5 LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION OF MARVIN GAYE’S ‘WHAT’S GOING ON’

by | May 28, 2021 | Inspiration

Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the greatest album of all time. “What’s Going On” was created by the late Marvin Gaye and released by Motown Records on May 21, 1971. In spite of its age, the album continues to be just as impactful today as it was back then. To celebrate this occasion, I took a special tour of Motown Museum where I learned five lessons from the record empire’s history that I will never forget.

1. Never Settle

The first lesson from the tour came from learning what led Berry Gordy to launch Motown Records. In 1957, he worked at a Lincoln-Mercury plant in Detroit until quitting to become a full-time songwriter. He partnered with local singer Jackie Wilson to write his first six singles including “Lonely Teardrops”, which soared to the number one spot on the R&B charts. Later that year, he discovered the Miracles, a talented group in which William “Smokey” Robinson was the lead singer.

(Photo: © The Creative Armory / Images: © Motown Museum)

He continued to build his arsenal of talented artists and produce music until he could no longer deal with the small royalty checks he received, including one in the amount of only $3.19. In 1959, he took the advice of Smokey Robinson and launched Tamla Records, which would be incorporated as Motown Records a year later. Berry Gordy knew he had a gift and instead of accepting the scraps he was given, he made a decision to build his own kitchen.

Motown museum merch. (Photo: © The Creative Armory)

2. Start Where You Are

Berry Gordy was raised in an entrepreneurial family, so it wasn’t in him to wait around hoping that his royalty checks would increase one day. He saw things were going and knew that he could make better money on his own. Instead of waiting years until he had the perfect portfolio of artists, staff, or office space, he started where he was with what he had. After meeting with his family he was able to secure an $800 loan from his family which would allow him to start building out his empire.

(Photo: © The Creative Armory / Images: © Motown Museum)

3. Don’t Journey Alone

Aside from its musical hits, another component that made Motown special was the team behind the scenes that helped it run like a well-oiled machine.  For example, Gordy’s sister, Esther, handled bookkeeping matters with help from her husband, George. His other sister, Loucye, handled manufacturing tasks like shipping, billing, sales, and graphics. There was a choreographer that taught the artist how to dance, an instructor that taught proper social skills, and a stylist that gave even the poorest of artists a polished, professional look. It truly takes a village to raise a business and Motown was no exception.

(Photo: © The Creative Armory / Images: © Motown Museum)

4. Trust Your Gut

Although Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ album is among the greatest of all time, it was not a welcomed idea when first pitched. Motown didn’t deal in politics and Berry Gordy tried to convince Gaye that putting out a protest album would be crossing the line. He felt that Gaye should stick to putting out music that matched the sultry image that he had going, but Gaye’s own brother had just returned from Vietnam which inspired Gaye even more to create an album reflecting his frustrations with ongoing social issues.

“What’s Going On” album by Marvin Gaye. (Photo: © The Creative Armory)

Gaye convinced Gordy to let him do the album and the rest, as we all know, was history. The hit single “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” raised awareness of pollution, while “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” expressed the pain of living in the ghetto. “What’s Happening Brother” spoke to how veterans had difficulty integrating back into society after returning home from the Vietnam war, and the single ‘What’s Going On’ spoke to police brutality among other issues. If Gaye had ultimately been convinced not to make this album, we would have missed out on having one of the most influential records of all time. 

5. Be the Best

Through its timeless music and memorable artists, Motown Records created a legacy like no other. The ‘Motown Sound’ was one that could appeal to people of all races, and that was huge during the days of segregation. As the tour wrapped up, we were led into Studio A. This was the actual recording area that legends like Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Diana Ross recorded their hit music.

We listened as Mickenly Jackson, former musical director and friend of Marvin Gaye, shared some fond memories from his days at Hitsville. “One thing I loved about Motown was that everyone was like family that shared a common goal, and that was to make good music.”

(Photo: © The Creative Armory)

Studio A equipment and Control Room window. (Photo: © The Creative Armory)

McKinley Jackson poses for a photo with me. (Photo: © The Creative Armory)

Conclusion

What would the world of music be like if Berry Gordy never launched Motown Records? Knowing that he had a family to support meant that he had every excuse to stay at his day job or continue accepting the measly royalty checks he received. He could have spent years waiting until the timing was “right” to pursue his dream or let his own fears keep Marvin Gaye from creating one of the greatest records ever. And what a shame that would have been.

In short, when opportunity knocks; answer. You never know when it will be your turn to impact the world.

(Photo: © The Creative Armory)

Autobiography of Berry Gordy in front of Hitsville. (Photo: © The Creative Armory)

Who are some of your favorite Motown artists and songs? Share your top picks in the comments!

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