The song “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” credited to Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, went through a lot of churn before Marvin Gaye had his hit with it. Strong, the story goes, was in Chicago and heard the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine.” He came up with the idea about a man whose woman is cheating on him and probably leaving him but he hears about it through secondhand sources — that is, gossip. The Motown executives were not sure the song had hit potential. First, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded it, but that version was not released until their 1968 Special Occasion album. Then, the Isley Brothers recorded it, and that wasn’t released. Gladys Knight and the Pips rocked it and recorded it, and that did well, rising to #2 at the end of 1967.
In 1968, Gaye included it on his In The Groove Album, and Berry Gordy decided to release “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” as a single. It became the definitive version of the song (ever with many covers afterwards). By the end of 1968 and early 1969, it was #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, R&B Singles Chart, and OK Charts. It was #3 in South Africa, #7 in Ireland, and #8 in Canada. Gaye worked very closely with Norman Whitfield, who produced the track, to get a strong performance. He sang a bit higher than his normal range, and the smooth but straining vocal expresses the suffering of the narrator of the song. This was Gaye’s first #1 hit, although he already had 23 Top 40 hits by the time “Grapevine. ” This made him a star. For this track, the lead vocals, of course, are by Marvin Gaye. The background vocals are from The Andantes (that is, Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps). Instrumentation is by the fabulous Motown session musicians the Funk Brothers with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.