Garth R. Brooks, top left, was a child when Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album was released. He still remembers how the music was soothing to his ears and soul. Dawn E. Webb, top right, reflects on the 50th anniversary of the “What’s Going On” album and encourages others to come together in peace. Walter Brown, bottom center, remembers the “What’s Going On” album as a teenager.
Photos provided by Walter Brown, Dawn E. Webb and Garth R. Brooks
He was eight years old in 1971 when he first heard Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album playing from his parent’s home on the east side of Detroit.
To say Walter Brown, 58, is just a fan of the classic Motown album is an understatement – the classic, crooning music he grew up on helped shape his perspective, life and even neighborhood.
“I’m a fan of the song and all of his music and the other Motown artists and everything … [to do] with Motown,” Brown said. “The whole music thing here in Detroit — is so diverse with its music. I’m just a fan.”
Gaye’s album was released May 21, 1971 — 50 years ago this month. The popular album has songs like “God is Love,” “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Right On.”
In the 1970s, Detroit was known for a lot of things including violent crime with street gangs, a large drug trade, the heroin epidemic, among other issues. But the Motown Sound was a bright beacon. Several Metro Detroiters reflected on the album’s semi-centennial anniversary, with many telling The Michigan Chronicle that the album could have been written today because the songs are just as relevant.
Brown is one of those people.
He said that growing up although there were a lot of social issues and “things going on” life was a bit different than it is now.
“It was a much, much simpler time than a lot of stuff going on today,” he said, adding that with him being a kid he was shielded from a lot but he recognizes the difference, too. “People got along with one another and you could talk to your neighbor. People weren’t as standoffish as they are now.”
Robert Turley, former Inkster resident, musician and local historian who also runs Inkster’s Facebook fan page, Inktown Fam aka Inkster Family, said during a Michigan Chronicle interview that he describes the album as “iconic.”
“It is the first R&B concept album, that is an entire album centered around one theme — in this case, social consciousness. It was Motown’s first gatefold (fold-out album) and the first to credit the musicians on the album,” the music buff said.
Turley added that as a musician, it is the lyrics on the album that inspire him — from the social awareness of “What’s Going On” to the warnings about pollution and a deteriorating planet on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
“These lyrical ideas are presented over a bed of innovative musical ideas which is what makes this album so great,” he said, adding that Gaye’s musical talents were evident on the album where he introduced new concepts to the world of music. “His use of two lead vocals on a song and the way he layered the background vocals were entirely new methods of arranging vocals. And he performed most of the background vocals himself.”
Turley added that the album “rewards repeated listening” because the lyrics are timeless and still relevant today, and because the music is never stale.
“Every time I listen to it, I hear something I didn’t notice before,” he said.
West Bloomfield resident Garth R. Brooks, 66, was 16 years old when the album came out.
“When I heard the song, it brings to mind a calling for peace and understanding of one another. My one word would be ‘struggle,’” Brooks said, adding that from race relations and acceptance to communication with one another, social issues back then are still prevalent today.
When asked what should the album takeaway be now, Brooks said for others to continue to find solutions and “to create equality and justice for all people.”
Bloomfield Hills resident Dawn E. Webb was six years old when the album was released.
“The feeling I get when I hear this song is the pain of the way of the world today,” she said, adding that the “What’s Going On” song is best described as “powerful.”
She echoed the thoughts of many others who said that the album and song are still an anthem for what’s happening in today’s world.
“It does still apply even more today with the police shootings, mass incarcerations and the racial divide that is taking place,” she said. “We must not ignore the state of affairs as it relates to this record. We’ve got to find a way to come together.”
Brown said that music is the universal language, and he hopes in the next 50 years, when the album turns a century old, that more people would come together.
“[Hopefully music] would serve as a force to actually unify all the people just everywhere in the next 50 years … and they can take the cue from some of the music of some of those simpler times and learn to love each other.”
Robin Terry, chairwoman and chief executive officer of Motown Museum, said that Rolling Stone Magazine said it best by recognizing the album as the “greatest album of our time.”
“I think what we’re experiencing in this moment of celebration around the anniversary is just why it is the greatest album of our time — and that is because it’s relevant,” Terry said. “It’s timeless and though it was written in 1971 here we are in 2021 and so many of the poignant lyrics that Marvin wrote, they are still relevant for us today.”
Regarding what her favorite song is, Terry said that they each “profoundly speak” to a different ill in the world, but she stands by the album cover title.
“I have to say, ‘What’s Going On,’” she said. “I don’t think there is anything better — I don’t think you can top that song.”
For more information on celebrations planned in honor of Gaye visit https://www.motownmuseum.org/.