Even in the unsurpassed Motown songbook, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ stands like a mighty redwood. So it’s strange to think what an uncertain history the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong composition had, how it was rejected twice in its infancy, and how the first hit version of it was eclipsed just a year later by the one we all know as a worldwide classic.
The song had first been recorded at Motown, in the summer of 1966, by the Miracles, but their version wasn’t even released. Early in the new year, Marvin Gaye recorded a new arrangement, but again, it stayed in the Hitsville vaults. Producer Whitfield then turned to Gladys Knight and the Pips, with great success.
Their uptempo rendition, infused as ever with Gladys’ invigorating, gospel-soul delivery, charted in October 1967, going to No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 2 on the Hot 100. Other Motown acts including the Temptations and Bobby Taylor also cut the tune, but Whitfield was still determined to make it a hit for Gaye.
In the summer of ’68, now that it was a known song and Marvin was looking for material for his new In The Groove album, a new attempt at ‘Grapevine’ made more sense. He and Whitfield collaborated on the brooding, intense version, and when radio station WVON in Chicago started playing it as an album track, the phones went crazy. Berry Gordy was persuaded to release it as a single, and history was written.
‘Grapevine’ crashed onto the Hot 100 on 23 November, 1968 at a sky-high No. 34, the highest new entry of the week. Just three weeks later, it was the nation’s No. 1, on its way to becoming Motown’s biggest-selling single ever to that point. In March, 1969, the song hit No. 1 in the UK, and 45 years later, reaffirmed its place in the hearts of British fans by being voted The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song in a 2014 ITV special of the same name.