I can remember the very first time I heard the opening notes from and words to Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece — a social commentary concept album entitled “What’s Going On” as if it were yesterday. It was the spring of 1971 when he released the album but I had been treated to previews of the soon-to-be classic many months before.
During my childhood, a proud native of the magical city of Motown (Detroit for those who don’t know Black history), the experiences I now remember which then seemed so ordinary I have since grown to understand that the memories that accompanied my journey were anything but the norm. I was granted the tremendous fortune of spending several hours each day after school and sometimes on weekends in the inner sanctum of Marvin Gaye and his family. There, as an inquisitive little boy, from the ages of 10 to 12, I often found myself jockeying for the swings and sliding board in his backyard, clinging to his every melodic word while he tickled the ivories on his pristine, all-white, Baby Grand piano in the living room or bouncing joyfully, along with his son, “Little Marvin,” and others from the Gaye clan, on the King-sized bed that stood in his bedroom — one larger than any boudoir I had ever imagined.
In those days, children were not left to their own devices as “latch-key kids.” Instead, we were shuttled to the homes of older Black women, sometimes mothers themselves, who took care of us until our parents returned in the evening from their jobs. My babysitter, a highly-respected Georgia transplant and favorite go-to caregiver in our Westside community, Mrs. Herbert Lee Hunt, lived five doors away from my family. As for the Gayes, they resided just two blocks away in our neighborhood’s larger homes along a boulevard lined with oak trees, West Outer Drive. That’s where we would often congregate after making our trek from school — a throng of little boys and girls who, adhering to the notion of strength in numbers, looked out for one another as we safely made our way home.
Marvin Gaye was the kind of Black men that little Black boys like me looked up to and wanted to be like one day. He was cool, he was kind, he always had time for us and he even let us hang out with him while he composed or rehearsed from his piano. But we had to sit along the rail to the living room as we were not allowed to track mud onto the white, shag carpeting.
When he arrived home, often wearing his favorite black leather coat — one which he even wore on the album cover for “What’s Going On” — he always asked us about our days, what we had learned and how we were feeling. We mattered to him. And so, he would ask us, “what’s going on little ones?”
As for “What’s Going On” and the other songs that were part of his album, I didn’t understand why Mr. Gaye seemed so intent on singing about injustice, suffering and hatred instead of about love which had been his forte — songs that my parents had long embraced and to which they grooved during our many family gatherings. I was too young to grasp why he cared so much about ecological issues or why it troubled him so profoundly that humanity had abandoned their role as caregivers for the planet and its many creatures who lived with the human race. I had not yet had to face the agony that so many Black mothers and fathers in those days were forced to endure after their sons who had been sent off to Vietnam — either lost their lives for a country that treated them as disposable goods or somehow were fortunate enough to return home — but damaged, mere shells of their former selves.
And so, like any little boy, I simply celebrated every moment — moments that included friends of Mr. Gaye and who he grew to like almost as much as him: Mel Farr and Lem Barney, both members of the Detroit Lions, who laughed a lot and even sang backup on the “What’s Going On” track; the Four Tops, especially Renaldo “Obie” Benson who worked on the arrangement and persuaded Mr. Gaye to record the song himself, instead of his first choice, the Originals; the regal Kim Weston for whom my cousin, Ronnie McNeir (now a Four Top himself) then worked as her pianist — even Diana Ross, who entered with a flourish, often without her Supremes sisters and rarely had time for little children like us.
Mr. Gaye’s compositions would prove to be both prophetic and illustrative of the challenges society faces today as he reflected on mothers crying, brothers dying, and the need to find a way to bring some loving here today. He concluded that war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate. Gaye pleaded and asked us to talk with him so we could see what’s going on, what’s going on, what’s going on.
The native Washingtonian Marvin Gaye would have celebrated his 81st birthday on April 2 if he were still with us. And while he died tragically on April 1, 1984, he has left us with a precious gift — the legacy of his music — songs that encouraged us to love one another and which challenged us to be better men and women.
And yet, almost 50 years later, we are still in search of an answer to his heartfelt query, “What’s Going On?”