Smokey Robinson recorded this song first, but it wasn't released. Then Gladys Knight took it to number 2. But Marvin Gaye's recording is the one we'll always remember. Uploaded by fromgirltogirl.com.
Quick: Who sang “I Heard it Through the Grapevine?” Chances are, your first answer was Marvin Gaye (Great American Things, April 2, 2009) . He had the biggest hit with it, but his 1968 release wasn’t the first version to make it to the charts. It was Gladys Knight and the Pips whose 1967 recording made it to number one on the R&B chart, and number 2 on the pop chart – Motown’s biggest hit to that point.
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But even this wasn’t the first recording of the song. That was done by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. But Berry Gordy didn’t care for it, and didn’t allow its release. Marvin Gaye’s version was recorded next, but held while Gladys Knight’s recording soared. Then Gaye’s came out, and reached number one on the pop and R&B charts.
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, two of Motown’s many creative giants. Rolling Stone named their song number 80 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. And Billboard, in its 50th anniversary of the Top 100 chart, ranked this its number 65 hit.
When Marvin Gaye presented the finished track to Motown, the label refused to release it. Berry Gordy thought it was too jazzy, and that people didn't want to hear socially relevant music. Fortunately for us all, he relented. Uploaded by 45cat.com.
When we listen to the early Motown songs released by Marvin Gaye (Great American Things, April 2, 2009) and his duets with Tammi Terrell, we hear a pop singer at the top of his game. But with the release of “What’s Going On,” we hear something more – an artist who doesn’t follow the popular style, but who leads the way to a new approach.
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Gaye looked at the crucible that was the 60s (which didn’t end until the fall of Saigon) and felt compelled to produce music that addressed the pressing problems of the day. “What’s Going On” is the title song of a concept album that dealt with drug abuse, poverty, the environment, and the Vietnam War. Gaye recorded the song with some of his friends talking, giving it a live, party feel. And he included the distinctive saxophone riff that Eli Fontaine had played while “just goofing around.”
Motown executives, especially Berry Gordy, hated the song and refused to release it. Gaye said he wouldn’t record for Motown again unless Gordy changed his mind. The label eventually relented, and realized that their singer knew what he was doing. “What’s Going On” made it to number 2 in the Billboard Hot 100, and was a number 1 hit on the Soul Singles chart. Rolling Stone ranked it the fourth greatest song of all time.
The list of performers on the Motown label during the 1960s is a Who's Who of soul and R&B. Uploaded by britannica.com.
I’m a little bit embarrassed that Motown hasn’t been on this list before now. I’ve definitely recognized a good many of those who performed and wrote songs for the label, but it’s way overdue that I honor the company itself. This recognizes the time (until 1972) when Motown was headquartered in Detroit.
Motown's original home is now a museum. Uploaded by freerangetalk.com.
Only Stax Records in Memphis challenged Motown during the 1960s as the premier producer of soul and R&B. Founded by Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown had 110 songs reach the Top 10 on the charts between 1961 and 1971.
As successful as Motown was as a music machine, its cultural impact may be even greater. White audiences of all ages loved the Motown sound and identified with the performers. The black/white distinction diminished as the years went by; there are lots of factors behind that change, but there’s no minimizing the Motown effect.
The roster of Motown artists is a Who’s Who of soul music.Here are the Motown performers who took at least one song to Number 1:
The Marvelettes • Stevie Wonder • Mary Wells • The Supremes • The Temptations • Four Tops • Marvin Gaye • The Jackson 5 • Edwin Starr • Diana Ross • Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
And here are some of the other Motown stars:
Martha and the Vandellas • Junior Walker & The All-Stars • The Spinners • The Isley Brothers • David Ruffin • Jimmy Ruffin • Gladys Knight & The Pips • Rare Earth
Throughout its history, Motown was known as Hitsville, USA. It churned out songs with almost a factory mentality, yet managed to maintain the spark of creativity never quite matched since. Part of the credit went to the songwriters, most notably the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Great American Things, November 15, 2009), and part of it went to the producers – including Berry Gordy, Jr. himself.
Flickr photo by CoincidenceUNO.
He would have turned 70 today. Hard to comprehend. But he never made it, and we can only guess how depleted our musical heritage is as a result.
He signed with Motown in 1961, and actually started there as a session drummer. He went on to record thirty-nine Top 40 songs, from dance hits like “Hitch Hike” to memorable melodies like “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You)”. He had hits with three different duet partners: Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell. Just listen closely to where Marvin and Tammi took “You’re All I Need to Get By”, and you’ll agree it’s just as amazing now as when first recorded. His “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is often considered the pinnacle of Motown music.
Marvin’s music got more political during the latter part of his music career, leading to fights with Berry Gordy, who initially refused to release Marvin’s first “relevant” soul album. But American music is so much richer because he did. Even now, Marvin is What’s Going On.
Right on, baby. Right on, right on.