‘Inner City Blues’: Marvin Gaye Completes A Social Commentary Trinity

Marvin Gaye - Photo: Courtesy of Gems/Redferns

Marvin Gaye was in full cry in 1971. Seized with a new passion to create music of deep lyrical meaning, and to sing about the issues affecting a troubled world, he perfected the art of doing that in the context of a huge-selling album and singles from it.

The album, of course, was What’s Going On, and on October 9, the latest 45 from it, Marvin’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” took its bow on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Best Selling Soul Singles chart.

The What’s Going On album had been released in May, four months after the title track had signalled Gaye’s dramatic new change of direction. That single was an R&B No.1 for five weeks that spent three weeks at No.2 on the pop survey. Then early July brought the second single, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” a two-week R&B champion and pop No.4.

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“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” completed a remarkable trinity. It climbed to the R&B summit for a two-week run that meant Gaye had spent nine weeks atop the soul chart with three singles from What’s Going On. As it climbed to No.9 on the pop side, it also gave him three Top 10 crossover singles. The album itself reached No.6 pop and ruled the R&B waves for no fewer than nine weeks, in a 53-week chart shelf life.

Overcoming the company doubts

Strange to think, then, that Motown boss Berry Gordy didn’t exactly embrace Gaye’s new direction, and was distinctly wary of the “What’s Going On” single in particular. Until Gaye’s audience showed that they were with him all the way, that is, and that they loved his new role as a soulful social commentator.

As writer Ben Edmonds observed in the 30th anniversary edition of the album in 2001, the subjects on Gaye’s agenda remained all too relevant then, and all the more so now. “The music alone would assure What’s Going On of immortality,” he noted, “but its messages still bristle with urgency. Told from the point of view of a returning Vietnam soldier, its portraits of disconnected Vets, drug addiction, ecological disaster and economic desperation are so much our own that this 1971 recording now sounds like prophesy.”

Listen to the Motown: What’s Going On playlist on Apple Music and Spotify.

“Inner City Blues” went on to attract covers by Grover Washington Jr., Sarah Vaughan, vocal stylists like the Impressions and the Chi-Lites, rock singers such as Joe Cocker and John Mayer, and even a James Last makeover.

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