of the hits, and that we had to hook the listener in the first 20 seconds of a song.
MM: So you were in support of What’s Going On?
BG: After I realized how serious he was, I felt like I really, really wanted him to do it. It turned from negative to positive. I told him, “Marvin, if you’re wrong you’ll learn something. If you’re right, I will learn something.”
MM: What do you think of it now?
BG: It was the most prestigious record we released.
MM: Did Gaye have a track record of not having recordings work out?
BG: No, but something like this had happened once before. As I mentioned, he had insisted on doing a Sinatra-type album. I let him do it, and it was a flop. He learned something from the experience. Look, I love to admit when I’m wrong about anything. In most cases with Marvin, I would have been right in this situation. It was just one of those freak things. But when it came to music, Marvin was a genius.
MM: So how did you feel when What’s Going On was a big hit?
BG: I was overwhelmed and thrilled to be wrong. While I thought it would ruin his career, it made him an icon. It was a gamble. Many other artists had tried protest songs. Most had failed.
MM: What was Marvin like?
BG: Many people come to me and say, “I never knew Marvin Gaye when he was alive. I wish I had known him.” I say, “All you have to do is listen to his records and you’ll know him. He was singing, but he was still Marvin.
MM: What was your influence on the album, What's Going On?
BG: Nothing. Zero. It was all Marvin. I would love to take credit for some part of it but I can’t.
MM: Did you ever play a role in his recording decisions?
BG: The only time I had anything to do with Marvin on the creative side was Let’s Get It On. I was in the studio with him. He wanted to add strings and horns and I said, “No, this take is the one.” He said, “No no, you’ll see how it is, BG, when I add them.” I said, “Give me a 7 ½ of this right now. Just run a copy of the 7 ½ tape and I’ll take it with me.”
MM: What did Gaye say?
BG: Marvin said, “No no you’re going to put it out.” I said, “No, you’ll be in charge of it. You finish what you’re going to do. You go ahead and put all that other stuff in there. But this one is the magic. I’m going to take this with me so I have it.”
MM: What happened?
BG: I took it home with me. Two weeks later Marvin came back to me with his finished product and played it. It was still great. But I pulled out my tape and played it, and I told him he had to pick. He picked his first one, the one I had said was magic. That’s why he respected my opinion.
MM: Whose idea was it to bring in Dave Van DePitte to arrange strings, horns and choir?
BG: I don’t know. Those are details I left to the artist. Marvin was a genius. No one could control him but me. But it was out of respect, not force. He knew I was his confidant. In terms of truth, integrity and clarity, he trusted me. My role wasn’t to build the songs. I built the people. I always emphasized, “Be a good person and deal with the truth in your music. The public loves the truth. The truth will out if you fight for it.” [Pictured: David Van DePitte]
MM: So once you saw Marvin’s commitment to What’s Going On, you were for it?
JazzWax tracks: Universal/Motown just 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.
You'll find this new set at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clip: Here are the last two tracks on the first side of the LP—God Is Love (which was on the B side of the What's Going On single) and Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology). This is remarkable music from any perspective...