Philly and beyond celebrates the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’

The late soul singer Marvin Gaye. His seminal record 'What's Going On' celebrates its 50th anniversary this year (Getty Images).

By Afea Tucker

PHILADELPHIA — Fifty years ago, Motown Records shocked the airwaves and raised the level of American consciousness with the release of Marvin Gaye’s classic and iconic album “What’s Going On.”

“It still reflects and resonates today, an album that was written and recorded 50 years ago, sounds like it was written and recorded yesterday,” said Patty Jackson, WDAS radio personality and pop culture enthusiast.

“Rolling Stone has named it the best album of all time. And when you just hear the themes and the aching plea, the question of “What’s Going On”, the plea of “Mercy, Mercy, Me”, this song is still relevant today,” said Jackson.

Gaye’s “What’s Going On” title track streaked to the top of music charts and influenced American culture and generations of people.

“You knew you were listening to a classic, going from ‘God is Love’, which is so touching to ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ which is basically what he was singing about with ‘The Ecology’, you just knew you were listening to something that reflected your life, no matter how old you were,” Jackson said.

In light of this anniversary, various networks, music outlets, organizations, and people across the globe including fans, fellow musicians and Detroit natives will pay homage to Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album and its timeless tracks.

According to the motownmuseum.com, the Motown Museum will host 90-minute VIP Marvin Gaye-focused tours every hour from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. According to a statement, it will “feature special guest appearances from Motown alumni” who will share with visitors behind-the-scenes stories about how the album came to life, as well as memories and stories about the late icon.

To honor the single’s 50th birthday, Motown/UMe collected bonus music for a digital release dubbed “What’s Going On: Deluxe Edition/50th Anniversary”, which will contain the original album plus 12 bonus tracks.

And on May 28, CNN will re-air “CNN Special: ‘What’s Going On’: Marvin Gaye’s Anthem for the Ages” anchored by CNN’s Don Lemon. The special spotlights the profound and significant impact of the lyrics of “What’s Going On”.

“It was just an overwhelming experience,” said CNN correspondent and journalist Don Lemon. “I got to speak with friends and the people he worked with, and more importantly, his sister Zeola, who I have now become friends with. The documentary took me on a journey that taught me how complicated and how much of a genius Marvin Gaye was,” said Lemon.

According to Lemon, Gaye’s message may be even more significant today.

“The album still speaks to what is going on today. It was ahead of its time in speaking about so many issues. Remember, this album was released in 1971. There weren’t many people singing about the environment in songs. Think about the lyrics, “Picket lines and picket signs. Don’t punish me with brutality. Talk to me so you can see what’s going on.” That’s Black Lives Matter. That’s right now,” Lemon said.

The iconic hit from a half-century ago reflects some of the most significant challenges and divisions America faces today such as excessive police force, climate change and endless war in a foreign land.

“The whole experience made me appreciate just how much artists, and quite frankly people with any degree of celebrity or a platform, have an obligation to reflect the times that they are in. They have an obligation to move the culture forward in a positive direction. Marvin Gaye was keenly aware of that obligation. The people who spoke about him all talked about how what was happening in the world and the death of his friend Tammi Terrell changed him. They watched it transform him into a deeper and more responsible artist,” said Lemon.

As people reflect on Gaye’s “What’s Going On” single and his discography, Jackson said that she hopes people understand just how much of an amazing singer he was.

“This soul singer really captured the spirit of the world, from that period of 1970-71 to what we’re dealing with in 2021. That’s great, songwriting. That’s great producing, because you just don’t get that today. What other song, do you know that captures a period that is so timeless, but so meaningful yet, so touching when you look at our lives?” Jackson said.

Afea Tucker is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared