Maybe there’s a better example, but I can’t think of any, where there were three different hugely popular versions of the same song. That song, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ was a smash hit for three artists – Gladys Knight & The Pips, Marvin Gaye, and Creedence Clearwater Revival – all within less than three years of each other. And I’m not even going to count the one by the California Raisins.
This is mostly a Motown story. And it starts with none of the aforementioned acts. The song was first recorded by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, in August, 1966, but Motown founder and President Berry Gordy vetoed its release as a single (it was ultimately included on a Miracles album two years later but found only mild success). Marvin Gaye subsequently recorded it in the spring of 1967, but again Gordy rejected it as a single. The third Motown recording, by Gladys Knight & The Pips, became the first version to actually be released, in September of 1967. Maybe Gordy had just gotten worn down. The Pips’ song climbed to Billboard #2, sitting behind only The Monkees’ ‘Daydream Believer,’ and became Motown’s best-selling single to that point.
The Marvin Gaye version eventually appeared on an album of his in August of 1968, but after quickly gaining radio attention Gordy reluctantly agreed to its release as a single two months later – only a year following The Pips (remember, this is from the same record company). I suppose Gordy was probably glad he’d changed his mind, as Gaye’s version, of course, became a classic: reaching Billboard #1 for 7 weeks, outselling Knight’s version, and becoming the biggest hit single on the Motown label of all time (until that record was broken by The Jackson 5’s ‘I’ll Be There’ 20 months later). Finally, a ‘Grapevine’ recording by The Temptations was released for Motown in February, 1969, but it did not catch on for them. Smokey, Marvin, Gladys, and The Temps? Gordy obviously pushed his luck.
And then after Motown had wrung all it could from the song, there came Creedence. In July, 1970, CCR recorded their rocking ‘Grapevine’ version, a phenomenal 11:06 jamfest of John Fogerty’s guitar soloing. It too was released as a single, and while at Billboard #43 it didn’t land quite as high as the Motown ones…An 11-minute single? That’s nuts! ‘American Pie’ was only 8:33. For chrissake, ‘Freebird’ was just 9:08.
So, with all that, why are we featuring the Gladys Knight version here? Two words: James Jamerson. His super funky bass line propels the Gladys & Pips tune in an irresistible way – just try to listen to it without bopping your head. Of course, Jamerson did play on Gaye’s version as well. As part of the “Funk Bothers,” basically Motown’s backing house band, Jamerson played bass on about 95% of all Motown recordings between 1962-1968. Whoa, think about that! In 2017 he was posthumously named the #1 greatest bass player ever. To borrow from a certain 3-time hit song’s well-known lyrics, “I bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew.” Perhaps it’s because “I heard it through the grapevine” – but actually I saw it in Bass Player Magazine…for our purposes, about 24 hours ago. “It took me by surprise I must say / When I found out yesterday.”
(and check out the vintage Soul Train video. Gotta love the beaming smile from Gladys and the classic hand clap and spin moves by The Pips)