The “Secret Sauce” for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

I don’t know anybody steeped in Soul and R&B that isn’t enthralled when they hear Marvin Gaye’s rendition of this song.

Just what is it that makes the recording so special, and why is it so hard to reach that level of transcendence when bands attempt to perform this live?

Let’s look at some of the components that make up this truly special sauce…

Marvin and James
A crucial component of what makes this song “feel” so good is James Jamerson’s perfect bass line. It’s relaxed yet it propels the song forward.  Here’s a wonderful YouTube clip of Gaye’s vocals with Jamerson’s isolated bass line.

Guitar
There are two guitar parts on the recording.  Here’s one of them and it, too, drives the song forward.

Strings
There are three string tracks on the original recording.  Here’s the track that’s panned in the center.  Note that the strings don’t come in until a little more than a minute into the song.

Piano
When I play this isolated track for my keyboard-playing friends they are usually surprised as how sparse the part is.  Indeed, it’s this simple part (which doubles the vibraphone) that adds nuance to the song.

Many more ingredients
There are many more parts that go into the mix (e.g., saxophone, finger snaps, background vocals, and so on).  Separately, some of them don’t sound particularly good, but when combined with the other parts they all sound amazing together.

Performing this live
So, just how does one perform this live and create something that is, well, special?

First and foremost you need a great band and a great lead vocalist, but how do you add those critical pieces that make the sauce so special  — and how do you do it live, and without hiring 30 musicians?

Come see Steve Wexler and The Top Shelf at DROM on January 10 and we’ll show you.

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