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In the Studio: Ten Days in the Snake Pit
Eli Fontaine was a session saxophone player for Motown Records. He was doodling around on his horn in “the Snake Pit,” Motown’s famed recording studio, warming up to play the opening riff of “What’s Going On.” Finally, he signaled he was ready to record the first of what would likely be multiple takes to get the tempo, phrasing, and sound Marvin Gaye wanted.
Instead, Marvin told Fontaine to go home. Confused, Fontaine explained he had only been goofing around. “Well, you goof exquisitely,” replied Gaye. “Thank you.” Fontaine’s “goofing around” remains the opening notes of that famous song.
That episode was a glimpse of the magic to come. The production of What’s Going On is a remarkable mix of Motown talent and musicianship gained over decades of practice and performance. But what knit it all together was Marvin Gaye’s uncanny ability to hear and know when the sound and lyrics fit the musical vision in his own mind. For 10 days in March 1971, Gaye and his team were in a zone of brilliance.
Much of that brilliance was the product of world-class talent. Gaye had asked Motown arranger David Van DePitte to compose the essential musical structures for the album. Members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra sat in to give the songs its orchestral sweep. And the Funk Brothers—notably James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt on bass, Robert White and Joe Messina on guitars, Johnny Griffith on keyboards, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown—brought their trademark flair that gives the album its potent groove. Gaye collaborated on the lyrics with friends, other songwriters, and his wife Anna Gordy Gaye—Berry Gordy, Jr.’s sister. Gaye even found a role for his buddies, football stars Mel Farr and Lem Barney of the Detroit Lions. They, along with Bobby Rogers of the Miracles, helped provide the background voices that open the title track “What’s Going On” with the laughter and conversation of a lively party.
Motown sound engineers contributed their unique gifts, and even moments of inspired slip-ups. These included the overdubbing that allowed Gaye to sing his own harmonies and backup vocals.
“The double lead voice was a mistake on my part,” said engineer Ken Sands. “Marvin had cut two lead vocals, and wanted me to prepare a tape with…each of his vocals on separate tracks so he could compare them.” Instead, Sands accidently replayed both tracks together, and what came out of the speakers was a haunting blend of Marvin’s two voices.
Gaye and his crew loved the doubling effect. That “accident” became one of the album’s trademarks. Soon after the record’s release, this recording technique was copied widely throughout the music industry.
After the title song was a hit in early 1971, the rest of the album was recorded in just 10 long days between March 17 and March 30 that year. Even when he was not putting his vocals on tape, Gaye hovered in the Snake Pit. He preferred this location more than listening from inside the glassed-in control booth beside the sound engineers. He whispered suggestions to the instrumentalists. He sometimes played keyboards and percussion. He was involved in most details of the production, and is credited with helping write every song. “[Marvin] was everywhere; you could tell he was really excited,” remembered percussionist Jack Ashford. “When we started playing this stuff, it was really different…. There were things happening that other producers would never have even tried.” Improvisation touched most every aspect of the project—musically, lyrically, and technically.
What emerged was a progression of songs that wandered outside the lines of tradition or expectation. This was Motown’s first “concept album”—a record where the songs were connected by theme and flowed tightly from one to the next, with no pause at all. In fact, the interconnection of the songs made Motown executives nervous. It defied convention: How could each song be broken out as a “single” for radio airplay? That had always been a core practice in Motown’s moneymaking model.
When Gaye delivered the final mix of the album, Motown’s quality control department voiced its displeasure. But by now Gordy was on Gaye’s side, and Motown’s founder overrode the doubters and gave it the green light.
Marvin Gaye’s grand musical experiment was released to the world on May 21, 1971. It climbed to #1 on the R & B charts and Rolling Stone named it album of the year. It also spun off three hit singles: “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and “What’s Going On.” In the four decades since its debut, What’s Going On remains an American classic. Its enduring message and music continue to win new fans among the children and grandchildren of the teens who first listened and danced to it some 40 years ago.