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"Ooh, I bet you're wonderin' how I knew"
April 19, 2010 5:56 AM   Subscribe

In 1966, Motown songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield wrote a song about Strong's relationship troubles, and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles recorded it. Motown CEO Berry Gordy thought the song was "horrible" and shelved it. The song was "I Heard it Through The Grapevine."

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles recorded the first version of the song in August 1966; it was released nearly 40 years later on Motown Sings Motown Treasures. A remastered version was on their 1968 album Special Occasion.

Marvin Gaye recorded the song in early 1967 (with backing by The Andantes, The Funk Brothers, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra). The complex arrangement took two months to record. Norman Whitfield had Gaye sing the song in a higher register than he was used to, a technique Whitfield had used with David Ruffin in producing The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." Berry Gordy thought the song was horrible and Motown released Gaye's "Your Unchanging Love" as a single instead.

Motown released the Gladys Knight & The Pips version as a single in June 1967. Their funky-for-Motown version was influenced by Aretha Franklin's "Respect." It reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart and number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in November 1967 and was Motown's best-selling single to that point.

Marvin Gaye's version was released on his August 1968 album In the Groove, but "You" was released as the single. Listeners started requesting "Grapevine" from DJs and Motown finally released Gaye's version as a single in October 1968. It reached number one on the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts in December 1968 and was Motown's best-selling single to that point. (It was Motown's biggest-selling single until The Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" in late 1970.)

Jimmy Durante introduces Marvin Gaye in a live performance (with a hits medley first; "Grapevine" only) on Hollywood Palace in January 1969. Gaye's performance at the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival featured a dramatization of hearing it through the grapevine, with phone props. He performed the song with Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1983 (available on The Master 1961-1984 box set).

Marvin Gaye talks about Gladys Knight and the song; the Funk Brothers talk about the song with Joan Osborne. (The Funk Brothers were the band on the recordings by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Temptations.) Dave Marsh called the song "a lost continent of music and emotion."

Gaye's a capella version has been mentioned previously. Funk Brothers instrumental version. The song's been covered many times, notably by The Temptations (1969), Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970), The Undisputed Truth (1971), and Doug Anthony All Stars. Roger Troutman's cover was a Billboard R&B No. 1 in 1982. The recent Kaiser Chiefs cover has plenty of cowbell.

Barrett Strong started out at Motown as a singer, and his "Money (That's What I Want)" was one of Motown's biggest early hits. His first Motown album was released 40 years later. Previous thread in memory of Norman Whitfield.

"Grapevine telegraph" as slang for gossip dates to the 1850s.
posted by kirkaracha (41 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
And it's a great fuckin' song.

Mighty fine post, kirkaracha.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:04 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding the good post!
posted by eabomo at 6:11 AM on April 19, 2010


It is a phenomenally great song, but I still have a hard listening to it without cringing a little thanks to those fucking California Raisins!
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:15 AM on April 19, 2010


This is one of my favorite pop music stories. The song is fine, but Gaye's version is on a whole other level. It manages to be seductive and heartbroken and menacing (and a little bit paranoid). This is equal parts Marvin Gaye being an brilliant, intuitive performer and Norman Whitfield being a crazy good, innovative producer.
posted by thivaia at 6:19 AM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


(Saving post for a long uninterruptable period later today)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:45 AM on April 19, 2010


Barrett Strong talks about the song and performs it himself on this fantastic cd.
(I couldn't find the performance online in a cursory search before heading out the door to work.)
posted by Balonious Assault at 6:51 AM on April 19, 2010


Hold on a minute. You made and excellent post about Heard It Through The Grapevine and you didn't include the best version of all, by The Slits? For shame, sir, for shame.
posted by Len at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also Michael Jackson covered it once (kinda). (Warning Claymation)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:58 AM on April 19, 2010


I've never seen that a capella version and it's blowing my mind. So perfect.
posted by jquinby at 6:59 AM on April 19, 2010


Being a child of the 80's, I did think that the song had been made for the California raisins, and it always confused me why it was so popular.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:20 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I'm a big fan of the Slits version.
posted by oraknabo at 7:22 AM on April 19, 2010


The worst version I've ever heard, in my opinion, is the one Creedence Clearwater Revival did. "I hoid it through the grape vine." Terrible, and I actually like CCR.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:22 AM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


The song is fine, but Gaye's version is on a whole other level. It manages to be seductive and heartbroken and menacing (and a little bit paranoid).

Yes -- more than a little bit paranoid, as all of Gaye's best songs were.
posted by blucevalo at 7:33 AM on April 19, 2010


Terrible, and I actually like CCR.

With you on this one. I like the long, jam-band vibe of it. If only it were just an instrumental.
posted by jquinby at 7:53 AM on April 19, 2010


You know, I've had to play that song hundreds of times in soul bands, and I don't think it is close to being one of the great soul songs of the Sixties. Marvin Gaye just made everything he touched turn to gold.
posted by kozad at 8:23 AM on April 19, 2010


Great post. Great song. THAR SHE BLOWS!
posted by ob at 8:30 AM on April 19, 2010


Hold on a minute. You made and excellent post about Heard It Through The Grapevine and you didn't include the best version of all, by The Slits ? For shame, sir, for shame.
Regret to inform that I found The Slits' version--which I hadn't heard before--and, well, wasn't a fan. Same thing with the Paul Weller & Amy Winehouse cover on Jools Holland, which I thought was surprisingly flat considering the talent involved. I wanted to focus more on the Marvin Gaye version because I thought it was interesting such a classic had such trouble getting released, and not list every cover version ever. And it's a testament to how great a song this is that I still love it after listening to it about 50 times over the weekend. I'd never heard of Doug Anthony All Stars but I love their version.

posted by kirkaracha at 8:37 AM on April 19, 2010


Berry Gordy didn't like this song? just shows, we're all fallible. Amazing FPP.
posted by marienbad at 8:53 AM on April 19, 2010


The Creedence version is fine to my ears, and always has been; a straight up rocker that on the album version (Cosmos Factory) just goes on and on.
posted by philip-random at 8:58 AM on April 19, 2010


The version by the Slits is great because it adds so much of their own personality to the song without it just being silly or something, whereas most other versions simply adhere to the original Motown arrangement(s.) It's still my favorite.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:14 AM on April 19, 2010


It's a cliche way of putting it but the Slits make it their own. You hear the first 20 seconds of their version and you "get it". Here's this song you've heard a million times before and you don't care if you never hear it again ... but suddenly you LOVE IT. It's alive and beautiful. Punk (and post-Punk) was great in this regard, kicking new and powerful life into all manner of past-their-sell-by nuggets.
posted by philip-random at 9:27 AM on April 19, 2010


This is equal parts Marvin Gaye being an brilliant, intuitive performer and Norman Whitfield being a crazy good, innovative producer.
"Norman and I came within an inch of fighting," said Gaye. "He thought I was a prick because I wasn't about to be intimidated by him. We clashed. He made me sing in keys much higher than I was used to. He had me reaching for notes that caused my throat veins to bulge."
From David Ritz' Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye.

Barrett Strong talks about the song and performs it himself on this fantastic cd.

Online MP3 player.

Berry Gordy didn't like this song? just shows, we're all fallible.

And the Marvin Gaye songs they released instead were pretty weak.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:30 AM on April 19, 2010


philip-random: The Creedence version is fine to my ears, and always has been; a straight up rocker that on the album version (Cosmos Factory) just goes on and on.

Yeah, I always liked that version, and the way it just keeps on chugging for 12-odd minutes.

Dee Xtrovert: The version by the Slits is great because it adds so much of their own personality to the song without it just being silly or something, whereas most other versions simply adhere to the original Motown arrangement(s.) It's still my favorite.

It's just such a fucking charged take – shivering and urgent and menacing. Budgie's drumming is furious, and I love the moment where Ari Up changes the words to "heard it through the bassline".
posted by Len at 10:25 AM on April 19, 2010


kirkaracha: Regret to inform that I found The Slits' version--which I hadn't heard before--and, well, wasn't a fan. Same thing with the Paul Weller & Amy Winehouse cover on Jools Holland, which I thought was surprisingly flat considering the talent involved. I wanted to focus more on the Marvin Gaye version because I thought it was interesting such a classic had such trouble getting released, and not list every cover version ever.

Sorry, I missed this earlier. No problem; didn't mean to sound so didactic! That Weller & Winehouse version isn't up to much. But then I think Weller's best is almost 30 years behind him, and Winehouse, while she has her moments, is a terrible flake. Much more than either of those two, though, my problem with that version is Jools Holland, a cancer on the face of music whose sycophantic interviews, shit-eating grin and godawful boogie-woogie piano are worse than Hitler and ought to be regarded as such by all good-thinking members of polite society.
posted by Len at 10:36 AM on April 19, 2010


It is a phenomenally great song, but I still have a hard listening to it without cringing a little thanks to those fucking California Raisins!

If you have the ability to cognitively distance those claymation raisins from the Marvin Gaye version of the song, then give it a shot. It will be well worth the effort.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:46 AM on April 19, 2010


I love the sound of that Wurlitzer 200 piano.
posted by JBennett at 11:17 AM on April 19, 2010


Terrific song. I heard It Through the Grapevine was performed once by the Grateful Dead during a soundcheck on March 23rd 1986 before their show at the Spectrum. While they never played it in concert, even Jerry respected it. (They did play Hand Jive that night fwiw).
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:10 PM on April 19, 2010


Reading through my first link I see that the London Symphony Orchestra covered it as well as Joe Cocker and Toots and the Maytalls (reggae version). Elton John too on May 13, 1977 live at Rainbow Theatre London.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:21 PM on April 19, 2010


They need to add this one those lists of markers for a generation. Me, I can still see those damned creepy little raisins stepping along the stage, looking like Mr. Potatohead got old and shriveled and jowly but kept his plump plastic eyebrows just like when he was young.
posted by dilettante at 3:16 PM on April 19, 2010


My friend Jeff imparted some wisdom on me with regards to this song, and various covers of it, which has stuck with me for lo these many years. We were at a summer concert festival and an a cappella group was up and they were covering this song and I noticed that Jeff was Very Displeased with it.

"It's too upbeat," Jeff complained. "They're singing it cheerfully. It's meant to be peppy and cheerful. It's damn depressing! It's about someone whose lover left him and didn't even have the common courtesy to tell him. That's terrible!"

"Yeah," I said, "but the original isn't a dirge."

"There's still a lot of pain there. Marvin Gaye gets it. His lover's gone forever, she didn't even say goodbye, and he's crying in spite of himself. The way these folks are singing it, it's like she just stepped out for some groceries or something."

I decided not to ask him what he thought of the California Raisins.

Fucking awesome song all around. And the moral I have from it thanks to Jeff is that you gotta sing it with some pain, otherwise it's just groceries.
posted by Spatch at 3:24 PM on April 19, 2010


Er, "it's not meant to be peppy and cheerful." Sorry, Jeff.
posted by Spatch at 3:25 PM on April 19, 2010


I still prefer the UK 'b' side, but it's pretty close. I wish it would rain.

Also covered by the Temptations
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:34 PM on April 19, 2010


And apropos of nothing, I've now got a terrible yearning to listen to the Soul Brothers Six.

Thank You Baby, For Loving Me.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:38 PM on April 19, 2010


The first time I remember hearing the song was when it was used (to excellent effect, I thought) during the opening credits of The Big Chill over scenes of the main characters hearing about their friend's suicide intercut with his body being prepared for his funeral.
And later I found out that Kevin Costner played the corpse.

There's still a lot of pain there. Marvin Gaye gets it. His lover's gone forever, she didn't even say goodbye, and he's crying in spite of himself.

That's the key to the song. One of the writeups I read thought that his version, with a male singer and female backup singers, worked better than the Gladys Knight & The Pips version with a female lead singer and male backup singers. The tone of the Gladys Knight & The Pips version is more defiant and the backup singers come across as supportive. Marvin Gaye's in pain and the backup singers come across as mocking his pain.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:24 PM on April 19, 2010


Great post! I've had a great time with this story and all of these links.
My weak contribution. This is what I think of when I hear Gladys Knight singing Grapevine.
posted by genefinder at 4:36 PM on April 19, 2010


Online MP3 player.

Here's a different link to an MP3 of the performance. Maybe it's just me, but I couldn't get that flash player to work. The recording is of Barrett Strong performing his composition, accompanied by Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin, among others.

I hate to link directly to the blog's MP3s, so if you're interested be sure to click on the "Barret's Intro" link towards the end of the blog entry. It's the introduction from the CD. I guess my memory wasn't exactly correct; he doesn't talk so much about the song itself, more of what it was like being a Motown staff writer. It's still interesting, though.
posted by Balonious Assault at 6:37 PM on April 19, 2010


Wow! Excellent post. Thank you.

Don't miss rock critic Dave Marsh's fantastic appraisal of Gaye's version, in his book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.

"The record distills four hundred years of paranoia and talking drum gossip into three minutes and fifteen seconds of anguished soul-searching."

Rightfully so, he places Gaye's Grapevine at 'Number 1'.
posted by zenpop at 10:19 PM on April 19, 2010


Oops, just saw your small amendment that mentions Marsh's review.
posted by zenpop at 10:43 PM on April 19, 2010


You know what I really like about the CCR version? When you play it in a jukebox, you're really getting your money's worth. 'American Pie'? Fuck that noise--CCR's version of 'Grapevine' is more than twice as long.
posted by box at 12:54 PM on April 20, 2010


You know what I really like about the CCR version?

"I HOID it through the grapevine"
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:03 PM on April 20, 2010


*Smashes amps and instruments*
posted by Burhanistan at 6:18 PM on April 20, 2010


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