Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. (known professionally as Marvin Gaye; April 2, 1939 - April 1, 1984) was an American singer and songwriter. He helped to shape the sound of Motown in the 1960s, first as an in-house session player and later as a solo artist with a string of successes, earning him the nicknames "Prince of Motown" and "Prince of Soul".
Gaye's Motown songs include "Ain't That Peculiar", "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)", and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". Gaye also recorded duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell, and Diana Ross. During the 1970s, Gaye recorded the albums What's Going On and Let's Get It On and became one of the first artists in Motown to break away from the reins of a production company.
His later recordings influenced several contemporary R&B sub-genres, such as Quiet Storm and Neo-Soul. He was a tax exile in Europe in the early 1980s; he released "Sexual Healing" in 1982, which won him his first two Grammy Awards on the album Midnight Love. Gaye's last televised appearances were at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, where he sang "The Star-Spangled Banner"; Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever; and Soul Train.
On April 1, 1984, the eve of his 45th birthday, Gaye was shot and mortally wounded by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., at their house in Hancock Park, Los Angeles, after an argument. Gay Sr. later pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter, and received a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation. Many institutions have posthumously bestowed Gaye with awards and other honors including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and inductions into the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What’s Going On is an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis. In 1970, Marvin Gaye was Motown’s top male vocal star, yet he was frustrated by the assembly-line role he played on his own hits.
Barry Gordy’s initial reaction to the song was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life”, and “that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old”. Smokey Robinson told Gordy – “ (it’s no use – ) like a bear shitting in the woods, Marvin ain’t budging”.
Marvin Gaye’s very compelling reason for wanting to record the song is "If I was arguing for peace. I knew I’d have to find peace in my heart."
The story is told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye’s introspective lyrics discuss themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War.
The song was released without Gordy's knowledge, and it sold over 200,000 copies within a week. It eventually became a huge success, reaching the top of the charts within a month, and staying at number one for five weeks on the Billboard R&B charts. On the main Billboard Hot 100, it reached number two.
It eventually sold over two million copies, becoming then the fastest-selling Motown single ever. It forced Gordy to allow Gaye to produce his own music, giving him an ultimatum to complete an album by the end of March, resulting in What's Going On.