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CNN Special Reports

What's Going on, Marvin Gaye's Anthem for the Ages. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired May 09, 2021 - 20:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special.

JACK ASHFORD, PERCUSSIONIST, THE FUNK BROTHERS: Wait a minute, man. Let me count it off.


ASHFORD: One, two, three, four.


STEVIE WONDER, MUSICIAN: Marvin touched the souls of millions and millions of people.

MAXWELL, RECORDING ARTIST: This is revolutionary.

DEVON GILFILLIAN, RECORDING ARTIST: Fifty years later it's all happening today. No one listened to the words on this album.

SMOKEY ROBINSON, MOTOWN RECORDING ARTIST: What's going on is prophecy, man.


LEMON: Hi, I'm Don Lemon. This album right here, soundtrack of my childhood. I still remember my mom cranking up the radio in our Station wagon with the wood panel sides when "What's Going On" came on. Marvin Gaye's record went Platinum. And "Rolling Stone" called this the greatest album of all time. Now half a century later, Marvin Gaye's music is still going strong. It still resonates as the nation struggles with racism and inequality. So it made me wonder how and why this one album could still be singing so much to so many people after 50 years.


MARVIN GAYE, MUSICIAN: My father is a minister, and he's always (INAUDIBLE). I recall seeing a lot in the church as a child. My own music I think reflects my ethnic upbringing fortunately. And --

ROBINSON: I knew him before he was Marvin, yes. He was just my brother. And we hung out almost every day. Marvin originally, man, wanted to be the black Frank Sinatra. That's how he wanted to sing. He didn't want to sing rock or R&B or anything like that, you know?

NELSON GEORGE, MUSIC CRITIC: His introduction to the music world as a singer was in a vocal group, the Moon Glow. So he came out of the vocal group tradition, the du-whop tradition of the '50s.

DAVID RITZ, BIOGRAPHER: He was schooled in the most kind of strenuous and exacting school of soul singing.

He had incredible ears and had this kind of genius for harmony. He could sing all the parts.

Marvin joins Motown, which is kind of a challenge in singing. Producers were in charge. And Marvin didn't like anybody being in charge. He had this acrimonious relationship with his own father who was an authoritarian figure. So Marvin in Motown was somewhat tumultuous from the beginning.

KEN COLEMAN, HISTORIAN: We're in northwest Detroit. Many of the Motown artists and the Funk Brothers, the session musicians, they all live pretty much in the same neighborhood.

ROBINSON: We all hung out with each other. We went to each other's homes. There is a thing and it's not mythical. You know, a lot of people think it is, called the Motown family, that's exactly what it is.

LEMON: You guys signed with Motown the same year in 1961.

WONDER: I was 11, going on 12. And like, everyone over 13 saw themselves as being my parents. Can't handle, can you? Forget about it. And Marvin was more like, you know, smooth, you know, kind voice, you know, you play drums, you need to, you know, hold the drumstick this way. Oh, thank you.


COLEMAN: We always say in Detroit we build things. The Motown concept for making records was really sort of borrowed by that assembly line concept that Henry Ford popularized in the (INAUDIBLE). Barry Gordy really sort of emulated that concept. They would be recording at Hitsville U.S.A. 24 hours of the day.

ROBINSON: Barry was looking for a studio in Detroit at that time. And he saw this house that had a garage attached to the back of it who became a studio.

ASHFORD: The studio was about 55 feet long and about 47 feet wide. Small place. Now we were all in one room. And we can see each other's face. It was something about that magic of looking at a person's eyes when he's doing a pick up.

ROBINSON: We had the Funk Brothers who were some of the best musicians ever.

ASHFORD: It was a Mecca. Everybody in Detroit could sing. I never seen anything like it. GEORGE: The competition level was super high. He very easily could

have not hit. He was a decent drummer and musician, he might have ended up being a studio musician.

ROBINSON: He started to be my drummer with the "Miracles in Me," going on the road playing drums. He started writing "Some Kind of Fella" and he was singing it Frank Sinatra, one of those kind of ways, you know. That was when he became Marvin Gaye.

LEMON: You have a love and a reverence and a connection to Marvin Gaye that stretches -- that goes back your entire life. At least since high school.

SPIKE LEE, FILMMAKER: Even before this album. Tammy Terrell.

LEMON: Oh, my god.

LEE: Marvin Gaye.

LEMON: Your precious love.

LEE: There's another one, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

ZEOLA GAYE, MARVIN GAYE'S SISTER: A lot of people feel because of the albums they made that they were lovers. They never were lovers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The fact that Tammy collapsed in his arms on stage, she passed away and that tore him up.

ROBINSON: For a while he didn't want to record with any of the girls ever again. And he felt guilty about it like it was his fault.

LEE: The death of Tammy Terrell, tragic. And I don't think Marvin ever got over that.

RITZ: It leads up Marvin's late 1960s very intense, battle with depression. He didn't want to continue to be produced by other producers.

M. GAYE: I think it was around 1969 and 1970, that period at Motown Records when I stopped thinking so much about my erotic fantasies, and I started to think about the war in Vietnam, my brothers, Tommy write some pretty horrible stories.

GEORGE: Also, if you're living in Detroit in 1968, '69, '70, you're seeing the turmoil on the streets.

RITZ: The country was full of turmoil, the country was full of fear, the country was full of anger.

GEORGE: A black person was killed in L.A. That started the riot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was through.

Z. GAYE: We didn't hear from Marvin, didn't make any appearances, didn't come out. ANDRA DAY, ACTRESS: Everything with the war, everything he was facing

with the racism. I don't know that I can continue without talking about "What's Going On."

ROBINSON: It is more poignant today right now. In 2021 than it was when it came out. It's prophecy.




LEMON: Do you remember where you were when you first heard the album?

ROBINSON: Yes. I was probably at his house. Well, see, I heard it in the making. I heard it from conception.


Z. GAYE: Things in exile when he made the album. He hadn't been seen or heard from for a pretty long time and then all of a sudden it came to him and he said he just felt like writing.

GEORGE: OB Benson of the Four Tops sees the riot basically of police brutality attack in the Bay area when he's on tour with the Four Tops. And he writes some lyrics about what's going on in the world. He comes back to Detroit.

DUKE FAKIR, THE FOUR TOPS: He said, man, I'm going to go drop my stuff off, I'm going to go by Marvin's house. He said, I got a kind of song in my head and it sounds like Marvin could sing it. So they start (INAUDIBLE) around with it, and he and Marvin were at the Tearoom.

ASHFORD: So Marvin said, well, let me change some of the lyrics. Marvin had a real unique way of transferring his everyday experiences into songs.


LEMON: There were riots happening all over the country. Every one of these things were sparked by instances of police overreaction.

M. GAYE: I saw the country hits modern-day civil war in a sense. That was quite (INAUDIBLE), and if anything it caused me to look at society and something happened with me during that period and I felt strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men.


WONDER: I love that he was not just a great musician but he was well- read. I like that he loved history.

MAXWELL: It was so subtle how he got the message into your mind and into your psyche. (MUSIC)

LEMON: It wasn't accusatory of anyone.


LEMON: It wasn't preachy.

MAXWELL: He believed that the listener was smart enough to come up with their own conclusions. How do I feel about this as oppose to pick a lane, pick a side.

ROBINSON: He'd be writing, and he would sit at the piano, he says, Smoke, God is writing this album.


LEMON: "War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate."

GEORGE: He's speaking to God on one level but he's speaking to the fathers of our country, the leadership of our country to deal with the Vietnam War but also to deal with the everyday brutality.


Z. GAYE: I know he was going through the pain and the agony of my youngest brother Reggie who was in Vietnam at the time.

RITZ: He takes us from Vietnam back to the United States to see what's going on.

SHEILA E., PERCUSSIONIST: What was going on in the community, the ghetto, injustice, the war.

GILFILLIAN: He makes you hear the lyrics which are very important and potent but then he tricks you into listening to them with his music by making you move and feel and hypnotizing you.

GEORGE: He found techniques of using his voice and instruments that he had done two lead vocals for the record. Because he was going to see which one he wanted to use. The engineer mixing it mixed the two voices together by accident. That accident becomes the turning point because ah, he listened to the interplay of his voice.

ROBINSON: He was the first person that I knew of that sang the background for himself.

SHEILA E.: He was stacking vocals in a way that we hadn't heard before.

ASHFORD: That was Marvin's debut as a producer.

LEMON: Can you play your part?

ASHFORD: Can I play it?

LEMON: Yes. On "What's Going On."


GEORGE: All of that music has a jazzy, almost improvisational groove that runs through it. It has the professionalism of a Motown Record without the formula.

RITZ: They put it out and it's sold. The single sold like crazy.

GEORGE: It was immediate pop hit, it crossed over. He hit the (INAUDIBLE) right on the head.


ICE DANIELS, FILMMAKER: It was easy for him to come up with his usual Marvin Gaye love songs. He had to do something different, he shook it up and that's what made him brilliant.

LEMON: "Don't punish me with brutality." That's Black Lives Matter.

Z. GAYE: Absolutely.

DAY: It's become legendary and that it's been really a sound track, you know, to our lives, into our fights, into our triumphs and our struggles.

Z. GAYE: When you think about all the senseless killings, when they break the girl's door down, we're losing people that we love for no reason at all.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When Marvin's writing these records, this is the George Floyd of that era. That were inspiring in.

LEMON: Why do you think it's so relevant today, 50 years later?

WONDER: Because shit is still happening the same way. To be honest with you, just to be frank and not Stevie for a minute.


Things are still happening the same way.

SHEILA E.: This is what he feels like, the ghetto, the churches. This is how I feel right now and I also see how you feel. I want to talk about you.


COLEMAN: Detroit is a tale of two cities. You only have to go two or three or four blocks and find solid middle-class neighborhoods and then find abject poverty. This was the inspiration for Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

GEORGE: "What's Going On" was made first. It was this kind of jewel, and then Barry goes back to Marvin and says, can you deliver a full album?

COLEMAN: It was what the industry began to call a concept album. "What's Going On" dealt with a central theme and every track on the album added onto that theme.


ASHFORD: We just went from one song to the other. He had all the little songs together, man.

GILFILLIAN: He wanted it to all come together and melt together. He put together that theme and created a universe.


GEORGE: The groover on that record is crazy. I can put inner city blues right now, get in the car and drive through any hood in America, and that record still bangs and it describes what I'm seeing.

GILFILLIAN: You're driving through Kansas in the middle of nowhere and then you just -- you put that song on and buildings start coming out of nowhere.


GEORGE: Some songs are cinematic. Inner city blues is a movie.

SHEILA E.: These are experiences, this is what he feels like, the ghetto, the churches, poverty, then the miscommunication of understanding racism. This is how I feel right now and I want you to understand how I feel, and I also see how you feel. I want to talk about you.

RITZ: We all need to cry out. And Marvin does cry out in his album. But his cries are reconstructive in ways that are irresistibly beautiful.


LEMON: "Save the Children." Who really cares, who's willing to die, to save a world that is destined to die. I mean, that was, that was an emotional plea for children.

GEORGE: That's one of the high points of the album. And how he sang, who really cares? It's almost angelic looking down in trying to figure out what is a solution.

SHEILA E.: I am crying out for you to listen to me. This is more important than writing about I love you, I love you, but in a different way.

COLEMAN: One of the things about the (INAUDIBLE) is there is always a church on every street corner.

RITZ: This album that begins in a party winds up in church. So it's unapologetically spiritual. LEMON: He goes into gospel on an album that's supposed to soul, and he

starts singing holy, holy.

GEORGE: He's a church boy. It's about bringing people together and a sense of unity.

RITZ: It sounds beautiful, it feels beautiful, but most importantly it continues to heal.

Z. GAYE: It was a message that God wanted him to relay to mankind.

MAXWELL: I have never heard anyone really speaks about the environment in soul music. So for me it was even beyond the people, it was about the planet.


RITZ: "Mercy, Mercy Me" has got one of the baddest grooves on the album. I'm not sure in 1971 people wanted to hear that we were burning up the planet or we were polluting the ocean. But he got the message across by grooving it up so crafty. Until you want to hear it over and over again.


LEMON: That's it.

LEE: This is one of the greatest back-cover photo.

LEMON: Look at the coat.

LEE: He got the Shaft.


LEE: He got the Shaft.

LEMON: Bad mother, shut your mouth?

LEE: Yes.

RITZ: It's Marvin in the backyard wearing a raincoat during a rainstorm. This is an album of a man who is crying. And the sky is crying.

LEMON: It wasn't what you used to sing from Motown. You know, because you guys have the charm school, and the etiquette school, and everybody was clean cut and pretty.

ROBINSON: He was doing Marvin. He was doing his thing, man.

GEORGE: Marvin Gaye looking into the world, you know, it just feels like an overcast day -- looking into darkness in a way.

ASHFORD: It fit that time. It fits today. Years later, you know?

LEMON: I felt like we were coming into our own.

LEE: When we were dancing, black folks will get down.




LEE: People say that can be the zenith of black music.

LEMON: Why did you say the zenith of black music?

LEE: The world we live in, man, you know, is black power. Soul train.

LEMON: Sexy.

LEE: We're just so beautiful.

LEMON: We were feeling ourselves.

LEE: We were. And the way we were dressed, the way we're dancing.


LEE: Man, we were --


LEE: When we were dancing, black folks will get down.

LEMON: I felt like we were coming into our own.

LEE: Yes.

LEMON: After the Civil Rights Movement. Right?

LEE: Yes. Marvin was telling us what's going on. Like he had an antenna. His album came on 1971. I was a sophomore in high school. John Dewey High School in Coney Island, and in the library, they had turntables so if you brought an album, they had headphones, you put the album on and listen to it on head phones. And so I would cut class to listen to his album. This mojo right here is timeless. Timeless.

LEMON: How much do you think is influenced by his brothers' involvement in Vietnam?

LEE: Marvin was getting a firsthand account of Vietnam from his brother. But then Marvin is in Detroit, the big D, he's seen the bloods come back on heroin, handicap or in coffins. The song "What's Happening, Brother," that's from someone who came back to the world. They're called "U.S. and the World."


LEMON: This had to have influence on you. LEE: Yes.

LEMON: Because your movies are about this. Inner city blues. That's a Spike Lee joint.

LEE: You're with Marvin Gaye, this album right here, he's singing to you.

LEMON: So he was singing to you then because you're using it in the "Five Bloods"?

LEE: Yes. This film is about blood returning to Vietnam, 50 years later.

LEMON: He uses the acapella version.


LEE: My ears like blew up. And I knew exactly the scene where he was going.


LEE: African-Americans at the height of Vietnam War, as soon as you graduated, your black ass up, sent you boot camp, and before you were snapping your gingers, your ass in the jungle, half way around the world. And we were sent to the front.

LEMON: I remember seeing the Vietnam War, and my cousins, my uncles, they came home, heroin, angel dust. Then people weren't saying, how do we help our brothers on heroin. They were shunned.

LEE: Shunned.

LEMON: They were outcast.

LEE: Outcast.

And these soldiers hear our songs they're saying in mind, Marvin wrote this to me. Marvin is singing the gospel to me.


LEMON: We hear it even the young folks now.

LEE: It's one of the anthems. "What's Going On" is a protest song. There is a great history of "Lady Sings the Blues."


"Strange Fruit." Protest song.


DANIELS: She's talking about black people being lynched in the streets around America. It was unheard of for her to have that kind of song out and for people to embrace that kind of song, especially white people.

LEMON: Is there some lesson? Is there some connection?

DANIELS: Marvin was doing the same thing except it was how many years later. He was living in his truth, he was telling his truth and truth is hard to tell.

LEMON: You won a Golden Globe for playing "Billie Holiday." What do you think the similarities you see between Marvin Gaye and a woman like Billie Holiday.

DAY: It was revelatory. I think it was revelatory then, I think it is revelatory now. It was revelatory when I was young listening to it.

LEMON: So you listened to this album growing up.

DAY: Yes, of course. But I wasn't super aware of the lyrics. It wasn't until I got older until I heard, and actually one of the favorites songs. It is my favorite song in the album, which is "Save the Children."


DAY: It's a journey, you know what I mean? And when you realize what he's saying it's sort of like we cannot continue down this path. This is a path of destruction.


WONDER: The album covered so much ground. It is representative of not just what's happening with the various soldiers that are gone for the Vietnam War but the people that were dealing with the things in life, you know, and the song is "Flying High."

LEMON: "Flying High in the Friendly Skies."


LEMON: That was about drugs and heroin.

WONDER: Yes. The whole drug thing happened, the depression that happened, and it is just a deep thing.

RITZ: Marvin's addiction is ultimately the (INAUDIBLE) that did him in. And ravaged his mind. So that song alone is prescient about his own personal life.

LEMON: What do you think Marvin would think about what's going on?




GEORGE: I asked him, what do you think about doing another "What's Going On," and he said, he didn't feel that he was in the right mental state to do that.

M. GAYE: That gone through three years of pretty rough time and it's been difficult to hold up many times. I felt like doing some crazy things. And the only way you can get these feelings off is to put it into music.

MAXWELL: As a black man, he represented a full spectrum of what we have in terms of interests that were not just the sexualized version that you want us to be.

LEMON: But, you know, I've seen you on stage. And you're like singing "Pretty Wings," and (INAUDIBLE), and he's up on the stage, that's (INAUDIBLE).

How do you feel when people say, you know, Maxwell, modern-day Marvin Gaye?

MAXWELL: I am very complimented by it. I modeled a lot of what I was trying to do in the early days and even most of my life now around him. He gave you something to look up to. Something to want to become and to embody.

WONDER: I loved his direction. I was inspired by what he wrote. It's emotional to talk about it because I had seen him earlier that year and he called me on stage, and I hugged him, I said, "How are you feeling? He said, "I'm just tired, I'm just tired." And that was the last time unfortunately that I saw him.

Z. GAYE: He was in turmoil before he died.

ROBINSON: He struggled probably. His dad was always in conflict with him.

LEMON: You never talked about it.

ROBINSON: No. I wish we had. I wish we had.

Z. GAYE: He started doing drugs a little heavier and he started hearing voices, and he kept talking about he didn't want to live anymore. He wanted to go.

LEMON: I remember being in the park and hearing it on the radio in the middle of the song and they announced his death and everybody was just floored.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Soul singer Marvin Gaye was shot to death yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Marvin Gaye Sr. booked on suspicion of murder in the death of his son.

ROBINSON: What an epitaph to be killed the day before your birthday by the man who sired you.

Z. GAYE: I know he's at peace and he's at rest.

ROBINSON: I think his name would live on and on.

SHEILA E.: I am always going to remember the time that I learned what not to play and when not to play. I was so amazed to play with him on his last tour.

RITZ: Hopefully every year or two years or five years or 10 years there'll be another version of "What's Going On" by another artist.



RITZ: I love Michael McDonald's version of it. John Legend did the whole album live.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the souls guys. DeAngelo and Maxwell. You hear people like Miguel. I think Marvin is the most influential male vocalists of the last 50 years in terms of anybody who's doing anything that involved soul music.

MAXWELL: And you look at like all of the records that are coming out that have a social justice feel to them. You can always point to Marvin first.

DAY: "Rise Up," that's from a prayer. That was the first time I was really questioning in my life if this was supposed to be what I was supposed to do.

I could not think of a better way for this song to be supported for it to be celebrated than to be adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement.


SAVANNAH LEAF, DIRECTOR, "WHAT'S GOING ON" MUSIC VIDEO: This song had never had a music video which is insane because it's probably one of the most profound songs in is history. I really wanted to use my voice. I really wanted to say something. I wanted to speak.

M. GAYE: I just want to ask questions. Who really cares?

LEAF: When this musician you look up to is all of a sudden confronting you with these intense questions, you have to respond to that.

We really needed to show the racial discrimination going on today. We wanted to talk about our children, the kids that are being killed by these mass shootings. The voices of the young people especially that year in 2019 and 2018, there was a lot of young people angry. The healthcare crisis, it's probably like one of my biggest issues with the U.S.

And then the Flynt, Michigan, water crisis that's so close to Detroit, so close to the home of Motown. It felt only right.

GILFILLIAN: The question of "What's Going On," it unfortunately hasn't gone away.

LEMON: Your dad was a wedding singer. Did he sing like Marvin Gaye around the house?

GILFILLIAN: A hundred percent. When he pulled out the "What's Going On" the album that was when I was like oh, who's this? It wasn't until this past year where I've truly listened to the entire record, the entire album from front to back.

LEMON: What was the inspiration for you to record "What's Going On"?

GILFILLIAN: It happened when I went out to a protest here in Nashville after George Floyd was killed. I went home, picked a guitar up and started strumming throughout it and immediately I just started crying. Marvin Gaye wrote this song 50 years ago and nobody listened? No one heard it? It was at that moment it hurt, it hurt to sing those words.

I think the next generation has the power to absolutely change this world because they don't give a damn. They see something that's wrong and they point it out. And that is our purpose.

DANIELS: Black people have awoken in a way we have not ever seen before. Not in my lifetime.

WONDER: It is up to us to get it right and fix it.

MAXWELL: You're getting really sick of being tired and you get very sad about being sick and you get very upset about being angry.


And at some point something has to give and I think creatively he gave us that opportunity to sort of like let loose.

RITZ: We have to sing about it, we have to pray about it. We have to figure out but the question doesn't go away, the music doesn't go away.

MAXWELL: I wish he could have known the way that we love him right now with this record.

LEMON: Imagine that from conception to the greatest album, your most favorite album of all time.

ROBINSON: Of all time.

ASHFORD: There is a lot of hits came out of Motown but only one, "What's Going On." The only one of those, and only one Marvin Gaye.

RITZ: Marvin's voice doesn't go away again and again and again and again and again. We keep asking ourselves, "What's Going On?"

GRAPHICS: A message from Marvin Gaye's Children.

GRAPHICS: "We are thankful that our father's very special work continues to inspire and give hope, especially during these most difficult of times. We are humbled, along with our own children, Nolan, Dylan, and MIV. We believe he would be, too. God is love."

GRAPHICS: Nona, Frankie, and Marvin Gaye III.