In the 1960s, people across the country were demonstrating for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. Musicians were writing songs about what they saw going on in our world. Obie Benson was a member of the popular singing group, the Four Tops. The group is best known for pop songs about love and heartbreak.
Here are the Four Tops in 1965 with, “the same old song”:
Benson was in San Francisco in 1969 and he visited The Haight. He is quoted in a magazine interview as saying, “I saw this and started wondering what was going on. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas?” He wrote the song, “What’s Going On?” with Motown writer Al Cleveland and offered it to the Four Tops. They did not want to sing a “protest” song. Finally, he offered it to Marvin Gaye, with this caveat. “I’ll give you a percentage of the tune if you sing it, but if you do it on anybody else, you can’t have none of it.” Gaye released it in 1971.
Here is Marvin Gaye singing the song that Rolling Stone ranked the fourth greatest song of all time in 2004 and again in 2011. The lyrics still apply today: