Motown is a term that’s synonymous with Detroit music. In its prime, Motown was a hit factory. However, in order to maintain their status, they took complete creative control over the acts they signed. There were designated writers and session musicians that wrote for every act under the label. Marvin Gaye was one of the biggest acts at the time, appearing on classic songs like “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough” with Tammi Terrell. When he decided to wrestle with former Motown president, Berry Gordy, for complete creative freedom of his musical output along with fellow superstar Stevie Wonder, Gordy reluctantly allowed it.
After seeing an act of police brutality at an anti-war rally in Berkeley, California, Gaye rushed back to the Motown studio. What resulted was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the ’70s, What’s Going On. The biggest single other than the title track was “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” — a plea to anyone listening: look around and see the effect mankind is having on the planet, and think about what you can do to help.
The song itself is extremely lush, with an arrangement that sounds almost dream-like compared to other Motown acts’ music at the time. The legendary session musicians — The Funk Brothers — lay down a hypnotic groove that Marvin and The Andantes deliver their message on. The latter portion of the song ends with a tenor sax solo by William Moore while Marvin scats along to the beat.
Marvin Gaye established himself as someone more than just a voice attached to Motown, and this single and subsequent album showed that he was no longer content with being a singer. So he became an artist.