"What's Going On" is a song written by Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye. It was the title track of Gaye's groundbreaking 1971 Motown album What's Going On, and it became a crossover hit single that reached #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the R&B charts.. A meditation on the troubles and problems of the world, the song proved a timely and relatable release, and it marked Gaye's departure from the pop stylings of 1960s-era Motown towards more personal material. The song topped aMetro Times list of the 100 Greatest Detroit Songs Of All Time, and in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the fourth greatest song of all time.
The song has been covered by multiple artists, notably Cyndi Lauper, whose version reached #12 on the pop singles charts in 1987.
In 1970, Renaldo "Obie" Benson was a member of Motown's popular male vocal group The Four Tops. While on the road in San Francisco, Benson saw several young anti-war protesters being arrested and pushed over by cops. Benson said he was deeply disturbed by the cops' actions and when he returned home, began writing a song initially about police brutality and "picket lines, picket signs". Benson presented the idea to his fellow Four Tops band mates though they each told him that they didn't want to record the song in fear of losing fans. At the time, records by The Temptations and Edwin Starr pointed to a rawer sound that discussed social affairs. Most of the Four Tops songs dealt with relationships. Earlier that year, the group had put out "Still Water", which was co-written by Smokey Robinson. Its parent album was a proto-concept album. After coming up with a few lyrics for the untitled song, Benson hired Al Cleveland to help him with more lyrics. The track, originally about civil rights and anti-war protests, was givenJoan Baez to record. However, Baez wasn't able to record the song, which still had no title and half the lyrics of which were unfinished.
At the same time, Marvin Gaye was going through a personal and professional crossroads. The 31-year-old singer was dealing with the tragedy of losing his best friend, singing partner Tammi Terrell, who died in March of that year after suffering from a brain tumor for three years. Gaye was thinking of quitting show business and joining the Detroit Lions football team, even training every morning to get in shape for his tryout. Though he didn't make the team, the Lions players said they were impressed by the singer's regimen. Gaye had also shot a movie earlier in the year titled Hot Chrome and Leather, which was held back from release for a year. Around the same time, he was offered the role as Sam Cooke in a film but turned it down because he found it odd to play a role of "a soul singer who gets shot to death". Gaye stopped performing onstage after Terrell's death and after a while soul-searching, decided to continue his music career but under his own terms, which implied wresting control from Motown and from his brother-in-lawBerry Gordy. He had seen great success as a songwriter and producer with The Originals' hits "Baby I'm for Real" and "The Bells" and wanted to produce more. It was while golfing with Benson and Cleveland that Gaye came up with the song title after asking them "what's going on, man?" Returning to Gaye's house, Benson and Cleveland presented Gaye the still-unfinished song. Motivated and inspired by horrific stories of the Vietnam War told to him by his brother Frankie, Gaye began adding his own lyrics and modified the "picket lines, picket signs" lyrics to the chorus with the repeats of "what's going on". He also added melody to his piano while Benson played parts of the song in his guitar. Putting the song together, Gaye received credit for co-composition. Gaye originally thought the song's moody feel was perfect for The Originals but Benson assured Gaye that he should record it himself, which he agreed to.
On June 10, 1970, Gaye returned to Hitsville USA with the song. The recording was looser than Gaye's previous recordings, in which Gaye free-styled two different vocal leads while Motown's session musicians The Funk Brothers played in a laid-back setting. At the intro, saxophonist Eli Fontaine's line was not originally intended. When Gaye heard playback though, he realized this was the bittersweet hook he had been groping for and let Fontaine go. When Fontaine tried telling Gaye that he was "just goofing", the singer told him "you goofed off exquisitely." Notable Motown bassist James Jamerson was pulled into the session after the singer located him drunk at a bar. Jamerson couldn't sit in his seat because of him flopping over, so according to the story told by one of his band mates, Jamerson lay on the floor playing the bass line. However, arranger Dave Van dePitte recalls that it was a track that Jamerson greatly respected: "On 'What's Going On' though, he just read the [bass] part down like I wrote it. He loved it because I had written Jamerson licks for Jamerson." Annie Jamerson recalls that when he returned home that night, he declared that the song they had been working on was a 'masterpiece', one of the few occasion where he had discussed his work so passionately with her.  Gaye also added to instrumentation playing piano and keyboards while also playing a loud effect on the drums to help accentuate Chet Forest's drumming. He also added his own background vocals singing the "what's going on" refrain to his own leads. To add a more personal touch, Marvin, his Detroit Lions friends Mel Farr and Lem Barney and several Funk Brothers members could be heard communicating as if they were at a party or a gathering. Alternate crowd gather can be heard in the Detroit mix of the song near the ending. While hearing playback, Gaye asked one of his engineers to give him his two vocal leads to compare which ones to use for the song. Accidentally the engineers mixed the two leads together. Gaye was impressed with the double-lead feel and decided to keep it, it influenced his later recordings where he mastered vocal multi-layering adding in three different vocal parts. The song was also notable for its use of major seventh and minor seventh chords, which was a fairly uncommon use at the time. 
Arguments with Berry Gordy
During the same session, Marvin added in the song "God is Love", with lyrics he wrote about his faith in God. The music was co-written by Marvin, first wife Anna Gordy, James Nyx and Elgie Stover, the foursome had originally used the music for the Monitors' original recording of Marvin's "Just to Keep You Satisfied", which was recorded in 1969. Like "What's Going On", Marvin added in a lead and an accompanying background while harmonizing together in parts of the bridge. With "What's Going On" as the leading A-side, Gaye presented the song to Motown CEO Berry Gordy but was dismayed when Gordy flatly turned it down calling it "too jazzy". Marvin protested by telling him he wouldn't record again until the song was released. Smokey Robinson, singer and Motown's vice president at the time, said that Gordy once asked him to get Gaye to change his mind about releasing "What's Going On", to which Robinson replied that telling Marvin to do anything different "is like a bear shitting in the woods, Marvin ain't budging." According to Harry Balk, Gordy told him the song had the "Dizzy Gillespie-styled scats", claiming it was "old". Undeterred, Gaye stood by his decision not to record while Gordy desperately tried to get the singer back to the recording studio.
Release and reaction
On January 20, 1971, seven months after recording the song, a prominent Los Angeles radio disk jockey leaked "What's Going On" to his station. Soon, the country was playing the record unbeknownst to Berry Gordy who still had not given anyone permission to release it. Gordy was astonished however when word came that the song was one of the fastest-rising and fastest-selling songs of the country. Within a month, it had reached the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Selling Soul Singles charts and by March, the song had peaked at number-one R&B and number-two pop, eventually selling over 2.5 million records becoming the fastest-selling Motown single to date at that time and Gaye's best-selling release following "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" two and a half years before.
The song's success gave Gaye the freedom to produce his own album with songs of similar themes. Gaye would base the parent album, also titled What's Going On as the conceptual story of a returning Vietnam War veteran who comes back to a world he doesn't recognize. Gordy was unenthusiastic about the album, but on release it was an immediate critical and commercial success. "What's Going On" itself has since become one of Gaye's signature songs.