Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

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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.

The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love”

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The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

The bouncing bassline that opens this song is courtesy of James Jamerson, the same man who delivered the delightful and legendary three-note thump that introduces “My Girl.”

The intro to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s masterpiece “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a lesson in how to build a Motown hit: Start with the bass and percussion, add some horns (or strings) and then have a pretty voice jump into a catchy verse.

Diana Ross may not have had the prettiest or best female vocal on the Hitsville roster, but by 1966 she had the most recognizable one. And for once her thin tone actually works in her favor. Ross’s voice perfectly conveys the naivety and innocence of a lovelorn girl trying to be patient – “remember mama said,” she sings – to little avail. Ross would seldom reveal so much of herself in song again, hiding behind “big” vocals a la “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

When this song was recorded, Ross was little more than a year away from getting top billing and four years removed from going solo. Even still, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are little more than anonymous backing singers in the mix. Although the track is as perfect as a song can be, it’s a shame their talent wasn’t given greater prominence.

While this song may be held up as Exhibit A by haters who think Motown is too slick and soulless, it is also testament to how smoothly the Motown assembly line was working. The song was recorded in just two sessions. Presumably the Funk Brothers laid down everything but the vocals at the June 11, 1966 session and the Supremes added their vocals at the July 5 session. Little more than three weeks later, the single was on the radio. By September, only three months after initial recording, it sat at No. 1 and earned the trio a high-profile performance on the Ed Sullivan show.

“You Can’t Hurry Love” had a renaissance in the 1980s. Phil Collins took it to the Top 10 in 1982, the same year the Stray Cats put it on the flip side of “Rock This Town.” Whoopi Goldberg sang it in her 1986 film “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and former Jimi Hendrix/Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles sang it as the voice of the California Raisins (which, sadly, was the first version The Daily Record heard and its non-oldies radio introduction to classic R&B).