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“What’s Going On” at Trinity

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Can you believe it? Berklee College musicians and the choir of Trinity Church, Boston, perform Motown hits, Sunday, April 7th at 5pm, free and open to all.  

Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking 1971 album, What’s Going On? is full of loving outrage, asking questions—about injustice, poverty, drugs, violence, the environment, and war—that are every bit as timely now as they were a half century ago. The incomparable jazz singer Gabrielle Goodman, joined by a cadre of virtuoso Berklee colleagues and the Trinity Choir will perform works by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and other Motown stars. Featured Berklee artists include longtime Nashville recording artist Donna McElroy, Berklee’s executive dean the drummer Ron Savage, renowned musicologist Emmet Price, and vocalist Larry Watson, who imparts to his ensembles the African axiom of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.”

As early as four years old, Marvin Gaye began singing in his Washington, DC, Pentecostal Church, with his father at the piano. By the 1960s he had achieved success, first in a gospel quartet and then with popular R&B love songs, singles, and duets with Tammie Terrell. Her early death from cancer sent Gaye into deep depression and disillusionment, about himself and the record industry. As he said to an interviewer:

… with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs? In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say …. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.

In 1970, he returned to Motown to record the title song, What’s Going On?, which opens an album that has been likened to a classical “song cycle.”  Motown executive Barry Gordy, Jr. was skeptical about Gaye’s innovative departure from his customary successful style, calling these new songs too “jazzy” and old-fashioned. But on its release, the album gained both meteoric commercial and critical acclaim.

As one reviewer wrote, “There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again.” By 1984 at Gaye’s untimely death, most reviewers considered it a masterpiece of modern popular music.

Gaye’s Motown contemporaries round out the concert program. Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Today” that opens his  album Songs in the Key of Life serves as antiphon to Gaye’s “You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some love in here today.” And the spirituality that Gaye struggled all his life to grasp, seems more readily and serenely embraced by the younger blind prodigy.  As Stevie Wonder told an interviewer recently,

I always start from a feeling of profound gratitude – you know, ‘Only by the grace of God am I here’ – and write from there. I think most songwriters are inspired by an inner voice and spirit. God gave me this gift, and this particular song was a message I was supposed to deliver.

Having just left the Supremes in 1970, Diana Ross recorded her first solo album the same summer that Gaye was recording What’s Going On? Her song, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” by composers Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, carries a warm, hopeful gospel mood. She often sang it to close out concerts, getting crowds to reach out to one another and sing as one. Though not a smash hit, the record launched her rise to superstardom. As influential over her long career as Gaye and Wonder, Diana Ross has been a legendary presence in American popular music for 60 years.

In a “feeling of profound gratitude” join next Sunday with these fabulous Berklee musicians and the Trinity Choir in celebrating these masterpieces 50 years on — “God gave me this gift.”

John Lemly is Professor Emeritus of English and African Studies at Mount Holyoke College and a former editor of African Studies Review.

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