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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"What's Goin' On" Marvin Gaye - Multitrack

Today we'll take a look at the individual tracks of the multitrack of Marvin Gaye's seminal hit "What's Goin' On." The song was recorded at a low point in Marvin's career. Depressed over his partner Tammi Terrell's death, he was about to quit music and try his hand at pro football with a tryout with the Detroit Lions, when Obie Benson (of the Four Tops) presented him with the germ for the song.

This is the song that has one of the greatest recording session stories ever. Marvin was anxious to record the song, and after gathering the other Funk Brothers in the studio, found legendary bassist James Jamerson drunk in a bar. Jamerson was so hammered, in fact, that he couldn't sit up without falling down. He would up playing the song laying on his back on the floor of the studio. What's even more amazing is that the part he played was written, and he read it down like the legend he was. Here are some things to listen for.

1) Marvin's vocal is, of course, great, but listen to how shaky the background vocals in the intro are. Marvin's football friends from the Detroit Lions were among the singers and participated in the crowd noise that occurs later in the song.

2) The kick, drum kit and congas are on three separate tracks, which was normal in 16 track recording at the time. The configuration provides just enough flexibility for the mix however.

3) Listen to how the two guitar interact with each other. A Motown trademark, each play a complimentary part and have different sounds, but when put together they make a single bigger sound.

4) The vibes played by Jack Ashton outline the chord changes, which is another Motown trademark.

5) Eli Fontaine's soprano sax part wasn't written into the arrangement, and was a first take run-through that Marvin liked so much he kept in, and it became the signature line of the song.

6) Marvin's two vocal takes were left in the song after the engineer misunderstood what he was asking for. Marvin liked the effect so much that he used it on many of the subsequent songs that he recorded.



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