It’s hailed now as an historic concert event — one that gets a big sold-out two-day 40th anniversary re-creation this week at the Kennedy Center with John Legend, the National Symphony Orchestra Pops and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
But Marvin Gaye’s original “What’s Going On” homecoming performance at the then-new Kennedy Center on May 1, 1972, almost didn’t happen.
“I didn’t really want to do this concert,” Gaye told The Washington Post at the time. To his biographer, David Ritz, he was more emphatic: “I resented the whole thing, and I desperately didn’t want to do it. Until the last few minutes, I wasn’t going to go.”
In fact, he hadn’t been on a stage in nearly four years, since the tragic night when his duet partner Tammi Terrell collapsed in his arms during a performance at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in 1967. She died of a malignant brain tumor three years later at the age of 24.
Gaye also had a complicated relationship with the District, where he was born and raised. It began in the troubled relations with his own family. He was raised by a strict father, a failed preacher in an unusual sect who beat him as a child, and a mother who held back her protection.
And there was the city itself.
“I was still mad at Washington,” Gaye told Ritz. “What had they ever given me? Why would they all of a sudden love me now that I’d sold a few records? Where were they when I needed them? For years I’d considered Detroit — not Washington — home.”
The future Motown star honed his singing in the hallways of Randall Junior High School and Cardozo High, formed doo-wop groups like the DC Tones and the Marquees before joining Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows and moving to the Midwest.
He returned to the District a couple of times as a Motown artist — initially at the bottom of the bill in the first Motortown Revue in 1962 at the Howard Theatre, where he had seen so many inspiring performances in the past; but had visited his friends and family less and less. As if to distance himself more from his family (and to emulate Sam Cooke), he changed his name from Gay to Gaye shortly before his first single was released in May 1961.
Childhood friend Dewey Hughes, later a D.C. broadcaster, helped arrange a homecoming Marvin Gaye Day event as a fundraiser for Pride Inc., an organization co-founded by Marion Barry to provide job training and jobs to unemployed African American youth in the city. For the Washington show, Gaye told The Post, “my mother kept calling and asking me if I’d do it for her. Mothers are like that.”
The concert was arranged and a full day of celebration preceded it, including a speech at Cardozo High (“I’m sure I was a little stoned,” he admitted to Ritz later), a motorcade procession, a key to the city from Mayor Walter Washington, another reception at the Rayburn Building and a kiss from Miss Black D.C.
All the ceremonial activity may have cut into rehearsal time for the main event, though.
After opening acts, testimonials and an introduction from then-city school board president Marion Barry, Gaye didn’t get onstage until after 11 p.m.
But it didn’t work out that way. Gaye was “tired, scared — and stoned,” according to Harry Weinger, who produced the 2001 deluxe edition of “What’s Going On” that included the full Kennedy Center performance on CD for the first time.
After a 13-minute medley of his ’60s hits, Gaye skipped straight to the second half of the album first, following it with the first side. It was because of nervousness, Weinger said.
And while one song flowed to the next with a rhythm and purpose in a suitelike manner, the show also had the occasional feel of rehearsal as when, two minutes into “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” he made the band stop and start it again.
“I got to have to have it grooving, ” Gaye explained to the audience, apologizing for his band. “See, when I leave the piano, they kind of lose it.”
The crowd, who didn’t seem to mind hearing it again — or even a third time, when in an extraordinary conclusion to the show, he chose to do two songs over again “because I’m not satisfied in my heart.”
“I’d like to do just a little bit more of ‘Inner City Blues’ before we leave, and after that we’re going to do ‘What’s Going On,’ and we’re going to call it a night. Thank you.”
In the third and final version of “Inner City Blues,” he made sure to recognize his parents and family in the audience, “who I love very much.”
It would be his fourth time that day playing “What’s Going On,” the song that encapsulated the era’s frustrations, from Vietnam to protests, in a manner that made it timeless. “War is not the answer,” he sang. “Only love can conquer hate.”
Because the issues of 40 years ago — war, poverty, concern about the environment, still ring true today, the Kennedy Center spent months devising a curriculum around the 40th-anniversary concerts.
“As far as a piece of music, I think it holds up very well,” says Steven Reineke, the principal Pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, who will be conducting the concerts this week. “It really is a song cycle much in the vein of Schumann, Beethoven or Schubert. It’s fascinating to have had a guy in the late ’60s and early ’70s writing something like that.”
The Kennedy Center’s first digital youth arts and media campaign, What’s Going On . . . Now (www.whatsgoingonnow.org),has drawn videos and contributions from hundreds of students nationwide, inspired by Gaye’s landmark work. A youth summit this week coinciding with the concerts will bring dozens of students and faculty to the Kennedy Center this week; free performances and screenings of their work will be presented Wednesday and Thursday on its Millennium Stage.
It all points to a new generation inspired by Gaye’s timeless words, says Darrell Ayers, the Kennedy Center’s vide president for education.
“I was surprised how relevant the issues from the album were and the lyrics that Gaye wrote,” Ayers says. “An artist could have written those today.”
For all its prescience, though, it was all Gaye could do in 1972 to perform the workonstage.
“I got through it,” Gaye told his biographer . “But I was a wreck. I hardly remember what happened. I must have blocked it out.”
Indeed, it took a while for him to fully realize what Marvin Gaye Day in Washington had meant to him.
“I understood that I’d been punishing myself by staying away so long,” Gaye said. “I’d been denying self-love, and that’s one of the most foolish things a man can do.”
More than what the day meant for him, he said he recognized “it was certainly the biggest day of my parents’ life. There they came to Washington in the ’30s without a penny and their son was being honored by the mayor as some sort of hero.”
Still, it wasn’t enough to reconcile their familial division — less than 12 years later, on the eve of his 45th birthday, Gaye was shot dead by his elderly father in Los Angeles, ending his life and career but not the music or its enduring influence.
Marvin Gaye’s homecoming concert set list
Here are the songs from the original concert performed May 1, 1972, at the Kennedy Center. (The set list for the 40th-anniversary commemorative concert there this week will be different.)
“That’s the Way Love Is”
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
“Little Darling (I Need You)”
“You’re All I Need to Get By”
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”
“Your Precious Love”
“Pride and Joy”
“Stubborn Kind of Fellow”
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”
“What’s Going On”
“What’s Happening Brother”
“Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky)”
“Save the Children”
“God Is Love”
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” reprise
“What’s Going On” reprise
with John Legend and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Kennedy Center, Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Sold out.
What’s Going On . . . Now Youth Showcase will present live and digital performances. Kennedy Center Millennium Stage Wednesday and Thursday, 6 p.m. Free.
“I was still mad at Washington. What had they ever given me? Why would they all of a sudden love me now that I’d sold a few records? Where were they when I needed them?”
Marvin Gaye, on his 1972 homecoming concert