On this day in 1968, Marvin Gaye scored his first US #1 single when “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” started a five-week run at the top. It was Marvin’s 15th solo hit and also his first UK #1 single in March 69.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a landmark song in the history of Motown records. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966, the single was first recorded by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
Just hold it there for a moment; let’s re-wind. Written by Whitfield and Strong, who were the Rodgers and Hammerstein/Lennon and McCartney of soul music.
Whitfield co-wrote and produced so many enduring hits for various Motown artists, including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, “Cloud Nine”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “War”, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”, “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”, “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, and “Car Wash”. And Barrett Strong had been at the sharp end, as a former recording artist for Motown — he was the singer behind the label’s breakthrough hit, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, which has been covered by so many artists, including The Beatles.
Like the rise of rock and roll, British pop, or the hippie movement in the ’60s, the Motown sound was just as important and equally influential on music and culture.
Anyway, back to the song… Released on September 25, 1967 as Soul 35039 by Gladys Knight & the Pips, who recorded the third version of the song, it has since become a signature song for Marvin Gaye, who recorded his version prior to the Pips’ but released it after theirs on October 30, 1968 as Tamla 54176.
The session featuring Gaye led to arguments between the producer and singer; Whitfield struggled to convince Gaye to perform the song in a high rasp, a move that had worked on David Ruffin during the recording of The Temptations’ hit, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”. Whitfield was later described by several Motown employees as “cocky” and “arrogant” but “always got what he wanted out of the performer”. Marvin eventually agreed to record it in Whitfield’s key and the song later led to a change in the singer’s vocals.
Gaye had started his career as a member of the doo-wop group The Moonglows in the late 1950s. He then ventured into a solo career after the group disbanded in 1960, signing with Motown Records subsidiary, Tamla. He started off as a session drummer, and as a road drummer for The Miracles. Gaye drummed on the Marvelettes hits, “Please Mr. Postman”, Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” and was one of two drummers behind Martha and the Vandellas’ landmark hit, “Dancing in the Street”.
Following his performances with the Motortown Revue Gaye became a solo artist in his own right, having early hits with “Pride & Joy”, and the Top 30 hit, “Can I Get a Witness”. Later in the ’60s with the success of “Grapevine” he was ranked as the label’s top-selling solo artist. His version of “Grapevine” was the biggest hit single of all time on the Motown label until The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” 20 months later.
Gaye’s version has since become a landmark in pop music. In 2004, it ranked #80 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. On the commemorative 50th Anniversary of the Billboard Hot 100 issue of Billboard magazine in June 2008, Gaye’s version was ranked as the 65th biggest song on the chart. It was also inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant value”.
And I couldn’t agree more, except in my humble opinion “Grapevine” should be in the Top 10 of any list ranking the greatest songs of all time. But it’s all subjective; I’m off to listen to some Marvin Gaye.
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