THE RESOLVE OF MARVIN GAYE

Photograph: Jim Hendin

I spent close to an hour this morning on my elliptical trainer listening to “What’s Going On” in it’s entirety. This is something I have not done in quite a while and the same goes for the elliptical. This has nothing to do with photography except for the 1971 Jim Hendin photo of Marvin Gaye that was used as the “What’s Going On” album cover. However, it  does have something to do with the notion of fighting for what it is you believe. For artists this is paramount.

“What’s Going On” was a song written by The Four Tops‘ Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Al Cleveland, another Motown writer. Gaye was given  a 1/3 ownership in the song to sing and produce it. A suite of songs followed written by Gaye and others that resulted in the landmark concept album. There are conflicting stories about its release.  One is that Berry Gordy, upon hearing the song, proclaimed it to be “the worst thing he’s ever heard”, and tried to block its release. If you’ve ever seen the movie version of “Dreamgirls“, this scenario will seem familiar.

Supposedly the release slipped by Gordy as he was tending to the solo career of Diana Ross and the song became an instant hit, selling 100,000 copies in  the first week of release, landing the #2 spot on Billboard’s Top 100 pop songs and remaining at #1 on the R&B charts for 5 weeks.

The other version is that upon hearing the song, Berry relayed to Smokey Robinson that he did not like it because he didn’t believe it was commercial and feared that it would never get played on the radio. Gaye offered an ultimatum to Berry which was “Put it out or I’ll never record for you again”. I am inclined to believe this version, as an old acquaintance of mine, writer David Ritz is the author of “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye“. David conducted a series of interviews with Gaye for a projected “autobiography” and following Gaye’s death, finished writing it as a biography. Berry lost that battle and with that signaled the shift from the power of the producer to the power of the artist. The music industry, and certainly Motown were never to be the same again.

Robinson called the album “the single greatest record ever made by anyone”. It is difficult to argue with that as its relevance is even greater today than when first written forty two years ago.

I always advise photographers to get a point of view and stick to it. If you have something of substance, standing by it will be easy.