Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1
By Joel Francis
Producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield had finally triumphed. His fourth attempt at recording “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had finally made it past Berry Gordy’s Quality Control meetings and triumphed at the top of the charts. Now, just over a year later, he wanted to release an earlier version of the song recorded by Marvin Gaye. Label honcho Berry Gordy had denied Whitfield’s request to release Gaye’s “Grapevine” before Gladys Knight had a hit with the song. His stance would not change. Whitfield was successful, however, in getting the song inserted on Gaye’s “In the Groove” album. Just as he had hoped, listeners started requesting “Grapevine” and DJs clamored for Motown to release the song as a single. Finally released in late October, 1968, “Grapevine” shot to the top of both the pop and R&B charts, outselling Knight’s version and becoming the biggest-selling Motown single to date. The song was so popular, Gaye’s album “In the Groove” was renamed “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
The path to getting the song recorded wasn’t much smoother. Whitfield spent a month recording the backing track with the Funk Brothers, Detroit Symphony and backing vocal group the Andantes. During these sessions, Gaye and Whitfield started to argue over the vocal arrangement. Whitfield, who worked primarily with the Temptations, wanted Gaye to sing above his natural ranges, as David Ruffin did on the Tempt’s hit “Ain’t To Proud To Beg.” Gaye initially resisted, but finally gave in. The combination of Gaye’s rasp and the Andantes convinced Whitfield he had a hit. Now he had to persuade Gordy.
Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” bears little resemblance to the song Knight took to No. 1. The defining organ line in Gaye’s arrangement barely appears in Knight’s version. Her reading was all about funk and atmosphere; Gaye’s speaks directly to the lyrics. His strained voice is haunting and filled with pain. And while the emphasis is placed on the strings, check out the great interaction between the bass and drums and the great drum sound. It almost sounds tribal.
This reading of “Grapevine” has become the definitive version, but that hasn’t stopped dozens of other artists from trying their hand. Hoping to strike lightning thrice, Whitfield gave the song to the Temptations, who included it on their 1969 album “Puzzle People.” In 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival released a blistering 11 minute version that featured lots of fretwork and jamming from the usually concise quartet. Talk-box titan and funkmaster Roger Troutman took the song back to No. 1 on the R&B charts with his 1982 cover. The song was also famously co-opted by the California Raisins (and sung by former Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles) in 1986.