It seems like everyone in Motown heard about this song "through the grapevine" before it was finally recorded. The classic about a man who finds out his woman is cheating on him was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Strong came up with the idea and asked Motown writers Holland-Dozier-Holland to work on it with him. They refused to credit another writer, so Strong took it to Whitfield, who helped put it together. The song eventually became a Motown classic, but it had a rough start, as executives at the company thought it was too bluesy and lacked hit potential.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were the first to record the song, but their version wasn't released until years later on an album called Special Occasion. The Isley Brothers then took a crack at it, but their version wasn't released. Whitfield and Strong then had Marvin Gaye record the song but still no luck: Motown head Berry Gordy chose Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Your Unchanging Love" over "Grapevine" as his next single. Finally, a new Motown act Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded the song as a gospel rocker. Their version was a hit, entering the Top 40 in November 1967 and going to #2 in America.
Marvin Gaye's version was included on his 1968 album In The Groove (later re-titled I Heard It Through The Grapevine). After E. Rodney Jones, the Chicago disc jockey at WVON, started playing it on the air, Berry Gordy reconsidered and released Gaye's version as a single, which became even more popular and known as the definitive version of the song. Gaye's "Grapevine" pounded the charts about a year after Knight's, going to #1 in America on December 14, 1968.
With this heartbreaking tune about a man who finds out secondhand that his girl is cheating on him, Marvin Gaye wrung out the emotion in the song thanks to Norman Whitfield, who produced the track and gave him very specific instructions. Whitfield had Gaye sing slightly higher than his normal range, which created the strained vocal, and he made him do it over and over until he got it right. Gaye explained to NME: "I simply took direction, as I felt the direction he was expounding was a proper one. Had I done it myself I would not have sung it at all like that, but y'see there are many benefits in just singing other people's material and taking directions. The job of interpreting is quite an important one, because when people are not able to express what is in their souls if there is an artist who can... then I think that is very valuable."
Barrett Strong got the idea for the song when he was living in Chicago and heard lots of people using the phrase "I heard it through the grapevine." Said Strong, "Nobody wrote a song about it, so I sat at a piano and came up with the bass line." He took the song to Whitfield, who helped complete it. It was the first collaboration for the writers.
Until the Lionel Richie/Diana Ross duet "Endless Love
" bested it with a 9-week run in 1981, this was the longest-running Motown #1 Hot 100 hit, topping the chart for seven weeks. It was a sensation in the UK as well, where it was #1 for three weeks.
This was Gaye's first #1 hit, and it made him a star. He already had 23 Top 40 hits by the time "Grapevine" was released, and was doing a lot of duets with Tammi Terrell, which were especially popular on the R&B charts. His next #1 came in 1973 with "Let's Get It On
," and he had one more with "Got To Give It Up
Creedence Clearwater Revival released an 11-minute version in 1970 for their Cosmo's Factory album; it was one of the few songs CCR recorded that they didn't write. Quite a contrast to many of the band's compact hits, it allowed them to spread out and jam.
According to their drummer Doug Clifford, he was given free rein to create his drum parts off of John Fogerty's guitar. At times in the song, Fogerty would set up a rhythmic lead that Clifford would follow and at other points in the song, Fogerty follows a rhythm Clifford set up.
In December 1975, CCR's label Fantasy Records re-released the song as a single, which made it to #43 in the US. This release came in the middle of some heated legal battles between the band and the label, which resulted in John Fogerty taking a 10-year break from making music.
In 1987, this got new life when it was used in commercials for California Raisins, with claymation raisins performing the song. In addition to boosting raisin sales, the California Raisins became an '80s fad and were the most popular Halloween costume that year. Buddy Miles – known as the founding member of The Electric Flag and as a member of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys – was the group's lead singer.
This is the only song that was a #1 R&B hit for three different artists. In addition to the Gladys Knight and the Pips and Marvin Gaye versions, Roger Troutman (recording as "Roger") took it to the top of the R&B charts with his 1981 version. Long before the Auto-Tune craze, Troutman used a vocoder to create a kind of electro funk and had a hit with "More Bounce To The Ounce," recorded by his band Zapp. Troutman saw that three different artists had already hit with this song and needed something with recognizable lyrics to make it easy to understand through his vocoder.
This song was prominently featured in the opening of the 1983 film The Big Chill as a group of friends learn the news about another friend's suicide. The soundtrack also boasts other Motown hits such as Gaye's "What's Going On"; The Temptations' "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"; The Miracles' "I Second That Emotion" and "The Tracks Of My Tears"; The Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song"; The Marvelettes' "Too Many Fish in the Sea" and Martha and The Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" (which was co-written by Gaye).
The original version of this song was presented for consideration at one of the famous Friday morning meetings help at the Motown offices where Berry Gordy would decide which songs to release as singles. Gordy usually went by staff vote, but even though "Grapevine" had the votes, he went instead with a song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland called "Your Unchanging Love." "I personally liked 'Grapevine' better," Gordy said in his autobiography. "But I felt the other record was more in the romantic vein of what Marvin needed."