Even among the tall trees without number in the 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 Marvin Gaye interpretation 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, 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 1968, 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.
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” released on October 30 as Tamla 54176, crashed onto the Hot 100 on November 23 at a sky-high No.34, the highest new entry of the week. Just three weeks later, on the December 14 chart, 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.
Among the countless other versions of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” that have emphasised the song’s towering durability, the epic 11-minute version by Creedence Clearwater Revival, on their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory, belatedly became their final Billboard Hot 100 chart entry in 1976. Then in 1981, a rendition by 1980s synth-soul star Roger became not only his debut hit but an R&B chart No.1 for two weeks.
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is on the album of the same name, which can be bought here.