Today’s post deals with one of the most famous Motown songs, I Heard it Through the Grapevine. It is a terrific song, and was ranked in the top 100 on the 50th anniversary list of Billboard Hot 100 songs; but it is also a song with an unusual history.
The song was written by the Motown songwriting-producing duo of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield. Strong was the vocalist on the very first Motown hit Money (That’s What I Want), written by none other than Berry Gordy. At Motown Strong became a songwriter and Whitfield was primarily a producer. The two eventually were named the lead songwriters for The Temptations.
Wikipedia describes how the song was written.
By 1966, Barrett Strong … had the basics of a song he had started to write in Chicago, where the idea had come to him while walking down Michigan Avenue that people were always saying “I heard it through the grapevine”. The phrase is associated with black slaves during the Civil War, who had their form of telegraph: the human grapevine. Producer Norman Whitfield worked with Strong on the song, adding lyrics to Strong’s basic Ray Charles influenced gospel tune and the single chorus line of “I heard it through the grapevine”.
The song I Heard it Through the Grapevine subsequently bounced around Motown for quite a while. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles initially recorded it in 1966. All Motown songs had to pass a “quality control board” before being released. At the board meeting, Berry Gordy vetoed the Miracles’ version and returned it to be re-worked by Strong and Whitfield, who subsequently recorded it with Marvin Gaye in 1967.
As sung by Marvin Gaye, the song outlines the heartbreak the singer experiences after learning from talk on the street that his lover might be untrue.
Ooh, I bet you’re wond’rin’ how I knew
’bout your plans to make me blue
With some other guy you knew before
Between the two of us guys you know I love you more
It took me by surprise I must say
When I found out yesterday
Dontcha know that I
Heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Oh I heard it through the grapevine
Oh I’m just about to lose my mind
Honey, honey yeah
Although Berry Gordy is famous for his brilliant decisions as Motown CEO, he seems to have had a blind spot where Marvin Gaye was concerned. Gordy and Gaye seemed to be constantly at loggerheads over one issue or another. In any case, Marvin Gaye’s recording of Grapevine was approved by the quality control board members, but once again vetoed by Berry Gordy. The song was then recorded a third time by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and their version was released in fall 1967.
Gladys Knight and the Pips and Heard It Through the Grapevine:
Gladys Knight was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia and got an early start in the music business when she won a contest on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour at age 7. One year later she formed a musical group, The Pips, together with her siblings and cousins. The Pips changed membership a few times before settling on the most famous version, with the Pips as a trio consisting of her brother Merald and cousins Edward Patten and William Guest. The group joined the Motown Records stable in 1966. In early years the group opened on tour for The Supremes until Berry Gordy removed them from the tour. Gladys Knight has maintained that this was because her group was upstaging Diana Ross’ act.
Gladys and the Pips had several hits for Motown, including If I Were Your Woman and Neither One of Us, but the group believed that they were never regarded as one of Motown’s “front-line” artists. In 1973 they signed a deal with Buddha Records, where they had major hits with songs like Midnight Train to Georgia and I’ve Got to Use My Imagination. The group won several Grammys and in 1996 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group disbanded in 1988 and since then Gladys has pursued a solo career. She has also appeared as an actress on several television shows and series.
Motown released the Gladys Knight and the Pips version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine as a single in September 1967. Apparently the record did not receive major publicity from Motown, but it soon shot up to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and subsequently made it to #2 on Billboard’s Pop Singles. At the time, it was the best-selling record ever for Motown. The song was subsequently included on the next Gladys Knight album.
The Gladys Knight version of Grapevine is somewhat more up-tempo than Marvin Gaye’s version, and the song originates from the woman’s point of view. The rhythm is driven by a strong piano beat, and features back-and-forth gospel-inspired sections between Gladys and the Pips, with exceptional vocals from Gladys.
Here are Gladys Knight and the Pips, performing I Heard It Through the Grapevine live in 1970.
This performance took place in a hospital ward where the group was singing for wounded Vietnam War veterans. It features the classy signature dance moves that we associate with Motown groups. All Motown artists were given lessons in stage presence and etiquette from Maxine Powell. As a result the musicians, many of whom grew up in inner-city projects, looked like they had stepped right out of a Fred Astaire movie. Singers in groups like the Pips also received dance lessons from Cholly Atkins. Both Gladys Knight and the Pips are in great form here, as the Pips get to show off both their dance steps and their harmonies, and the audience also gets into the act. This live version of Grapevine is a treat to watch.
Below is the studio version of Gladys Knight in I Heard it Through the Grapevine. Both the Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye versions feature the fantastic Motown house band, the Funk Brothers. At the Detroit Motown studio Hitsville USA, Berry Gordy assembled a wonderful group of musicians who formed the backing band for all Motown records until Gordy relocated the Motown studio to Los Angeles. In particular, both records feature the great James Jamerson on bass, and there is a brief pulsating saxophone solo at about the two-minute mark.
Marvin Gaye and Heard It Through the Grapevine:
Motown developed a fantastic number of great male solo artists who made seminal contributions to rock and pop music. Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye are among these. Of all of these artists, Marvin Gaye is the one I would most like to have seen in live performance. He was fantastically talented. Possessing a three-octave vocal range, Marvin showed amazing versatility. He could switch from baritone to tenor, adopt a raspy “tough man voice” inspired by Motown stablemates David Ruffin and Levi Stubbs, and he could even produce a lovely falsetto.
Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Gay, Jr. but added an “e” to his name in the same way that Sam Cooke did. Much of his early experience at Motown was as a session drummer, and his initial recordings as a singer bombed. However, he soon found commercial success and then became a Motown powerhouse. He assembled an impressive list of hits both as an individual artist and through duets with Mary Wells and particularly Tammi Terrell. Marvin had a string of hits with Terrell until she collapsed at a performance, and was found to have a malignant brain tumor that eventually proved fatal.
Marvin became depressed over Tammi’s illness and strongly believed that he was undeserving of his success. In 1970, Marvin recorded What’s Going On, a response to reports of police brutality at anti-Vietnam war rallies. For a year he fought with Berry Gordy to release the song, over Gordy’s insistence that Motown records should avoid overtly political topics. The single was eventually released to record stores without Berry Gordy’s knowledge, and Gordy agreed to let Marvin cut an album only after the song became Motown’s fastest-charting single of all time.
What’s Going On was not only a smash single, but the album was acclaimed for its inclusion of songs about political topics as well as the environment (e.g., Mercy Mercy Me [the Ecology]). Gaye subsequently signed a lucrative deal with Motown and continued to release smash-hit albums. His song Let’s Get it On ushered in a new era of openly sensual records.
However, in the late 70s Marvin’s fortunes spiraled downwards. His marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna collapsed, he became depressed and addicted to cocaine, and he owed a fortune in back taxes to the IRS. As a result he moved to Europe and remained in Ostend, Belgium for several years. In 1982, he managed to get released from his Motown contract and signed with Columbia records. His song Sexual Healing started a comeback effort that began with a 1983 U.S. tour. However, his cocaine addiction hampered his performances and he went to his parents’ house to recuperate. On April 1, 1984, he was shot and killed by his father at their Los Angeles home.
Here is Marvin Gaye live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1980, performing I Heard it Through the Grapevine.
What a great song, a true classic! You have to ask yourself “What was Berry Gordy thinking?” How could he have vetoed the release of this song? The Gladys Knight version is just fine and deserved to be a top-10 single, but it pales beside Marvin Gaye’s truly memorable rendition of Grapevine.
Here is Marvin performing the song “live” earlier in his career. I suspect this is a lip-synched version, as it appears to be identical to the single.
Everything works to set the mood on this recording: the ominous opening with guitar and bass; the lush strings; the piano backing, and the chorus. Marvin Gaye’s vocals are perfect – you can hear the pain of this bewildered lover as he tries to react to ominous news from the street (honey, honey I know, that you’re lettin’ me go), while the chorus echoes in staccato (heard it through the grapevine not much longer will you be mine, baby, oooh).
Creedence Clearwater Revival and Heard It Through the Grapevine:
Creedence Clearwater Revival were an American rock and roll quartet. From the late 60s to the early 70s they had a string of hits and best-selling albums. Although they hailed from the Bay Area in northern California, their music featured a bayou-influenced Southern-style “swamp music.”
The band was initially formed by Tom Fogerty and also included his younger brother John. Fairly quickly, John replaced Tom as the lead vocalist and John’s talents quickly blossomed. In addition to lead vocalist, John became the band’s lead guitarist, songwriter, arranger – heck, at one time he even managed the band! The group rapidly achieved success, starting with a cover of Suzie Q but continuing on with their own songs like Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising, Down on the Corner and Fortunate Son.
It seemed that CCR could do no wrong. Their albums shot up to Number One on the charts, their records were smash hits, and they were headliners on tour. Curiously, although five of their records reached #2 on the Billboard pop charts, they never had a #1 single. And although they were one of the major acts at Woodstock, they were not part of either the Woodstock movie or soundtrack, as John Fogerty felt that CCR’s performance at the festival was not up to par.
CCR’s breakup and ensuing legal hassles were so bitter and prolonged that in hindsight it is easy to discover the tension and resentments lurking behind their success. From John Fogerty’s standpoint, it was necessary for him to make the decisions for the group because he was the person driving the effort. One could argue that the other members of CCR were simply John Fogerty’s backup musicians. John’s recollection was that:
I was alone when I made that music. I was alone when I made the arrangements, I was alone when I added background vocals, guitars and some other stuff. I was alone when I produced and mixed the albums. The other guys showed up only for rehearsals and the days we made the actual recordings… I understood I had a choice to make… Either this would be a success, something really big, or we might as well start working at the car wash again… it wasn’t important who did what, as long as the result was the very best we could achieve. And of course I was the one who should do it… The result was eight million-selling double-sided singles in a row and six albums, all of which went platinum… And I was the one who had created all this.
However, the other band members chafed under what they perceived as John’s increasingly autocratic style. Cutting the group out from the immense popularity of the “Woodstock” movie and album was just one of John’s decisions that rankled. Additional friction was generated by his unilateral declaration in 1970 that the band would no longer play encores at concerts. The other group members were also convinced that John had negotiated a truly awful deal with their label, Fantasy Records. A final indignity was that John and Fantasy CEO Saul Zaentz had unilaterally transferred most of the band’s assets to a tax shelter in the Bahamas. The Bahamian bank collapsed (although Zaentz managed to withdraw his own funds beforehand), and the CCR assets evaporated.
Tom Fogerty quit the group in 1970, and CCR continued as a trio for two more years. Their final album in 1972 featured contributions from all three remaining members, although John refused to play anything but rhythm guitar on songs written by Cook or Clifford. Rolling Stone reviewer Jon Landau’s take: “the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band.” Ouch! The breakup was followed by an avalanche of lawsuits. Fantasy sued CCR as they owed the label eight more records. John sued his former bandmates when they formed Creedence Clearwater Revisited. When John Fogerty came out with a solo album in 1985, Zaentz sued John for plagiarizing his own CCR hits, as Zaentz owned the CCR copyrights!
To make matters worse, for decades afterwards John refused to perform any of his CCR songs because the performance royalties would have gone to Saul Zaentz. After all this, perhaps it was no surprise that John refused to perform with his surviving band mates when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Tom Fogerty’s widow had brought her husband’s ashes to the ceremony, in the forlorn hope that she might see the surviving three musicians perform one final time.
Here is CCR performing I Heard it Through the Grapevine.
Now, the album version of CCR’s Grapevine is 11 minutes long; however an abridged single version was released in 1976, and I believe this is a lip-synched version of that single. Anyway, this is CCR swamp music at its best. The song begins with strong bass and drum licks, and then the gap-toothed John launches into the song, showing off his terrific raspy vocals that owe a great deal to Little Richard. Near the end of the song John produces a short guitar solo. John is exceptionally versatile on guitar, and CCR albums feature his guitar solos in dramatically different styles.
Creedence Clearwater Revival enjoyed a relatively short but brilliant career, packed with chart-topping albums and memorable individual songs. They were the masters of ‘swamp rock,’ and produced a bevy of hits before they disbanded. Their eventual breakup was unusually toxic and long-lasting. However, John Fogerty has re-started a solo career and continues to tour today, once again performing all the old CCR favorites.
Wikipedia, I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Wikipedia, Barrett Strong
Wikipedia, Norman Whitfield
Wikipedia, Gladys Knight
Wikipedia, Marvin Gaye
Wikipedia, Creedence Clearwater Revival