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I Heard It Through the Grapevine - Gladys Knight and the Pips

The ironic thing about Barrett Strong, who died on January 28th at the age of 82, was that he is best known for his 1960 smash "Money (That's What I Want)" (see post ) as opposed to the succession of hits he and Norman Whitfield wrote for the Temptations and other Motown acts in the late from 1967 through to 1972.

There were many songwriters employed by the Motown Corporation in the golden era of Tamla Motown that spanned from 1960 to the label's departure for LA from Detroit in 1972. I always imagine the Motown songwriters sitting penned up in small offices with pianos like 1930's Hollywood scriptwriters, churning out the hits. The names were many: Ivy Hunter, William Stevenson, Frank Wilson, Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, R Dean Taylor, Henry Cosby, Sylvia Moy, Harvey Fuqua, James Dean, William Weatherspoon, Richard Morris, Johnny Bristol and so on, either individually or severally, the list seems endless. Not forgetting the greatest Motown team of all: Holland Dozier Holland, or the stellar Smokey Robinson.

Among these was Norman Whitefield, an old buddy of Barrett Strong's from his teenage days, who had cowritten a few hits already, most recently the excellent "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "Beauty is Only Skin Deep" for the Temptations, and "knew his way around" the Corporation and the recording studio. In 1967 Motown boss Berry Gordy paired them up and the first hit they wrote was "I heard It Through the Grapevine" which they recorded with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Gordy used to have daily post production meetings where he'd listen to the latest recordings and decide their fate; he decreed that "Grapevine" wasn't good enough, needed tightening up and tried with a different act. A second version, cut this time with Marvin Gaye, also received the thumbs down. The third time lucky attempt, by Gladys Knight and the Pips, received a begrudging okay from Gordy and was released as a single.

In 1967 Aretha Franklin was encamped at the top of the US charts with a series of earthy funk-fuelled hits recorded at Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios, including the number one "Respect". In true Motown style, Whitefield and Strong copied her, revamping the song, casting Gladys Knight as Franklin, and challenging the famous Funk Brothers not to be outfunked by a bunch of white boys from Alabama. Gordy, wasn't overimpressed with the result, but okayed its release as a single, though without putting the kind of marketing support behind it that other Tamla stars such as the Supremes or Four Tops were getting.

The black radio stations picked it up, then the nationals, and before long it had reached number 2 in the US charts staying in the top ten for weeks, and becoming the biggest selling Motown single up to that time. Later that year, radio stations picked up the Marvin Gaye version, now released on the album "In the Groove". They played it so much that Gordy bowed to demand and released it as a single too even though he didn't believe that two different versions of the same song could be hits in the same year. He was wrong: they both, in turn, became the top Motown sellers ever. It's typical of Gordy that when he got things wrong, he still got things right, mainly because of his sound commercial instinct.

Gladys Knight's version was unsuccessful in the UK, so many Brits have never heard of it, in which case they are missing a treat. While it's not as as good as Gaye's version, (see post and arguably the greatest soul single of all time), it still has lots to recommend it, most notably James Jamerson's ultra funky bass line and Knight's gutsy stab at challenging Aretha as first lady of soul.

Probably the only example of two different versions of the same song charting big time in the same year. Not bad for your first hit record.

NB: The phrase "on the grapevine" was common parlance when I was a child, so us Brits had no idea it originated from early US telegraph wires which were often threaded through tree branches, resembling grape vines. Its modern sense of secrecy and rumour comes from it's subsequent use referring to word of mouth messaging in the "Underground Railroad" system that hid and helped escaped slaves in their flight from the US South.


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