One of the many unfortunate side effects of the successful 1983 film The Big Chill was the way it turned the recorded legacy of Motown into a soundtrack for Boomer nostalgia. Suddenly "The Sound Of Young America", some of the most important and influential music ever performed and, more importantly, written and produced by black artists was being used to soundtrack the lives of well-to-do white people. The Four Tops were used to sell luxury cars, Smokey Robinson became a karaoke favorite and, worst of all, Marvin Gaye's indelible I Heard It Through The Grapevine was rerecorded in a soundalike version and used to sell raisins.
But in honor of what would have been Gaye's 77th birthday, let's reclaim it and recognize if for what it was, is, and will always be: One of the greatest singles ever released.
Let's start with the beginning: That first snap of a drum, leading into Johnny Griffith's slightly ominous keyboards, their terrible portent joined by the rattlesnake tambourine. This is not an upbeat pop song, or a heartbreak song. This is something else.
Next, a solid groove is laid down by James Jamerson's bass. Whatever else is going on here, there will definitely be funk.
And then. Oh, and then.
The sheer majesty of Gaye's vocal performance simply can't be overstated. With this one song, he went from being one of Motown's most reliable crooners to something else entirely, an artist fully in charge of his instrument, able to whiplash from paranoia to anger to aching vulnerability, all in service of the song, or, more accurately, the emotion of the song.
And he does this all without showing off. There are so many times here when Gaye deploys a falsetto ("losing YOOUU would end my life you see"), and it could come off as shameless showboating of the Whitney/Mariah school. But it never does. He knows how to use his voice not for effect but for truth. His voice can do anything, but he only takes it where the song needs it to go, not where he wants it to go.
I Heard It Through The Grapevine was produced--magnificently--by Norman Whitfield. The musicians and arrangers at Motown were second to none, but the actual recording techniques used by the label tended to be utilitarian. But Whitfield clearly took extra care here, in mike placement (the drum sound is amazing) and in his handling of his singer. He didn't just record Gaye's vocals, he directed him, and helped him follow his emotions while singing, wherever they may lead.
And those emotions could lead to some dark places. It's obvious in the vocal track that Gaye is wrestling with some personal demons, the paranoia and pride and arrogance that would unfortunately define his personal life, but would also lead him to explore those emotions on record, and how to harness all that to the astounding instrument of his voice. He took charge of his own career after this song, and wrote, produced and arranged his own material. The results were What's Going On, I Want You, and Here, My Dear--some of the greatest recordings ever made, by arguably (inarguably, if you ask me) the greatest singer who ever lived.
And that's a pretty good legacy for a song that too many people associate with dancing raisins.