Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album cover was a total accident


It’s officially 50 years since the release of Marvin Gaye’s iconic album “What’s Going On”.

The legendary singer-songwriter was born in 1939 in Washington, DC. He started singing in church and later joined the popular doo-wop group The Moonglows.

After the genre started to fizzle out in the 1950s, band’s founding member Harvey Fuqua took Gaye, then 20, to Detroit where he met Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records. . At the label, he won the title of Prince of Motown for his soulful sound and performed in a duet with Diana Ross.

Gaye was shot dead in 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, by his father Marvin Gaye Sr. after an altercation.

It was Gaye’s eleventh studio album, “What’s Going On,” which defined him for decades after his death.

The album was released on May 21, 1971, exactly 50 years ago today. He is still considered as relevant as ever by many due to his strong social conscience. The record focused heavily on themes such as racism, drug addiction, poverty and police brutality. He also presented the perspective of a veteran returning to the United States after the Vietnam War.

The record marked a departure from the previous hit records centered on the love of Prince of Motown “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which were released in 1967.

“What’s Going On” has received critical acclaim and has been hailed by many as the turning point in artistic freedom and meaningful music at Motown Records. In the years since Gaye’s death, the record reached new heights and won first place on Rolling stone500 best albums of all time.

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” turns 50. The record went on to become one of Gaye’s most beloved albums of all time.
Jim Hendin

The album’s powerful artwork features a close-up image of Gaye looking moved as he gazes into the distance in contemplation. The back cover features a wide shot of the singer wearing a yellow shirt and tie, with a trench coat over it and the collar turned upward as he stands in the drizzle of snow. The photograph was taken in the backyard of Gaye’s house.

The cover was designed by Motown Art Director Curtis McNair and photographed by Jim Hendin.

Asked in an interview for the Boston newspaper The Bay State Banner in 2008, what was her favorite cover, McNair named “What’s Going On”.

“I could see how emotional Marvin was in terms of the essence of the album, and I wanted to match that,” he told the publication. “We had 100 slides of Jim Hendin photographs and I chose this one when the sleet made his hair white, and on top of that you have the dampness on his trench coat and that wonderful expression on his face. . I thought of it all added to the drama. “

Hendin told author Ben Edmonds in his book “What’s Going On?” That the cover photos were the last photographs taken when it suddenly started to snow.

“Marvin came out into his garden, and when I clicked it started to snow. The drizzle added everything to the shots. Luck, or something stronger, was with us that day,” recalls the photograph.

McNair revealed that the cover image was almost never chosen as the photo of choice.

“I looked at the slides coming back from Jim Hendin’s photoshoot and picked the one that I thought would make the best cover,” he told Edmonds. “But my supervisor Tom Schlesinger didn’t like it. Hendin had gone for a low-angle shot, and he thought it showed Marvin’s nostrils too much or something ridiculous like that.”

McNair then suggested asking Gaye for his opinion, as he was also in the Motown building at the time.

“That’s it. It’s definitely the cover here,” said the “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” singer.

News week contacted Jim Hendin for comment.

Marvin Gaye died in 1984
Soul singer Marvin Gaye played the piano while recording in a studio circa 1974. He tragically died in 1984.
Jim Britt / Michael Ochs / Archives / Getty Images

About Elizabeth J. Swartz

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