RIFFS / The soul singer Ephraim Lewis celebrates the vocal duet at the heart of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On'

WHEN Marvin Gaye made the album What's Going On, Motown was still a bit of a hit factory, producing poppy love songs and mundane lyrics. The title track, though, was a lament about ghetto life, and opened the way for people to get more serious. The most startling thing about 'What's Going On' is Gaye's voice: it's as though he's singing a duet with himself. He sings a mid-range lead line, then there's a falsetto track over the top, which is like another lead in itself. Marvin saw himself as a composer - he did things that aren't regular soul or gospel things. The tone of his mid-range is sandpapery and cool, in the frequency of a tenor sax, while the falsetto is smooth and silky like a woodwind. One moment he has perfect control, then when he goes into the reprise after the second chorus, his voice almost breaks with passion. The songs starts with the toms playing the main riff, and it doesn't really end; the rhythm track just bleeds into the next track, 'What's Happening Brother?'. To me, it's inseparable from the whole album.

'What's Going On' is on Motown (5300222)

(Photograph omitted)

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