Rolling Stone magazine rated it the fourth greatest song of all-time. Metro Times ranked it as the best “Detroit song” ever. Countless millions have enjoyed this famous ballad that shed light on police brutality and racism in America. Two members of the Detroit Lions sang background vocals on the song that sold more than two million copies.
Yes, that’s right, two active members of Detroit’s NFL team appeared on Marvin Gaye’s hit single “What’s Going On?” released in January 1971.
How did Mel Farr and Lem Barney end up as backup singers for Gaye, one of Motown’s biggest stars? One of them knocked on his door.
After a round of morning golf, teammates Barney happened to be in Gaye’s neighborhood in suburban Detroit one afternoon during the summer of 1968. According to Justin Tinsley of The Undefeated, Barney found Gaye’s house and knocked on the door. The Lions’ Pro Bowl defensive back didn’t know Marvin Gaye, but the singer knew him. “Marvin was a big sports fan,” Barney said years later. “We got each other immediately.”
The friendship born that day laid the foundation for music history. A few years later, when Detroit songwriter Al Cleveland approached Gaye with a song he’d written about the epidemic of police killings of blacks in America, Gaye was reluctant at first. Motown Records didn’t record political music, and their artists were encouraged to play it safe with their material. But when some of Gaye’s friends, including Farr and Barney, heard the song, they urged the Detroit singer to record it.
“I’ll do it if you sing with me,” Gaye reportedly told the two football stars.
“He says, ‘Lem, you take this part,’ ‘Mel, you take this part,’ ” Barney told Tinsley.
The record starts with good-natured conversation, the voices of 3-4 young men seemingly at a house party. Two of those voices belong to future Pro Football Hall of Famer Barney and Farr. The background vocals are Farr and Barney with Gaye on a second track backing his own lead vocals. Farr and Barney were in the studio less than a day working on their parts.
Ironically, considering the trio of Detroit stars on the record, Gaye was forced to issue it on a private label. Barry Gordy an Motown Records felt it was too controversial and not “hit material.” Gaye had 100,000 copies made and sent to radio stations and record stores across the country. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.
The iconic song debuted to the Top 100 and quickly soared to #2 on the U.S. chart and #1 on the R&B chart. Later that year, “What’s Going On?” was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Farr and Barney later turned the tables on Gaye and coaxed him into trying out for the Lions. That’s a fascinating tale that Tinsley relates in a fine article on another website.
Here’s the original version of “What’s Going On?”, a classic song that features not one, but two Detroit Lions. You’ll probably never listen to it the same way again.