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CNN Special Reports

CNN's Special, What's Going On, Marvin Gaye's Anthem For The Ages. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired May 28, 2021 - 23:00   ET




DON LEMON, CNN HOST: So, earlier I told you I had an announcement, and I do. It's been really, really great. This is the last night that we'll be CNN Tonight with Don Lemon. So, I appreciate all the years of CNN Tonight with Don Lemon. But changes are coming. And I will fill you in. But until then, I am very proud of my CNN Special about Marvin Gaye's groundbreaking album what's going on. What's going on, Marvin Gaye's Anthem for the ages, starts right now.


UNKNOWN: The following is a CNN special.

UNKNOWN: Wait a minute, man, let me count it off.

UNKNOWN: One, two, three, four.


UNKNOWN: Marvin touched the souls of millions and millions of people.


UNKNOWN: This was revolutionary.

UNKNOWN: 50 years later, it's all happening today.

No one listened to the words of this album.

UNKNOWN: What's going on is prophecy, man.

LEMON: Hi, I am 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 paneled 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. But half a century later, Marvin Gaye's music 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 saying so much to so many people after 50 years.

MARVIN GAYE, AMERICAN SINGER-SONG WRITER: My father is a minister, and he has always been a minister. So, I recall seeing a lot in the church as a child. My music I think reflects my ethnic upbringing fortunately and --

SMOKEY ROBINSON, MOTOWN RECORDING ARTIST: I knew him before he was Marvin, yeah. He was just my brother. And we hang 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 music world as a singer was in a vocal group, the moon grove. So he came out of the vocal group tradition -- the duo tradition of the '50s.

DAVID RITZ, BIOGRAPHER: He was schooled. In the most kind of strenuous and exacting school of folks singing. He had incredible ears and he was a genius for harmony. He could sing all the parts.

Marvin joins Motown. Which is kind of a challenging thing. 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.

ROBINSON: We're in Detroit. Many of the Motown artist and the (inaudible) Brothers, musicians, they all live pretty much in the same neighborhood in Motown.

We all hang out with each other. We went to each other's homes. There is a thing and it 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 the Motown the same year in 1961.

STEVIE WONDER, MOTOWN RECORDING ARTIST: I was 11, going on 12. But like everyone over 13 saw themselves being my parents. Can't handle them, can you. (Inaudible), forget about it. And Marvin was more like, you know he is smooth, you know, kind of voice, hey, you know, you play drums? You need to hold the drums stick this way. Oh, thank you.

UNKNOWN: We always say we built things.

The Motown concept for making records was really sort of borrowed by the assembly line concept that Henry Ford popularized in the 19 teens. Berry Gordy really sort of emulated that concept. They would be recording at Hitsville USA 24 hours a day.

ROBINSON: Berry 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.

UNKNOWN: The studio was about 55 feet long and about 47 feet wide. Small place. 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 pickup.

ROBINSON: We had the funk brothers. Who were some of the best musicians ever?

UNKNOWN: It was a mecca. Everybody in Detroit could sing. I never seen anything like it.

UNKNOWN: 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 (inaudible) and he was singing it Frank Sinatra, one of those kinds of ways. You know, that's when he became Marvin Gaye.

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

SPIKE LEE, FILM DIRECTOR: Even before this album. Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye.

LEMON: Oh my god, your precious love.

LEE: There's another one, ain't no mountain high enough.

UNKNOWN: The lines, the people steal because of the albums they made, that they were lovers. They were never lovers.

The fact that Tammi collapsed in his arms on stage, and she passed away and that tore him up.

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

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

It leads up to Marvin's late 1960s, very intense and depression. He didn't want to continue to produce for other producers.

GAYE: I think it was around 1969 and 1970, that period at Motown record, when I stop thinking so much about my erotic fantasies and I started to think about the war in Vietnam. My brother who told me some like pretty horrible stories.

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

UNKNOWN: The country was full of turmoil. The country was full of fear. The country was full of anger.

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

UNKNOWN: He was threw.

UNKNOWN: We didn't hear from Marvin, didn't make any appearances, didn't come out.

UNKNOWN: Everything with the war and everything he was facing with the racism. I don't know that I can continue without talking about what's going on.

ROBINSON: It's more important today, right now, in 2021, than it was when it first came out. It's prophesy.




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

ROBINSON: Yeah, I was probably at his house.


You see, I heard it in the making. I heard it from conception.


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

UNKNOWN: O.B. Benson, of the four tops, he was a riot basically of police brutality attack in the bay area, with he was in tour to four tops. And he writes some lyrics now about what's going on in the world. He comes back to Detroit.

DUKE FAKIR, THE FOUR TOPS: He said I am going to go drop my stuff off, go by Marvin's house. He said, I got this, kind of song in my head that Marvin can sing it. So they just plinking around with it, and he and Marvin at the piano.

JACK ASHFORD, PERCUSSIONIST THE FOUR BROTHERS: And Marvin said, let me change some of the lyrics. Marvin had a real unique way of transferring his everyday experiences into songs.



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

GAYE: I saw the country headed for modern day civil war in a sense. I was quite alarmed, and hey, man, 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 liked that he loved history.

MAXWELL, RECORDING ARTIST: It was so subtle how he got the message into your mind and into your psyche.


LEMON: It was not accusatory of anyone. 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 opposed to pick a lane, pick a side?

ROBINSON: He would be writing, he would sit at the piano, and he will say, Smoke, God is writing this album.


LEMON: War is no the answer for only love can conquer hate.

UNKNOWN: 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 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 was going on.

UNKNOWN: What was going on in the community, the ghetto injustice, the war?

UNKNOWN: 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.

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

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


UNKNOWN: He was stacking vocal in a way that we have not heard before.

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

LEMON: Can you play your part? UNKNOWN: Can I play it?

LEMON: On what's going on.

UNKNOWN: Yes. Brother, brother, brother there is far too many of you dying.

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

UNKNOWN: They put it out and it is sold. The singles sold like crazy.

UNKNOWN: It was immediate pop hit, it crossed over. He hit it right on the head.

LEE DANIELS, FILMMAKER: It was easy for him to come up with his usual Marvin Gaye's 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.

It's become legendary. It has been really a soundtrack, you know, to our life and to our fight and to our triumphs and our struggles.

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


UNKNOWN: When Marvin was writing this record, this was the George Floyds of that era. That was inspiring it.

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

WONDER: Because it 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.

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


UNKNOWN: 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 of Marvin Gaye's what's going on.


UNKNOWN: What's going on was made first. It was his kind of Jewel. And then Berry goes back to Marvin and says can you deliver a full album.

KEN COLEMAN, HISTORIAN: It was what the industry began a called concept albums. What's going on deals with a central theme and every track of the album added onto that theme.

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

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

UNKNOWN: It makes you want to higher, lift your hands.

LEMON: This ain't rhythm.

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

UNKNOWN: You are driving through Kansas in the middle of nowhere and then, you put that song on and buildings start coming out of nowhere.

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

UNKNOWN: These are experiences, these are what he feels like, the ghetto and the churches. Poverty and 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. His cries are reconstructed 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 an emotional plea for children.

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


SHEILA E., RECORDING ARTIST: 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.

UNKNOWN: One of the things about Detroit is, there is almost a church on every street corner.

UNKNOWN: The album that begins in a party winds up in church. So, it is unapologetically spiritual.

LEMON: He goes into gospel on an album that's supposed to be soul, and he start singing holy, holy.

UNKNOWN: He's a church boy. It is 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 wanting him to relay to mankind.


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


LEMON: Mercy, mercy me.

MAXWELL: I think it can get that enough.

LEMON: Things they want they used to be.

UNKNOWN: Mercy, mercy me got one of the baddest grooves on the album.


RITZ: I'm not sure in 1971 people wanted to hear that we were burning up the planet and we were polluting the ocean. But he got the message across by grooving it up so craftily until you want to hear it over and over and over again.

LEMON: Oh, mercy, mercy me.

WONDER: Oh, things ain't what they used to be, no.

LEMON: Oh, things ain't what they used to be.

WONDER: That's kind of low. Oh, mercy, mercy me.

LEMON: That's it.

LEE: This is one of the greatest back cover photos.


LEMON: Look at the coat.

LEE: He got the shaft.


LEE: He got the shaft.


LEMON: Bad mother, shut your mouth coat.

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 seeing from Motown. You know, because you guys had the charm school and the etiquette school and everyone was clean cut and pretty.

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

GEORGE: It was Marvin Gaye looking into the world of -- it just felt like an overcast day was 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: We were --


LEE: -- we were dancing. (INAUDIBLE) down!





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

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

LEE: The world we live in then. It was black power. Soul train.

LEMON: Sexy.

LEE: We were so beautiful.

LEMON: We were feeling ourselves.

LEE: We were, and the way we were dressed, the way we were dancing.

LEMON: Yeah.

LEE: We were --


LEE: We were dancing. We were Black folks getting down!

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

LEE: Yes.

LEMON: -- after the civil rights movement.

LEE: Yes.

LEMON: Right?

LEE: Marvin was telling us what was going on, like, he had an antenna. His album came out on 1971. I was a sophomore in high school. John did the high school in Coney Island. And in the library, they had turn tables, so if you bought an album, they had headphone, you can put the album on and listen to it on headphones. 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 is getting his first-hand account of Vietnam from his brother. But then, Marvin is in Detroit, the big "D." He 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: War is hell, when will it end?

LEE: War is hell, when will it end?


LEMON: This has had to have influence on you.

LEE: Yeah.

LEMON: Because your movies are about this. "Inner City Blues," that's a Spike Lee joint (ph).


LEE: You listen to Marvin Gaye. This album right here, he's singing to you.

LEMON: So, he was singing to you then because (INAUDIBLE)?

LEE: Yes.

This film is about bloods returning to Vietnam, 50 years later.

LEMON: He uses acapella version. (SINGING)

LEE: My ears, like, blew up. And I knew exactly the scene where we were going.


LEE: African-Americans in the height of Vietnam War, as soon as you graduated, they snatched your black ass up, sent you boot camp, and before you snap your fingers, your ass is in a jungle halfway around the world, and we were sent to the front.

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

LEE: Shunned.

LEMON: They were outcast.

LEE: Outcast.


LEE: I mean these soldiers hear our songs. They're saying in mind, Marvin wrote this to me.


LEE: Marvin is singing the gospel to me.


LEMON: We hear it in even with young folks now.

LEE: The anthems.


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

LEMON: Mm-hmm.

LEE: Protest song.


DANIELS: 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. (SINGING)

LEMON: He won a Golden Globe for playing Billie Holliday. What do you think of the similarities do you see between Marvin Gaye and the woman, like Billie Holliday?

ANDRA DAY, ACTRESS: 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: Yeah, 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 my favorite songs. It is my favorite song in the album which is "Save the Children."


DAY: It is a journey. When you realize what he's saying, it is sort of like we cannot continue down this path. This is a path of destruction.


WONDER: The album covered so much ground. It was representative of not just what was happening with the various soldiers that had gone and fought in the Vietnam War, but the people that were dealing with the things in life. You know, the song was "Flying High".

LEMON: "Flying High in the Friendly Sky."


LEMON: It was about drugs and heroin.



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

RITZ: Ironically enough, Marvin's addiction is ultimately what did him in and (INAUDIBLE) his mind. So that song alone is about his own personal life.


LEMON: What do you think Marvin would think about "What's Going On?"





GEORGE: I asked him, 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.

UNKNOWN: I've gone through three years of pretty rough times 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 in your music.

MAXWELL, RECORDING ARTIST: As a Black man, he represented a full spectrum of what we have in terms of interest that we're not just the sexualized version that you want us to be.

LEMON: You know, I have seen you on stage and you're like singing "Pretty Wings" and women are throwing their panties up on the stage and, like, oh, Maxwell, oh!


LEMON: How do you feel when people say, oh, Maxwell, modern day Marvin Gaye?

MAXWELL: I am very complimented by it. I modelled a lot of what I was trying to do in my 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 sort of emotional to talk about because I had seen him early year that year. And he called me on stage and I hugged him. I said how are you feeling? He said, I was tired, I was tired. And that was the last time unfortunately that I saw him.

GAYE: He was in turmoil before he died.

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

LEMON: He never talked about him.

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


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.

UNKNOWN (voice-over): Soul singer Marvin Gaye was shot to death yesterday.

Marvin Gaye, Sr. booked on suspicion of murder in the death of his son.


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



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


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


SHEILA E.: I'm 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, two years or five years or 10 years will 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.


UNKNOWN: All the neo soul guys. D'Angelo, Maxwell. You hear people like Miguel.

I think Marvin is the most influential male vocalist of the last 50 years in terms of anybody who is doing anything that involved soul music.

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


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


DAY: 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: This song had never had a music video, which is insane because it's probably one of the most profound songs in history. I really wanted to use my voice. I really wanted to say something. I wanted to speak.

MARVIN GAYE, SINGER: I just want to ask a question. 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.


UNKNOWN (voice-over): Twenty-five. It's got be a Black male.

LEAF: We really needed to show the racial discrimination going on today.


LEAF: One is 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 are a lot of young people angry.


LEAF: The health care crisis is probably, like, one of my biggest issues with the U.S.


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


DEVON GILFILLIAN, RECORDING ARTIST: The question of what is 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" album, that was when I was, like, oh, who is this? It wasn't until this past year where I 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"?

UNKNOWN (voice-over): George Floyd!

CROWD: George Floyd!

UNKNOWN (voice-over): George Floyd!

CROWD: George Floyd!

GILFILLIAN: It happened when I went out to a protest here in Nashville after George Floyd was killed. I went home, picked the guitar up and started strumming through it. And immediately, I -- I just started crying.

Marvin Gaye already -- he already wrote this song 50 years ago and nobody listened?


GILFILLIAN: 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.


GILFILLIAN: They see something that's wrong and they point it out. And that is a purpose.

UNKNOWN: Black people have awoken in a way we haven't ever seen before. Not in my lifetime.

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


MAXWELL: You get 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 we have to pray about it. We have to figure it 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 --


LEMON: -- 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." Only one of those and only one Marvin Gaye.


RITZ: Marvin's voice doesn't go away. Again and again and again and again, we keep asking ourselves, what's going on?