It’s that time again. Yes, it’s time to do your civic duty as a citizen of the soul music community and help to resolve an age-old question: one great song, two great versions, who did it better? Your vote will go a long way toward deciding this crucial question, so before leaving, even if you don’t want to read the rest of this, cast your vote below. You don’t have to input your email address or anything else. Just vote.
In the past maybe you found these polls too easy. Maybe you thought, “hey, is this guy kidding? This is a no-brainer.” But this week I’m convinced that I have a tough one for you. No one can say that the choice between Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips is an easy one. Oh, you might have your favorite, and that’s the one you’ll vote for, but calling either version superior is a stretch, to say the least.
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” in 1966. Barrett, you had contributed mightily to the success of Motown with his early hit “Money (That’s What I Want),” had the idea one day while walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He’d been hearing the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine” quite often. There’s no telling if he knew that the phrase had its beginning during the days of slavery when slaves passed messages through their own version of a telegraph, the human grapevine. Whitfield helped Strong to flesh out the idea and a classic song was born.
It was neither Gaye nor the Pips who recorded the first version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” That honor fell to the Miracles in 1966 although it has been claimed that Whitfield meant for the Isley Brothers to record it first. Some say that the Brothers did, in fact, record it but no one has been able to come up with the recording. The Miracles version appeared on their Special Occasion album in 1968 but Berry Gordy, Jr. had decided that it was not worthy of being a single.
Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye got a crack at the song in 1967. Whitfield produced the five sessions that were needed to complete the recording. The Funk Brothers laid down the track and the Andantes sang the backing vocals. Gaye wasn’t happy when Whitfield asked him to sing the song in a key that was higher than what he was used to, but Whitfield had been successful when he got David Ruffin to do the same on the Temptations hit “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” so Gaye ended up abiding by the producer’s wishes.
Once again, Gordy decided that Gaye’s version was not single-worthy and it became an album cut on In the Groove. Later that year, Gladys Knight & the Pips took a whack at it. Once again, Whitfield was behind the producer’s desk. He had admired what Aretha Franklin did with Otis Redding’s “Respect” and wanted to get a little bit of that Muscle Shoals funk into the record. Hence the funkier arrangement.
Gordy still wasn’t convinced that he had a hit single but he reluctantly gave in and the Pips version was the first single to be released on the new Motown imprint Soul Records in September 1967. Their take on the song shot up the chart to reach the #2 position.
In August 1968, Gaye’s In the Groove album was released and when DJs began to play “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” regularly, Gordy rethought his earlier decision and Gaye’s version was released as a single in October of that year. By December, it was the #1 single in the land and remained atop the charts for seven weeks. It became the biggest single in Motown history until it was eclipsed by the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” nearly two years later.
Incidentally, Gladys Knight was not happy when Gaye’s version did better than hers. She accused Whitfield of using a track he had created for her group. Gaye denied the accusation, although, troubled by personal issues including the illness of his singing partner Tammi Terrell, felt that he didn’t deserve the success he had with the record.
Over the years there have been many covers of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” including an 11-minute epic by Credence Clearwater Revival. But there’s little doubt that the two greatest versions of the song ever recorded were those by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips. So which one is your favorite? Do you like Gaye’s soulful passion or Gladys Knight & the Pips quicker, funkier take? I know, you love them both. But if you had to choose just one …