Certain Songs #1096: Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

Album: I Heard it Through The Grapevine
Year: 1968

You wanna know just insanely stacked Motown was in the late 1960s? They sat on Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through The Grapevine” for over a year before they released. A year!

Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was originally recorded that year by the Miracles but nixed as a single — and listening to it now, you can tell why: it was a skosh too fast, and not slinky enough — and then recorded by both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight in 1967, but only Gladys Knight’s version was released that year.

Rollicking and funky — with the Pips chanting “whoa, I heard it” over and again — the Gladys Knight version was a huge single, hitting #2 on the Billboard pop charts, and becoming Motown’s biggest single up to that time. Which pretty much put the kibosh on Marvin Gaye’s version ever becoming a single. So they stuck it on an album called In The Groove, and when DJs started playing it anyway, the put it out as a single, and the rest, is history.

Fast-forward 50 years, and all of the other versions of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” — and at this point, there are zillions — feel like sketches and/or pale imitations of the definitive performance that Gaye gives here.

With master producer Norman Whitfield dialing up a woozy, swampy beat and a dazzling string arrangement, Marvin Gaye sounds like a man who is already beyond the end of his rope as the verses march on and his predicament gets worse.

People say “believe half of what you see
Son and none of what you hear”
But I can’t help being confused
If it’s true please tell me dear:
Do you plan to let me go
(Do you plan to let me go?)
For the other guy you loved before?
(For the other guy you loved before?)
Don’t you know
I heard it through the grapevine

Listen to his desperate swoops as he sings “hellllp” and “plan” and his guttural rasp as he sings “guy,” all beautifully contrasting the smoothy-silk backing vocals of the Andantes, whose almost dispassionate vocals suggested that they were the grapevine, and damn glad of it.

Marvin Gaye’s version was even a bigger hit than Gladys Knight’s version — spending nearly two months at the top of both the pop charts and the r&B charts as 1968 crashed into 1969 — even supplanting it as Motown’s biggest-selling single to date. It was such a huge it they retitled the original In The Groove album to I Heard It Through The Grapevine in order to squeeze every ounce from it.

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” performed live in Montreux, 1980

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One Response to “Certain Songs #1096: Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine””

  1. Ira Brooker says:

    Seeing it typed out like this, it honestly took me a second to remember that the “Believe half of what you see” bit wasn’t originally from “Last Great American Whale.” I may have a Lou Reed problem.