Marvin Gaye's Iconic 'What's Going On' Album Cover Was a Total Accident

It has officially been 50 years since the release of Marvin Gaye's iconic "What's Going On" album.

The legendary singer-songwriter was born in 1939, in Washington, D.C. He started out singing in church and later became a member of popular doo-wop group The Moonglows.

After the genre began fizzling out in the 50s, the group's founding member Harvey Fuqua took then 20-year-old Gaye to Detroit where he met Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown records. At the label, he earned the title of Prince of Motown for his soulful sound and duetted with the likes of Diana Ross.

Gaye was shot dead in 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, by his father Marvin Gaye Sr. after an altercation.

It was Gaye's eleventh studio album, "What's Going On", that went on to define him for decades after his death.

The album was released on May 21 1971, exactly 50 years ago today. It is still deemed as relevant as ever by many because of its strong social conscience. The record focused heavily on themes including racism, drug abuse, poverty and police brutality. It also showcased the perspective of a veteran returning to the U.S after the Vietnam war.

The record marked a departure for the Prince of Motown's previous love-centric hit records "You're All I Need To Get By" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", which were released in 1967.

"What's Going On" earned critical acclaim and was hailed by many as the turning point for artistic freedom and meaningful music at Motown records. In the years following Gaye's death, the record achieved new heights and earned the top place on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" turns 50
Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" turns 50. The record went on to become one of Gaye's most highly-regarded albums of all time. Jim Hendin

The album's powerful artwork features a close-up image of Gaye looking emotional as he gazes off into the distance in contemplation. The back cover features a wide shot of the singer wearing a yellow shirt and tie, with a trench coat over the top and the collar turned upwards as he stands in the drizzling snow. The photograph was taken in the backyard of Gaye's home.

The cover was designed by Motown art director Curtis McNair and photographed by Jim Hendin.

When asked in an interview for Boston newspaper The Bay State Banner in 2008 what his favorite cover was, McNair named "What's Going On."

"I could see how emotional Marvin was in terms of the essence of the album, and I wanted to match that," he told the publication. "We had 100 slides of photographs from Jim Hendin and I picked this one when the sleet made his hair turn white, and on top of that you have the moisture on his trench coat and that wonderful expression on his face. I thought all of that added to the drama."

Hendin told author Ben Edmonds, in his book "What's Going On?", that the cover shots were the last photographs taken when it suddenly started to snow.

"Marvin went out into his backyard, and as I clicked away, it began to snow. The drizzle added everything to the shots. Luck, or something stronger, was with us that day," the photographer reminisced.

McNair revealed that the cover image almost never made it as the choice photograph.

"I looked over the slides that came back from Jim Hendin's photo session and selected the one that I thought would make the best cover," he told Edmonds. "But my supervisor Tom Schlesinger didn't like it. Hendin had gone for a somewhat low-angle shot, and he thought it showed too much of Marvin's nostrils or something ridiculous like that."

McNair then suggested they ask Gaye for his opinion as he also happened to be in the Motown building at that time.

"That's it. This is definitely the cover right here," the "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" singer said.

Newsweek contacted Jim Hendin for comment.

Marvin Gaye died in 1984
Soul singer Marvin Gaye plays piano as he records in a studio in circa 1974. He tragically died in 1984. Jim Britt/Michael Ochs/Archives/Getty Images