Fifty years ago this Friday, the canon of popular music got one of its most significant works — straight from Detroit.
On May 21, 1971, Motown Records released Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album, several months after its groundbreaking title track had streaked to the top of the charts.
The 50th anniversary will be an occasion for the world to mark Gaye’s timeless and timely masterwork, not least in the city where the album was born.
The Motown Museum will present specially tailored Marvin Gaye tours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, taking visitors through the studio and complex where “What’s Going On” took flight. The 90-minute experience will include Motown guests sharing stories of the album and reflections on Gaye.
Initially reserved for museum members, the 90-minute tours have been opened to the public. Tickets are $50.
The museum is also premiering a “What’s Going On” merchandise line, launching with a Gaye-style beanie and commemorative lapel pin, with other branded items to be introduced throughout 2021. They’ll be available for purchase online starting at 8 a.m. Friday.
And there’s a street renaming on tap: On June 19, city officials and Motown personalities will ceremonially dedicate a stretch of Detroit street as “Marvin Gaye Drive” — adding the late singer to a list of area streets that already includes Aretha Franklin Way, Stevie Wonder Boulevard and Glenn Frey Drive.
Spearheaded by Detroit City Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. in partnership with the museum, the street designation will commemorate a stretch of West Outer Drive at Monica Street, site of Gaye’s former home. Much of “What’s Going On” was composed at the house, including a pair of songs written with his wife, Anna Gordy Gaye.
The street honor was recommended by the Historic Designation Advisory Board in April and approved by Detroit City Council earlier this month.
The June 19 street ceremony, timed in conjunction with Black American celebration Juneteenth, will include a Jubilee Stroll down Livernois — the Avenue of Fashion — McCalister said.
Gaye's album "still speaks to what's happening in the Black community," McCalister said. While traveling the globe during his U.S. Army days, the councilman said, Gaye's name regularly cropped up.
"When you mentioned Detroit, he was one of the first names people would bring up," McCalister said. "So he's someone not just recognized for his work in Detroit, but worldwide. That's something we want to continue to recognize."
The 50th anniversary festivities officially began early this year, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's formal recognition of Jan. 20 as "What's Going On" Day. At the Motown Museum, the album is the centerpiece of 2021 activity, including the Motown Mic spoken-word competition — where performers wrote Gaye-inspired works — and the upcoming Amplify singing event.
Robin Terry, museum chairwoman and CEO, said the album's ongoing cultural relevance merits an authentic celebration.
“These moments will inspire reflection from fans here in Detroit, as well as Motown fans around the world who want to join us in commemorating this special anniversary for months to come," she wrote in a statement.
At 50 years old, “What’s Going On” is no mere historic artifact. The album’s sophisticated sound, pioneering production and emotional social commentary have kept it relevant and engaging. Gaye’s poetic but pointed take on issues of the early '70s — police brutality, urban poverty, the environment — has continued to resonate, even taking on greater meaning for many modern listeners.
If anything, the album’s prestige has only grown with time: In 2003, “What’s Going On” ranked No. 6 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, a high-profile list compiled through voting by critics, scholars and others. Last year, when Rolling Stone released its updated ranking, Gaye’s album clocked in at No. 1.
"What's Going On" is also being commemorated in other ways in Detroit and beyond:
- A note-for-note re-creation of the album will be performed Friday at the new Music Hall Amphitheater downtown. Arranged by Valdez Brantley and directed by his brother Kern Brantley, the show premiered in October featuring a cast of hometown musicians and vocalists. Friday’s event is being staged for Music Hall donors and subscribers.
- ”What’s Going On” is a cornerstone of a new documentary, “1971: The Year that Music Changed Everything,” premiering Friday on Apple TV+.
- The popular Rockabye Baby series is releasing a lullaby version of the album and its nine tracks on Friday, with all proceeds going to organizations supporting racial justice, according to producers. An animated video of the “What’s Going On” title lullaby was released earlier this month on YouTube.
- The online station Apple Music Hits will mark Gaye’s album with a pair of tribute specials at 1 and 4 p.m. Friday.
- CNN premiered a “What’s Going On” special with guests including Smokey Robinson, Duke Fakir and Stevie Wonder earlier this month.