Empowering Marvin Gaye
David Van DePitte helped to carve a music monument
What’s going on?
By the third week of August 1971, Marvin Gaye’s masterwork was numbered among the most popular LPs in America. It was just a few months into release, with a second single, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” close to replicating the earlier success of the title track in the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Even so, the anointment of What’s Going On as the most revered album in Motown history was a distant prospect at that stage. If anyone could compete, Stevie Wonder was viewed as the most likely contender. He had self-produced his Signed, Sealed & Delivered long-player the previous year, and his latest, Where I’m Coming From, was strengthening his reputation. (Rolling Stone reviewed that and What’s Going On together.)
To be sure, Gaye was making remarkable progress as he sought to break free from the Hitsville production line mentality. The highest-charting LP of his career to date? Check. The most self-penned songs of any of his albums? Check. The first (or perhaps joint-first) Motown LP to identify the session musicians? Check. The first to place the arranger’s name on the front cover? Ch…wait, just a minute.
And so arrives the subject of this West Grand Blog: the man who arranged What’s Going On, and – as that album sleeve also declares – who conducted the orchestra. “Talk about accidents of fate,” said David Van DePitte when, a quarter-century ago, I asked how all this came to be. The Detroit native was in his late twenties when he joined Motown Records in 1968, introduced by another of its contracted musicians, trumpeter John Trudell. Van DePitte was playing trombone in the house band of the Roostertail, Detroit’s celebrated riverside nightspot, when Trudell, who also worked at the club, learned that Motown needed another arranger.
Trudell was aware that Van DePitte had training and skill in jazz, classical and also film music, the result of his time at the Westlake School of Music in Los Angeles. An appointment was made with Motown A&R lieutenant Hank Cosby. “The original premise of me being hired,” he explained, “was that they were going to try and go into the movie business. I had been doing a lot of industrial-type films, and although that’s not movies, the principles are basically the same.”
Yet Van DePitte’s initial assignments were standard Motown fare. According to the Don’t Forget The Motor City database, they included arrangements in 1969 for tracks by the Miracles, Chuck Jackson, the Fantastic Four and R. Dean Taylor. And, as a hint of things to come, that autumn he arranged “The Bells” by the Originals for its producer: Marvin Gaye.
Paul Riser, Willie Shorter and Wade Marcus were among Van DePitte’s fellow arrangers at Hitsville, but he said that none of them was keen to take on Marvin’s new material. “They had all worked with him before and found him to be such a pain in the fanny that they didn’t want to work with him. Somebody said to me, ‘Guess what: you’re elected.’ ”
Marvin’s way of turning ideas into music was convoluted and time-consuming. “He couldn’t read or write music per se,” recalled Van DePitte. “He needed not only a musical secretary, but somebody who knew how to organise the stuff and get it down on tape in an appropriate style. So we had hassles over that, and telling him, when he came up with something so outrageous, that it just doesn’t work that way.”
The singer knew what he was trying to achieve, “but as far as the orchestration was concerned, he had no idea what he was talking about. He would hum a lick that he would say was a violin lick, and there wasn’t a violinist in the world who could play it. That took some time, because not being aware what the individual instruments did, or could do, gave him a lot of problems.”
Moreover, Marvin could be distracted. It had been testing enough for him to argue with Berry Gordy about the virtues of “What’s Going On” – the original recording which became the single – but at the same time, he wanted to believe he had viable prospects as a football player. “He was really preoccupied with the Detroit Lions trial he was going to do,” said Van DePitte. The path ahead became clearer when, firstly, Marvin’s faith in his new direction was vindicated by the commercial impact of “What’s Going On,” and when, secondly, the Lions rejected him. “It wasn’t for his athletic abilities. They didn’t want to be obligated to him for any injuries that might happen. Then he turned to the album all of a sudden.”
The arranger told me Gaye had given him the impression that the material and the concept was set, “and all I had to do was show up and we’d start putting it together.” The opposite turned out to be true. “Not only did he not have a concept, but I thought it was kind of bizarre that all this material was [supposed to be] finished, and he didn’t have lyrics to all of the tunes.” That feeling was compounded by the emerging presence of Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland and James Nyx, among others. “It dawned on me that there were more people involved than he had led me to believe.”
Van DePitte remembered spending time at Marvin’s home on Outer Drive in Detroit. “He had kind of an elaborate set-up in his living room, where he could sit down at the piano anytime he wanted, throw a couple of switches and record everything he did. Which made him extremely dangerous. He would record all kinds of crazy things, and suspect that he had a hit maybe after a fifth of Ballantine’s or something, ranting and raving about [how] he’d just written the world’s next masterpiece. The next morning it usually got erased.”
Nonetheless, Van DePitte was pragmatic. There was an assignment to complete, and studio work to be done. “We had the standard players that played on the sessions: the Funk Brothers in the rhythm section and the Detroit Symphony string section. We always used 17 strings. Why they arrived at that number, I don’t know. There were 16 strings and a harp.” The rhythm tracks were cut at Motown’s West Grand facilities; the horns and strings were done at the former Golden World studio.
There was not a great deal of instrumental overdubbing, by Van DePitte’s account. “The rhythm tracks were straight ahead, all the bodies were on the floor.” By this time, he had completed the arrangements. “As the notes were written, all [the musicians] had to do was show up.” On drums, Marvin sought something different; Van DePitte’s suggestion was Chet Forest. “He had some chops, and he was also one of the best jazz drummers I ever worked with – incredible. I used to play bass with him, and when this guy locked into a groove, you couldn’t shift him.”
When Marvin wanted to play piano himself on all the tracks, Van DePitte was irritated. “It would have been much simpler in there to have had Earl Van Dyke or one of the other fellows. So, OK, we figured, ‘Let’s go do it and if it doesn’t work out, we can always overdub the piano.’ ” That proved not to be necessary.
The signature opening of “What’s Going On” – party noises aside – was the work of alto sax player Eli Fontaine. “The tenor,” said Van DePitte, “is Bill Moore.” Despite reports to the contrary, Moore played on only that track, according to the arranger. “Bill came in and played on that one section, one tune. That was all I knew about, unless Marvin did something behind my back that I was not aware of. The other winds in the section played on all the tunes, but they weren’t the solo players.”
(A later highpoint for Van DePitte came when he received a call from Quincy Jones, who was busy recording a version of “What’s Going On” for his 1971 album, Smackwater Jack. “He said, ‘You son-of-a-gun, I’ve been sitting here for two weeks with the stupid line that you wrote in there and I have been trying to change it. [Then] it occurred to me after all this time that it is a 16-bar line and it can’t be changed. What it is, is what it is.’ I laughed like hell, and said, ‘Thank you very much, Doctor.’ ”)
Van DePitte also claimed credit for the album’s track linkage. “I was the one that suggested that we put the musical bridges between the tunes and hang them together, which [Marvin] thought was a great idea. It just kind of felt that one should flow into the next. He said, ‘OK, we’ll try it and if it doesn’t work, we can always cut them up.’ As it turned out, it worked just fine.” And the decision to display Van DePitte’s name on the LP’s front cover? That was taken by Gaye.
Despite the arranger’s essential role in the making of What’s Going On, he was absent when Marvin recorded his vocals. “I really wasn’t there, I have to confess.” Such candour in our interview extended to the album’s conclusion – or, in fact, not recalling the exact moment in May 1971 when everything was completed. Why? Because other Motown duties were pressing: still more sessions, for the Miracles, R. Dean Taylor, David Ruffin. The schedule was relentless.
Nonetheless, as Van DePitte reflected on his union with Marvin twenty years before, he was evidently proud of the outcome. “I thought it was just different enough to hit with the general public. Of course, his messages were rather timely – a little strong for the day, but not necessarily [too strong] when you considered what some of the other artists of the day were doing. I believed in What’s Going On and I thought that if it saw the light of day, the general public would probably at least give it a tumble. They’d have to say, ‘Gee, that’s different.’ ”
Postscript: David Van DePitte died of cancer on August 9, 2009. He was 67. His work endures: a 45th anniversary edition of What’s Going On was released on vinyl last year.