Psychedelic Soul doesn’t immediately come to mind when you hear this timeless Motown masterwork. But if you listen closely to that probing, pulsating riff, digging into your mind, the soft falsetto screams, piano flourishes, horns, background vocals, the kitchen sink – then those out-there string lines just whisk you away – like Psychedelic music.
If you listen to the original version recorded by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles in 1966, it’s a sweet Soul version but Motown boss Berry Gordy wasn’t digging it, Marvin Gaye got the next stab at it but that wasn’t accepted by Gordy either. Finally Gladys Knight And The Pips version was released as a single in 1967 making it to No. 2 on the US charts, but it’s a more uptempo formulaic Soul /R&B mover and shaker and Gordy probably wanted to hear the song in old style reliable R&B hit single mode (apparently they were trying to “out Aretha, Aretha”). Between these two early versions by Smokey and Gladys Knight you hear it when it was simply a Soul/R&B song but it was originally written by (you guessed it) the burgeoning, talented, experimental genius, Norman Whitfield with lyrics by Barrett Strong. With an album coming that included the song, Whitfield again pushed to get it out as a single by Marvin Gaye, but so soon after Gladys Knight’s hit version, Gordy continued to resist.
It appeared on Gaye’s eighth album, Into the Groove released in August 1968 and became such a popular track with radio that in the end Gordy had no choice but to release it as a single and rename the album. I Heard It Through The Grapevine stayed top of the Billboard chart for 7 weeks and 3 weeks at the top in the UK. To think that the song had already been a hit only a few months before says something about the quality of the song but also public taste was changing as producers/engineers and bands started to get more experimental in the studio. On initial release, I Heard It Through the Grapevine wasn’t mentioned on the cover although other songs were. It had a rather old fashioned Soul style artwork not yet caught up with new trends in design, still perhaps unbelievably the album only made it to No.63 on the US chart, even after the single’s success. Whitfield’s vision was miles ahead of even the great Berry Gordy and he transformed the song into the Psychedelic Soul classic that everyone remembers as Psychedelia poured inexorably into black institutions.
There’s been many covers of the song, one of the most intriguing and stylistically successful was by Creedence Clearwater Revival from their 1970 quadruple platinum album Cosmo’s Factory. This really was a case of black music influencing white music, influencing black music, influencing white music – connecting the dots and tracking backwards from Creedence to Marvin Gaye via Norman Whitfield’s Psychedelic influences, that originated with bands influenced by Soul and R&B (such as The Small Faces) is fascinating. Whitfield recorded a shortened version on The Undisputed Truth’s debut album in contrast to Creedence’s eleven minute studio version complete with a long guitar solo and John Fogerty’s pronunciation of “heard” in the chorus line that displays the songs reach, stretched from one world to another with consummate ease, breaking down the barriers between black and white, musically, socially, everybody digging it, relating to it, listening to it, dancing to it, falling in love to it, breaking up to it.
There’s also the rather brilliant late seventies Punk groove version by The Slits connecting old and new music, the past and the future, breaking down more barriers in four blissful lyric altering inspired minutes. Ella Fitzgerald made it Jazz Cabaret Lounge like it was recorded on the set of Columbo, The Bar-Kays turned it into an eerie mid-tempo mystery developing into a riff rock influenced Soul Dance tune before heading into completely unknown territory inhabited by oddly simultaneous styles, Ike and Tina just ripped it up.
There’s not many bigger or more famous songs that illustrate so clearly the crossover and mutual influence of black and white music as I Heard It Through the Grapevine does. It’s also an example of wonderful music appealing to the masses – but that was the sixties.