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Song of the Week #69 – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

Written by admin on August 29, 2011 – 11:04 am -

Marvin Gaye’s superb recording of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is Song of the Week on Classic Pop Icons.

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was released on single on October 30, 1968, backed with “You’re What’s Happening (in the World Today).” It had already appeared on Gaye’s ninth solo album “In the Groove.”

I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye

Although it would become one of Marvin Gaye’s signature tunes and Motown’s best selling single of the 1960s, the world almost didn’t get to hear this recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles had actually recorded the song first, but it had been deemed unsuitable for release by Motown head Berry Gordy Jr. The next recording was by Gaye, but again the hit potential was not recognised and it remained in the vault for months, during which time Gladys Knight and the Pips had a number two hit with their later recording of the song.

Marvin Gaye - In the Groove With the Gladys Knight hit highlighting the song’s merits, Gaye’s recording was included on his album “In the Groove” in August 1968. Songwriter/producer, Norman Whitfield, was intent on the song also being released on single and got his wish after radio airplay of the album track received a very enthusiastic response from listeners. The single was so successful that the “In the Groove” album was later re-released with the new title “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”

The song is about a man who is distraught, surpised and confused over rumours of his partner’s infidelity. These mixed emotions are cleverly communicated through the lyrics. The singer begins in confrontational fashion (“I bet you’re wondering how I knew/About your plans to make me blue”), before revealing the depth of his feelings for her (“Losin’ you would end my life you see/Cause you mean that much to me”) and finally doubting the rumours and seeking reassurance (I can’t help bein’ confused/If it’s true please tell me dear/Do you plan to let me go/For the other guy you loved before?).

Singing near the top of his range, Gaye’s vocal communicates his vulnerable state of mind brilliantly. When he half screams “guy” in the line “With some other guy that you knew before,” he sounds barely in control. Norman Whitfield, deserves credit here for it was he who convinced a reluctant Gaye to sing the song in a higher, less comfortable key.

Whitfield’s excellent production was also key to the song’s success. The dramatic electric piano line, tom-tom drums (Whitfield had instructed the drummer to provide an “Indian” feel), and inspired string arrangement provide an edgy and powerful backing that pefectly complements Gaye’s vocal.

Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”


“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, who would collaborate on many other Motown classics, including “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”

Barrett Strong was a staff writer for Motown at the time and had also written and performed the label’s first hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” in 1959.

In the September 8, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone, Barrett recalled how “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” first began to take shape:

“I came up with a little idea on the piano, the bass-line figure. We thought it was great and I had thought of this title, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine,’ because I’d heard people saying it so much – but nobody had ever written a song about it. We just went from there.”

As noted above, Whitfield also produced the recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” as he would for the Gladys Knight and the Pips’ hit version.

Whitfield would become the key Motown producer in the post Holland-Dozier-Holland era.

Recording date/location

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was recorded on April 10, 1967 at Hitsville USA (Studio A) in Detroit, Michigan.


Marvin Gaye’s vocals were backed by the legendary Motown house band, the Funk Brothers:

  • Earl Van Dyke – Wurlitzer electric organ
  • James Jamerson – bass
  • Robert White – guitar
  • Joe Messina – guitar
  • Eddie Willis – guitar
  • Richard “Pistol” Allen – drums
  • Jack Ashford – tambourine.
  • Backing vocals were provided by The Adantes – Marlene Barrow, Jackie Hicks and Louvain Demps.

    The orchestral part was provided by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

    Chart performance

    “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on December 8, 1968 and remained on top for an impressive seven weeks. The week that the song hit the top spot, Motown occupied the top three positions on the Hot 100, with Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Love Child” at number two and Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” at number three.

    Marvin Gaye - I Heard It Through The Grapevine Hot 100

    The song hit number one on the UK singles chart for the week ending March 29, 1969 and stayed there for three weeks. This was Gaye’s first and only UK number one. It also hit number eight when re-released in the UK in 1986, following its use in a commercial for Levi’s 501s.

    Other notable recordings

    Gladys Knight and the Pips – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

    Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded the song two months after Gaye, but had a major hit with it almost exactly one year before him. The arrangement is faster and less intense than Gaye’s version, bringing to mind Aretha Franklin’s work in this period. The bass line that helped make the Gaye recording so memorable is only hinted at here.

    Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” features on the album “Everybody Needs Love” and various compilations, including “The Way We Were: the Best of Gladys Knight and the Pips.”

    Creedence Clearwater Revival – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

    Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover took the key features of the Gaye version and added some rock elements, including heavier drum work and an effective guitar break. The group clearly loved the song as the version on their “Cosmo’s Factory” album is 11 minutes long, due mainly to an extended guitar break.

    Here it appears in edited form.

    There will be a new Song of the Week on September 5.

    Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” appears on a number of compilation albums, including the two-CD “Marvin Gaye – Gold.”


    Marvin Gaye – Gold (CD)

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