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The Musicians of Motown
Marvin Gaye was the driving force behind What’s Going On. But he must share credit for this classic album because he surrounded himself with some of the finest musical talent ever assembled in a recording studio.
Gaye had asked one of Motown’s arrangers, David Van DePitte, to compose the essential musical structures for the album. The assignment was not necessarily an easy one. Around Motown, Gaye had developed a reputation for sometimes being a difficult person to work with. But as the production unfolded, the two men built a special creative relationship. Gaye had amazing musical ideas he wanted expressed, but lacked the technical skills for putting them on paper. That became Van DePitte’s job.
“Marvin couldn’t read or write music per se,” Van DePitte recalled in a later interview. “He needed not only a musical secretary, but somebody who knew how to organize the stuff and get it down on tape.”
Van DePitte was that man. During the sessions for What’s Going On, he constantly wrote and rewrote, arranged and rearranged the charts even as recording was underway. (Gaye referred to dePitte as the “Fastest Pen Alive” in the album’s liner notes.) DePitte also suggested the idea of flowing one song into the next—one of the hallmarks of the album.
DePitte composed the orchestral background, and personally directed members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to record those tracks. Recorded at a different studio, those strings—violins, violas, cellos, a harp, and string bass—added depth and richness to the overall sound.
What’s Going On also benefited from the great contributions of some of the finest studio musicians in the recording world: The Funk Brothers. For a decade, these instrumentalists had toiled in the background at Motown. Their talents created much of what became known as the “Motown sound” for the company’s lineup of vocal stars. Not only were they outstanding on their respective instruments, they were fearless experimenters who took their music to new places. They introduced unique techniques such as multiple drummers, the doubling of parts, and exotic beats to give the music complexity rare in pop music.
The Funk Brothers’ unofficial lineup included pianists Joe Hunter, Earl Van Dyke and Johnny Griffith; Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, Uriel Jones and Richard “Pistol” Allen on drums; guitarists Robert White, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina; Jack Ashford on vibes and percussion; Jack Brokensha on marimba and vibraphone; Eddie “Bongo” Brown, a longtime Gaye sideman on percussion; and James Jamerson—arguably the best to ever thump the G-string of an electric bass. (The What’s Going On album featured Chet Forest, a local jazz drummer, whom Marvin hired specifically to deliver a groove somewhat different than “The Motown Sound.”)
As important as they were to Motown’s success, the Funk Brothers rarely received public recognition. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was the first album that actually listed their names. But these unsung heroes of Motown played on more number one hits than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones.
Gaye had often complained how limited he felt by Berry Gordy, Jr., and the Motown method for churning out singles and albums. Still, What’s Going On capitalized from the company’s hard-nosed, nothing-but-the-best work ethic, and quality control.
For example, Motown had sound engineers who knew how to turn good performances into brilliant recordings. Sound engineers are the technicians that manage the actual recording process, then mix and layer the multiple tracks into final versions. The best engineers are artists in their own right.
“Everything was done piecemeal [at Motown],” longtime sound engineer Ken Sands explained to the magazine Sound On Sound. “One engineer might record just the basic piano, bass and drums, maybe a guitar too, and then other engineers would overdub the rest of the instruments: conga, tambourine, bongos, another guitar, Wurlitzer piano, Rhodes piano, whatever, followed later on by the lead vocals and background vocals. Some of us would also do horn sessions or string sessions with the Detroit Symphony....” Motown’s sound engineers were considered the finest in the business, and Gaye’s experimentation on What’s Going On pushed them to their technical and creative limits.
But in the end, Marvin Gaye’s ears were the final judge.
What’s going on 40 years later? Read on about the concert.