December 1968: Marvin Gaye Reclaims “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” as His First #1 Hit 

Rob Verhorst/Redferns
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Rob Verhorst/Redferns

It slinks its way in - the low, looming bassline and the quivering tambourine rattle. The horns enter in on high-alert. The song’s instrumentation prepares us for the realization that the world is not to be trusted. 

A man is walking towards the outskirts of his relationship in anguish, and he, wearily reveals his deepest betrayal. His heart hanging by a thread, he sings out his hurts in true blues fashion, “Ooh, I bet you’re wondering how I knew, ‘bout your plans to make me blue, with some other guy you knew before.”

Written by 1966 singer-songwriter Barrett Strong, “Grapevine,” the first-person account of being cheated on, was initially dismissed by CEO Berry Gordy. With the help of Motown producer Norman Whitfield, the song transformed into a worldwide classic tale of heartbreak.

Even though the song was rejected, even when Marvin Gaye recorded it), Gladys Knight and the Pips released their 1967 recording of the song in a new, more upbeat arrangement with a gospel-soul delivery and it stuck onto the charts as a number two hit. 


The Temptations and Bobby Taylor gave the tune their respective interpretations, too, but Whitfield was determined to give the tune Gaye's affirmation.

One year later, Gaye's version, sung higher than his typical range at Whitfield's urging, was still sitting on the back burner, but Whitfield managed to sneak it into Gaye's 1968 album In The Groove.

Radio DJ's started airing the tune across the country, to the delight of a nation. The phones went crazy, Motown relented, and Gaye's emotive narrative of soulful sorrows was released as a single. Not only did the song chart by December 14, 1968 that year as #1, latching onto the top notch spot on the charts for seven weeks, Gaye's version also became the label's golden, top selling-hit. 

BONUS: Among the countless other versions of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," that contributes to the song's firm hold on music history, there surfaced a video of Gaye singing the tune, in the style of pure vocal virtuoso.

Sans instruments or sans a faithful lover, Gaye's perfect vocals were raw, anguished, and rich. Listening to the acappella version below helps one to understand how Gaye's arrangement of tension and high-note anxieties pushed his heavy rendition to the very top.

 

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