20 ESSENTIAL ALBUMS
Who: Marvin Gaye
What: The late singer’s most influential piece of work, which is also consistently ranked among the all-time most significant albums in popular music. On first release, the LP spent a year on the Billboard best-sellers and delivered three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop charts: the title track, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Today, the album’s title track is among the Top 10 most-streamed Motown recordings worldwide.
When: The original, nine-track long-player was released May 21, 1971. Marvin had recorded the title song the previous summer, but when first heard by Motown founder Berry Gordy, it was – legendarily – not well-received. Others at the company took the initiative for its release as a single in January ’71, and the result was a huge hit. The singer set about completing material for the album in March, before he had to spend time in Los Angeles for a movie commitment.
Where: Most of What’s Going On was recorded at the Motown studios in Detroit with the company’s in-house musicians, whose names famously were printed on the album jacket. David Van dePitte handled all the arrangements, conducted the orchestra – and received an unusual (for Motown) namecheck on the front of the LP sleeve. Gaye recorded vocals and instrumentation overdubs for some tracks in Los Angeles, two weeks before the album was issued.
Why: “I understood musically that I’d have to go on a path of my own,” Gaye told biographer David Ritz. “The Motown corporate attitude didn’t give me much room to breathe, but I was starting to feel strong enough to start down my own path. When my brother Frankie came home from Vietnam and began telling me stories, my blood started to boil. I knew I had something – an anger, an energy, an artistic point of view.”
What else: The title track of What’s Going On has attracted and inspired generations of singers, songwriters and musicians; many artists have recorded their own version of the song, ranging from Marvin Gaye’s peers (such as Donny Hathaway, Richie Havens, Etta James and Aretha Franklin) to newer hitmakers (including Michael Bolton, Angela Winbush, Boyz II Men and John Legend). The Motown superstar hardly ever performed the entire album in concert; one memorable exception was at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on May 1, 1972, which the city’s mayor had designated “Marvin Gaye Day.”
What are the 20 most essential Motown albums? It’s a difficult choice, but this is ours, picked and presented through the course of this 60th anniversary year. Each album is featured with its background story, keyed to a relevant date in its history. This is not a countdown, leading to a “winner.” It’s just a way to showcase some of the finest music ever made. After all, isn’t that why you’re here?