The chequered story of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is one that always ends with Marvin Gaye as the punchline. For such an indelible classic in the annals of soul music, that’s only right and proper.
But as we document elsewhere, the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong song had been through a few incarnations before Marvin made it his own. Not to mention that it had already been an R&B No.1. On December 2, 1967, that distinction was granted to the exciting Motown interpretation of “Grapevine” by Gladys Knight and the Pips.
The first recording of the song, by the Miracles, was in the summer of 1966, but it wasn’t even deemed worthy of release. Then Gaye took his first go at it, but Whitfield’s enthusiasm for the take was not matched by that of Berry Gordy, so that also remained in the vaults. The next chapter was for Whitfield, not just a key songwriter but increasingly a producer of influence at Motown, to try the song out on Gladys and the Pips.
The group had enjoyed an R&B chart-topper, and US pop top tenner, as early as 1961, when Knight was a mere 17, with “Every Beat Of My Heart.” That Vee-Jay hit was followed by another Top 3 soul success, this time on Fury, with “Letter Full Of Tears,” after which there was a gap until 1964 for their next winner, on the Maxx label, with “Giving Up.”
1967 was a landmark year for Knight and the Pips at Motown. In May, Whitfield recorded them on his co-write with Eddie Holland, “Everybody Needs Love,” a much-travelled Motown number first taped by Mary Wells in 1964. The Pips” reading soared to No.3 R&B.
Norman then returned to the studio with Knight and the family group to record their version of “Grapevine” just as “Everybody” was being released, and was glad he did. The results were scintillating, with Gladys’ urgent lead vocal perfectly in tune with the Pips’ backing vocals and propulsive double percussion, by both Uriel Jones on drums and Benny Benjamin on cymbals.
The track entered the R&B listings in late October and hit No.1 on the Billboard chart in early December, staying there until the new year, in a six-week reign. It came close to the top of the pop chart too, spending three weeks at No.2, held off the top by first the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and then The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye.”
“It wasn’t just a record for us,” Knight wrote in her autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory. “It was a work permit, and work came flowing our way.”
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is on Gladys Knight & the Pips’ Ultimate Collection, which can be bought here.
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