Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking album, “What’s Going On,” was released over 50 years ago. Born in 1939 in Washington, D.C., Gaye’s musical journey began in church and later led him to join The Moonglows, a popular doo-wop group.

When the doo-wop genre declined in the 1950s, Gaye’s path took an unexpected turn when Harvey Fuqua, a founding member of The Moonglows, introduced him to Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown records. Gaye’s soulful sound earned him the title “Prince of Motown,” and he collaborated with notable artists like Diana Ross.

Tragically, Gaye’s life was cut short in 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, when he was fatally shot by his father, Marvin Gaye Sr., following a dispute.

However, Gaye’s legacy lives on through his eleventh studio album, “What’s Going On,” which has stood the test of time.

Released on May 21, 1971, this influential album remains relevant due to its strong social consciousness. It delves into important themes such as racism, drug abuse, poverty, and police brutality, while also providing the perspective of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the United States.

“What’s Going On” marked a departure from Gaye’s earlier love-focused hits like “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” both released in 1967.

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What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye

Album: What’s Going On

The album garnered critical acclaim and is recognized as a turning point for artistic freedom and meaningful music at Motown records. In the years following Gaye’s untimely death, “What’s Going On” reached new heights, securing the top spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

The album’s powerful artwork features an emotional close-up of Gaye, contemplating the world around him. On the back cover, he is captured wearing a yellow shirt, tie, and trench coat, with the collar turned up, against a backdrop of drizzling snow. These evocative photographs were taken in Gaye’s own backyard.

The album cover was designed by Motown’s art director, Curtis McNair, and photographed by Jim Hendin.

During an interview with The Bay State Banner in 2008, McNair revealed that the cover for “What’s Going On” was his personal favorite. He aimed to capture the album’s emotional essence, choosing a photograph where Gaye’s hair turned white from the sleet, and the moisture on his trench coat added to the overall drama.

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Hendin, speaking to author Ben Edmonds for the book “What’s Going On?,” recounted how the cover shots were taken just as the snow began to fall, adding an unexpected element to the imagery.

Interestingly, McNair initially faced objections from his supervisor, who disliked the angle of the chosen photograph, claiming it showed too much of Gaye’s nostrils. To resolve the matter, McNair sought Gaye’s opinion, who happened to be present at the Motown building.

Upon seeing the selected photograph, Gaye decisively declared, “This is definitely the cover right here.”

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