"What's Going On"

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying

I watched the TV with horror. George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was being killed in front of the camera. I retreated to the listening room. In what couldn't have been a coincidence, the Roon app's "Discover" function had recommended I play What's Going On, Marvin Gaye's groundbreaking album, released in 1971 by Motown subsidiary Tamla.

I first heard this album when, at the start of my professional career as a bass guitarist, I was driving to a gig in Wales, playing the cassette in my car. I have always found that listening to music alone in the car is an immersive experience. Despite the background noise and the lack of fidelity, you can focus your attention on the meaning of the music in ways that aren't always possible among the distractions of domestic life.

Despite the presence of Motown session stalwarts like bassist James Jamerson, this album, with its meandering string lines, bubbling bass, reverb-drenched percussion, and monochromatic backing vocals, sounded very different from a classic Motown recording. But as Gaye's high tenor floated above the instrumental backing, asking what's happening brother and who really cares, and declaring that this was such a bad way to live and that the night will bring the pains, I was drawn into the album's message of hope, reinforced by the title song's verses being in a major key: True love can conquer hate.

Fast-forward six months. I was overnighting in England's North East and the morning after the gig, our drummer, Charley Charles (footnote 1), set up his portable record player in the hotel's lounge and put on an album. The song was again "What's Going On," but Marvin Gaye wasn't singing it. This man's voice floated above a hypnotic beat, and after the verses, a series of improvisations and modulations led to a plaintive coda. This was it.


The album was Donny Hathaway's Live, released on Atlantic in 1972, which I now own as 24/192 FLAC files from Acoustic Sounds. I knew Hathaway's name from "Where Is the Love" with Roberta Flack, which had been a recent hit. What I didn't know was that he was an inventive keyboard player: Live, recorded at L.A.'s Troubadour and NY's Bitter End clubs, features Hathaway on Wurlitzer electric piano, with an empathetic band capable of laying down deep grooves. Shout-outs to Earl DeRouen, who'd played percussion on Marvin Gaye's album and is featured on congas on Hathaway's "The Ghetto," and the incomparable bassist Willie Weeks, who solos in "Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)." For weeks after my first listen to Live, musician friends would call and ask if I'd heard Weeks's funk-infused solo.

Another six months passed. I was driving to Wales again for another gig, this time with a different band, and drummer Alan Eden (footnote 2) had inserted a cassette in the player. Again, I found myself listening to "What's Going On." This time it was neither Marvin Gaye nor Donny Hathaway but bandleader and arranger Quincy Jones, from his Smackwater Jack album, released on A&M in 1971 and produced by Phil Ramone.


From Ray Brown's double-bass groove at the track's start through Chuck Rainey's electric bass underpinning in the verses, the Smackwater Jack treatment of "What's Going On" doesn't so much play down Gaye's message as use it as a vehicle for a series of virtuosic improvisations. First are solos from flute (Hubert Laws) and flugelhorn (Freddie Hubbard) over swinging "straight fours" in the bass and drums, which lead through guitar doubled by whistling (Toots Thielemans) then vibes (Milt Jackson), both over the original beat, followed by guitar (Jim Hall) over straight fours again, and culminating in a breathtaking transcription for violin of a Thielemans harmonica solo that still raises goose bumps all these years later.

All three of these albums have been in heavy rotation for decades, but I'd always wondered why Gaye hadn't made the song's title a question. I now understand, belatedly, that it wasn't a question but a statement of the reality faced by so many Americans at the end of the 1960s, and sadly, almost five decades later, still faced by them today. Until my adopted country (footnote 3) has rejected its original sin, Gaye's, Hathaway's, and Jones's plea, "You know we've got to find a way / To bring some lovin' here today," will remain unanswered and unfulfilled.

Footnote 1: A wonderfully inventive drummer, Charles was to find fame with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. He passed away in 1990.

Footnote 2: Alan went on to tour for many years with singer Leo Sayer. Still active, he plays with British rockabilly trio Rockin' the Joint.

Footnote 3: Although I was born and raised in the UK, I fell in love with the USA at the beginning of the 1960s when I was exposed to Elvis, Buddy Holly, and JFK. I became a US citizen in 2003.

Spla'nin's picture

The Royal & Ancient chaos corporations / banksters that came & stayed in the Americas to plunder its wealth are GLOBAL in nature. Whether through town cryer, telegraph, or newer technologies continue to push naratives that disquise their works & identity. An in depth Study of their Boer War, the Pirbright legacy & the Tavistock Institute / Chatham House is recommended.

hb72's picture


John Atkinson's picture
hb72 wrote:

You're welcome.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

Thank you for helping us validate the agonies we've had to endure.

These heavynesses began ( for me ) crushing us with Germany's Camps and losing relatives, then the Bomb, then the carpet bombing of North Korea, then Vietnam. On and on we punish everyone standing in our way and those not standing in our way but lower down in our caste systems.

Marvin Gaye and George Floyd keep reminding me.

This piece speaks to how I've felt a resonance with John Atkinson for all these decades.

Stereophile has a heart and conscience, it makes it the greatest of all the Audio Magazines ever published.

Tony in Venice

prerich45's picture

Agreed and Amen!!!!

Glotz's picture

We all know the difference between right and wrong. And music has shaped us collectively greater than any politic.

I just ask a higher power to give us the strength to listen closer... and love!

jimtavegia's picture

Their duet album is one of my favorites of all time. I literally wore out my lp and had to buy the CD. Mr. Hathaway should have been much better known to the music public. He was such a great talent who left us way too soon. It was an Atlantic release from 1972. Every time I played that album it was always both sides. That doesn't always happen.

prerich45's picture

His daughter Layla....can "stank sing" as well. She did a cover of Luther Vandross "Believer" on Kirk Whalum's Gospel According to Jazz 4 that included George Duke (who also killed "Because You Loved Me). Layla has an unbelievable range ...like her father - the ability to go into he high tenor, she can go in the other direction...down low...as well as high.
Donnie would be proud of his daughter today....and yes, in our community Donnie is a legend....especially at Christmas time.

John Atkinson's picture
Made a correction to the soloists on the Quincy Jones version. It was Freddie Hubbard playing flugelhorn, not Quincy Jones on trumpet. Hat tip to Jan Mancuso for the info.

On Quincy Jones: In the 1990s Stereophile published a popular series of interviews, "Rick Visits...," where the late Rick Rosen would talk with famous musicians about their audio systems. Rick had lined up an interview with Quincy Jones, but Jones told me he wouldn’t talk to Rick unless we featured his photo on the cover. My experience had been that putting a photo of a musician rather than an audio component on Stereophile’s cover was the kiss of death for newsstand sales, and politely refused the request. Rick didn’t visit Q, we didn’t have an interview, and I now think that I was wrong to be so inflexible.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

jimtavegia's picture

I think the R2D4 sections you have done are excellent and putting artists on the cover may have caused more problems with others wanting their place as well. Interviews with photos inside are just fine by me, IMHO. It can be a business full of egos. Kind of sad as we all would have loved to read what Q had to say.

Aja1's picture

added that question mark in my mind. How naive of me. Thanks for making an incredibly important, relevant and great song even more so.

prerich45's picture

From another Detroiter....What's Going On cover by Fred Hammond
Recording - Texture of a Man - check it out. Fred has a storied career and is a legend in Gospel music. It's worth a listen.

Herb Reichert's picture

another beautiful from the heart piece

keep making more


JoeE SP9's picture

I bought it on LP when it was newly released. That was well before the audiophile community started praising it as having superb sound.

FWIW: I still have the LP and it's in Excellent condition.

Lars Bo's picture

Thank you very much for this personal piece, John.

Thanks also, in same new September issue, for mentioning and applying EPDR in your measurement report.

And lastly, thank you for the music in this line: "I sped to his Bed-Stuy bothy".

John Atkinson's picture
Lars Bo wrote:
Thank you very much for this personal piece, John.

You're welcome.

Lars Bo wrote:
Thanks also, in same new September issue, for mentioning and applying EPDR in your measurement report.

I'd been meaning to do this for a long time. One of the triggers for finally doing so was the fact that I was puzzled why the NAD integrated amplifier didn't work as well with the GoldenEar BRX loudspeakers as I expected. Props to Jim Austin for preparing an Excel spreadsheet into which I could import the impedance magnitude and phase data.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hallelujah ....... JA1 is now providing EPDR measurements for loudspeakers ....... Hopefully, JA1 will continue providing EPDR measurements for the future speaker reviews ....... Thank you JA1 :-) .....

BRX is a good example why we need measurements ...... Not all 2-way bookshelf speakers are created equal ...... BRX is an outlier ....... It is a difficult load for the amplifiers ...... With the EPDR measurements, potential buyers can make an informed decision :-) ......

Bottomzone's picture

Thank you for highlighting three of the most legendary voices in music history. To answer Marvin's prophetic question, the same turmoil, a different day.

jllaudio's picture

Harold Melvin's - "Wake Up Everybody", seems very appropriate in this day and time.

gcvanwinkle's picture

Queued up and listening to them now on Tidal - right on!

shawnwes's picture

It's so sad,to me, that as a Caucasian Boomer we still have to preface such story lines with the ethnicity of the person that the offense was perp'd against. "We" were supposed to have solved that. Instead of using the term "African American man" it's not just "man". It's only skin pigment.

In my youth two of my closest friends were black and only in the most abstract sense did I ever think of them as different. What's the matter with the deficient 1/3 of the population who can't wrap their heads around that?

Tad La Fountain's picture

Until I read "Music - A Subversive History" this spring, I hadn't really appreciated the universality of music as a medium to upset the established order. Unfortunately, there's every likelihood that such a role will never lose its place. And the more established and stronger the order, the more music will serve as the tip of the spear to challenge it.

Dpl53's picture

First I would like to say thank you for this article and for introducing me to Donny Hathaway. I'm a 53 year old white man and during this time when I listen to song like "What's Going On", and "Ball of Confusion" by the Temptations and countless others I am deeply saddened that we are still dealing with issues of racism, police brutality and hate. Fifty years later and not much has changed, which is sad and wrong. We as a country can and must be better than this....

lakeallen's picture

I'd sure like to see less/no political content in Stereophile- I cant escape the constant bombardment on mainstream media and enjoy music/stereo as an escape from the media bombardment. Please focus on stereo/music and leave the political commenting to CNN. Remember, not all readers are liberal [edited to remove political content--Editor] Signed: Conservative Military & L.E. Vet.