My first footprints were still fresh on the earth when Marvin Gaye released his transformative musical opus, “What’s Going On?”
A concept album filled with haunting, laid-back rhythms and an incredible depth of soul, the masterful collection of songs painted a bleak picture of society at the time, challenging mainstream music to witness “what is” while inspiring the listener to imagine “what if?”
While lyrics within the title song evoke belief in positivity as an answer to overcoming darkness in the world, our muse for today’s discussion is the reason why Marvin felt compelled to both write and record it.
Gifted with immense talent and unbelievable charisma, Marvin struggled with the stark realities of both the Civil Rights movement and the impact of the Vietnam War.
This translated into an acutely passionate desire to record music with a much deeper level of consciousness . . . compelling all of us to follow suit and discover the higher purpose behind why we do what we do.
Saving My Brother’s Soul
This change, as you can imagine, wasn’t embraced by Barry Gordy, president and founder of Motown Records.
While living a life that can be best described as ‘conflicted’, Marvin had helped shape the sound of young America with enough happy and congenial hits to earn the nickname “Prince of Motown.”
Watching a behind-the-scenes program several years ago, I listened to Barry describe his apprehension with the project.
He firmly believed that What’s Going On? would devastate Marvin’s career, and in the process remove a key contributor from his portfolio of powerhouse pop music performers.
Marvin pleaded with Barry and other Motown executives, refusing to record any other music until given permission to record and release what he considered his artistic triumph.
When pressed for a reason why he felt such a strong commitment to this change of direction, Marvin responded:
“I have to record this record to save my brother’s soul.”
Barry has gone on record saying, “I thought those records would ruin him. Instead, they made him an icon.”
Tough to argue with success.
Even tougher not to answer the door when your conscience comes calling.
Speaking Of Iconic
Marvin’s sentiment continued to shape my approach as I progressed through life, surfacing in a more tangible application when I became part of The Ritz-Carlton organization.
Embraced as the world’s most recognized, iconic luxury brand, The Ritz-Carlton’s vision statement “to inspire life’s most meaningful journeys” praises a level of service completely dedicated to delivering the exceptional by offering ladies and gentlemen unlimited resources to surprise and delight.
It’s a wonderful perspective, one that gives you goosebumps when you consider all the possibilities . . . and choose to view life through that lens.
Herein lies the challenge.
Given access to all of life’s wonder and potential, how will you choose to respond?
There is no greater insight into an artist’s emotions than that which is provided through a live performance.
In those moments, we’re granted a front row seat to authentic intent. Guided by awareness of a higher purpose, we witness an artist’s innermost ability to illuminate shadows expressed through refreshing candor and honesty.
Any type of performance, especially duties within the hospitality industry, carries a similar opportunity to re-create the passion and enthusiasm experienced in a brand or culture’s genesis moment.
What I had observed in my brief time with The Ritz-Carlton was a fading connection to the values the brand had been built on. Duties were completed, but without the verve or enthusiasm you would expect.
This video of Marvin Gaye performing What’s Going On/What’s Happening Brother inspired me to design our hotel’s year-end General Session as a cultural/music fest in the spirit of Chicago’s famed Lollapalooza.
Dubbed Lionpalooza (a nod to both The Ritz-Carlton’s Lion & Crown logo and Perry Farrell’s genius), that first year’s theme was built around A Day In The Life, tracing the potential within every guest service interaction and comparing those moments to performing live on stage.
Reaction to the proposed agenda was mixed among our Executive Team . . . which probably explains the General Manager leaving in the middle of my first storyboard walk-through.
But permission was granted, and I set out bridging the connection between live music performances and execution of our service standards.
What’s Going On/What’s Happening Brother was on continuous loop as I worked tirelessly to script what amounted to an Off, Off, Off, then even further Off-Broadway production.
Choreographing live vignettes intermingled with video of live concert performances, the session highlighted the level of emotional investment necessary to connect with your audience, urging the ladies and gentlemen to risk exposure of their innermost sentiments and feelings, to be the light that can overcome darkness, whether in front of four guests or a crowd of 400,000 people.
That’s what it took to build the brand, and what it would take to carry it forward.
There was no immediate spike in our service scores or quality measurements.
Purpose requires patience.
You’re dealing with a journey of intimate discovery, a depth of emotion and awareness that must be cultivated along a timeline that is unique for every person.
My target when proposing the Lionpalooza initiative wasn’t a measurable jump in tangible scores . . . it was appealing to the intangibles, a deeply rooted recognition of the relationship between an individual’s higher purpose and that of the organization they were a part of.
Followed by a personal commitment to embrace the challenge or to seek another opportunity . . . either way, that individual would be one step closer to discovering what “fit”.
And that’s what made it a project worth pursuing.
A similar sentiment could apply to Marvin Gaye and his passion for composing What’s Going On?
Watch the video . . . aside from the video quality and audio equipment being used, you would be hard pressed to determine if it was five decades ago or today, especially since both the clothing and hairstyles have re-emerged and embraced as “retro.”
But we continue to experience civil unrest. There are multiple struggles within society related to fairness and equality, voices screaming to be heard, dreams of a better tomorrow expressed among the many demonstrations and marches that occur almost daily across the planet.
Yet, you can also see a familiar hope in the eyes of the families and couples portrayed throughout the clip. Beautiful people that simply want to be together, to dance and laugh, to see the innocence of children jumping rope or playing football in the park.
It is a purposeful patience at play.
In The Footlights
Through What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye was able to accomplish what holds others back . . . at great personal risk, he exposed aspects of himself that many felt uncomfortable in recognizing existed.
Like equally great voices over time, he shared deeply personal sentiments not as a leader, but as an artist inspiring thought and introspection through expression.
No one can force someone to choose love over hate.
But . . . you can pursue your higher purpose, planting the seeds of light through hope and optimism, nurturing them with communication and understanding over time, trusting they’ll take root and produce a harvest we can celebrate as a society.
A great first step is to pause, take a deep breath, and ask “What’s going on?”
Then be willing to listen for the response . . .
This Is Tall Tim, and I am At Your Service!