Marvin Gaye’s popular version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” reached the 50th anniversary milestone last year. The song’s endurance prompts an exploration of the tune’s longevity through the groups who have chosen to record it, and the song’s message.
While Gaye’s version is arguably the most popular, he was not the first person to record the song. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is woven into the fabric of American culture. In the mid-1980s, the California Raisins (Claymation fruits used in commercials) sang the tune to encourage people to choose raisins for snacks. The usage made the song popular for a generation who had not grown up hearing it on the radio or as part of top 40.
Still, more than 30 years after the heyday of the singing raisins, and more than 50 years after the original recording, the popularity of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” endures.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”: early recordings
There are three early versions of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” that remain the most popular. However, of those none is the original recorded by The Miracles in 1966. The first version to chart was the Gladys Knight and the Pips version from 1967 that reached No. 1. The lyrics are altered so that Knight does not have to sing the line “I know a man ain’t supposed to cry.” The version makes good use of the smooth voices and easy harmonies between the group members. It is easy to hear why it reached No. 1.
The next recording of the song is the one that probably stands out in some people’s minds as “the only” version. That, of course is Marvin Gaye’s 1968 version. Although recorded in 1967, the song wasn’t released until a year later. Gaye’s version highlighted the singer’s rough-with-emotion voice that still managed to have a smooth enough edge to appeal to a listening public. Gaye’s version made it to No. 1 on the charts.
In 1970, the song received its most unique treatment of the era. The rock band Credence Clearwater Revival included their version on their album “Cosmo’s Factory.” Interestingly, the band never stops sounding like themselves, which might be why their version is respectable. Jangly guitars, banging drums and John Fogerty’s lived-in voice all make the song a rock classic, in addition to a Motown gem. Credence Clearwater Revival had previously covered “Proud Mary” in 1969 for their album “Bayou Country.” The band’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” reached No. 43.
Other bands and performers who covered the song include Elton John, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers and Roger Troutman (of Roger fame).
Why “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” endures
Slick production and smooth singing cannot guarantee a song’s popularity. More than those aspects, a song must convey a universal truth that resonates with people. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a song about betrayal. It is a narrative told from the perspective of a lover scorned who knows about the other person, mostly through rumors (the grapevine) and he or she makes the case for being the better lover and wants the beloved to be honest: “You could have told me yourself/that you loved someone else/instead I heard it through the grapevine.” The lyrics couldn’t be more plain, while also contemporary and a bit stylish.
The universal distaste for cheating, the sound used to create all popular versions of the song, all make “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” a perennial classic.