Friday, July 27, 2018

Marvin Gaye – "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1968)

You could have told me yourself
That you loved some one else
Instead I heard it through the grapevine

[NOTE: Motown Records cast a giant shadow over pop music in the sixties and early seventies, and I think that I had to include at least one Motown classic in the initial group of inductees into the 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME.  Here's a somewhat revised version of my February 2011 post about what I believe is the greatest of all the Motown hit singles of the sixties.]

Motown Records was a remarkably successful manufacturer of hit records.

I don't know enough about organizational analysis in general or the particulars of Motown's operations to explain that success.  But what is clear from even a quick-and-dirty study of Motown is that the company paid attention to details – nothing was left to chance.

For example, Motown had an artist development program.  Motown sought out talented musicians, but many of those musicians had been raised in housing projects and were very young and inexperienced – they weren't ready for prime time, so to speak.

Motown's first headquarters
Motown's artist development program turned out performers who were well-groomed, well-dressed, and very, very polished both onstage and offstage.

Motown acts were just as popular with white audiences as with black audiences, and that may have been as much the result of the demeanor and appearance of Motown performers as it was about their music (although their music was as good as anyone's).  Motown artists like the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations called into question many of the old white stereotypes about African-Americans.

The Motown production process has been described as "factory-like," but you can't argue with the results.  The 1960s were a time when the best-selling pop music was also the best pop music, and Motown's records were best sellers and very good.  The "Motown Sound" was as distinctive and recognizable as a Cadillac's tailfins, and the best Motown records sound just as good today as they did 40 years ago.  

Berry Gordy
Motown's founder and CEO, Berry Gordy, held quality-control meetings every Friday morning during the label's heyday, and his word was law when it came to which records got released.  As hard as it is to believe now, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" didn't make the cut the first time it was presented at one of the Friday morning meetings.

"Grapevine" was written by Barrett Strong, who was the singer on Motown's first big hit, "Money (That's What I Want"), which was released in 1960.  (The song was actually released on Tamla, another of Gordy's labels.)

Strong never had another hit as a singer, and eventually joined the Motown songwriting staff, where he teamed up with Norman Whitfield, a Motown producer.

The duo is best known for the series of "psychedelic soul" hits they co-wrote for the Temptations -- including "Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion," and "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone."

Norman Whitfield (top) and Barrett Strong
But in 1966, Strong had no track record, and Berry Gordy was not impressed by the version of the song that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded in August of that year.  In fact, he said it was "horrible."

Whitfield had worked successfully with Marvin Gaye, and persuaded him to record "Grapevine" in April 1967.  Gaye's recording of the song featured not only the usual Motown session musicians and backup singers, but also members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  The singer and Whitfield clashed over how Gaye should sing the song, but Whitfield eventually prevailed.

Once again, Berry Gordy gave "Grapevine" a thumbs down.  A couple of months later, Gladys Knight & the Pips were given a crack at the song.

Gordy didn't think much of their recording either, and Motown didn't do much to support it.  But the single reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart in November of that year and remained at #1 for six weeks.  It almost made it to the top spot on the Pop chart as well, but peaked at #2 (behind only the Monkees' "Daydream Believer").

Give Norman Whitfield credit.  He still believed in the Marvin Gaye "Grapevine," and pushed Gordy to release it as well.  The song was added to a Gaye album that came out in September 1968, but was not released as a single until so many radio DJs started playing it that Gordy finally relented.

Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" outsold all previously released Motown singles.  It stayed at #1 on both the Billboard Pop and R&B charts for seven consecutive weeks in late 1968 and early 1969.  

I wonder if Berry Gordy ever said to  Norman Whitfield, "You were right and I was wrong."  Probably not.

The Gladys Knight version of the song was not a particularly convincing interpretation of the song.  Gaye's record, by contrast, is perfect.  Whitfield dug deep into his ball of producer's tricks, and he hit the ball way out of the park.

Click here to listen to the Marvin Gaye version of "Grapevine."  

Click the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

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