“(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” discussed previously, is a sort of fourth-generation protest song. The previous generations? First came Woody Guthrie/labor movement anthems, then Bob Dylan/Peter, Paul and Mary tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and then the subgenre I’ll consider now–the black consciousness song of the ’60s and ’70s. The three outstanding examples–Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Going to Come,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” and Marvin Gaye’s 1971 “What’s Going On”–hitched political consciousness to soul music’s blend of gospel and rhythm and blues, brilliantly. “What’s Going On”–cowritten by Gaye, Renaldo Benson, and Al Cleveland–adds jazz instrumentation to the mix.
The song is on my mind because today’s New York Times’s obituary of former Detroit Lions running back Mel Farr recounts that Gaye invited Farr and another Lion, Lem Barney, to come into the studio for the recording session. Not only did they provide background vocals, but along with Gaye and Motown’s backing musician, the Funk Brothers, they kept up a line of chatter that Gaye ending up adding to the track as a sort of running barbershop commentary. Elgie Stover, who later served as a caterer for Bill Clinton and was then a Motown staffer, opened things up with the words, “Hey, man, what’s happening?” and later said, “Everything is everything.” It’s not clear who said (at least twice) my favorite line: “Hey man, what’s your name?”
The talk “set the record in a specifically black context,” wrote Steve Turner in his biography of Gaye, Trouble Man. “This was no longer just the ‘sound of young America,’ this was the sound of black America, and for the first time Marvin sounded as though he was speaking in his own voice.”
When the record came out in January 1971, it had the immediate feel of a classic, a feel the intervening decades hasn’t diminished. Rolling Stone lists it as the fourth greatest song of all time. The music and Gaye’s scatting vocals are as tight and soulful as ever, and the words are sadly just as relevant:
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
Here’s the original version: