Tune in to Jazz with Victor Cooper – weekdays from 6-9 a.m. MT – for Stories of Standards to hear our favorite versions of this song all week long starting Mondy, August 13!
Stories of Standards is sponsored by ListenUp – If you love music, you’ll love ListenUp.
On May 15, 1969, the Four Tops, including Renaldo “Obie” Benson, arrived in Berkeley, California, in time to witness the police rioting at the People’s Park. Benson took his concerns to a friend, songwriter Al Cleveland, who wrote the initial version of “What’s Going On?”. That song was offered to the Four Tops, who rejected it as a protest song and too political. In 1970 Benson took the song to Marvin Gaye, who added a new melody and additional lyrics. “What’s Going On?” was recorded 6/1/1970 at the Hitsville USA studio, whereupon Berry Gordy refused to release it. After Marvin Gaye had been on strike for nearly eight months Harry Balk, head of A&R, persuaded sales vice president Barney Ales to release the song without Gordy’s knowledge. Within a month “What’s Going On?” had gone to the top of the charts, eventually selling more than two million copies. This success resulted in Gaye’s producing his own music as well as marking a major change in his musical focus. In 2010 Rolling Stone ranked this song as #4 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time; the Detroit Free Press in 2016 ranked it as #2 of Detroit’s 100 Greatest Songs.
Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) once said that music and his mother’s support allowed him to survive childhood with an abusive father. After working with a series of bands, he signed with Tamla Records, focusing on jazz and standards.
He then changed the spelling of his name from Gay to Gaye in part to distance himself from his father, in part to end teasing. “What’s Going On?” and the subsequent album led to an entirely new association with social activism.
Al Cleveland (1930-1996) wrote first on the Scepter/Wand label, for artists such as Dionne Warwick and Gene Whitney, then for the Motown label, where he wrote for Smokey & The Miracles, the Four Tops and others before co-writing “What’s Goin’ On?” and “Save the Children” with Marvin Gaye and Renaldo Benson. He then went on to produce Native American music.
Renaldo “Obie” Benson (1936-2005) was best known as a founding member and bass singer of The Four Tops, with whom he performed for over 50 years. Originally named “The Four Aimes”, they changed their name to “The Four Tops” to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers. The Four Tops were admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Some of their songs include “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Reach Out (I’ll be There),” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”
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