Thursday, February 3, 2011

Marvin Gaye -- "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (1967)

I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine.
I heard it through the grapevine, 
And I'm just about to lose my mind. 

Motown Records was a remarkably successful manufacturer of hit records.  It should be a case study at Harvard Business School.

I don't know enough about organizational analysis or the particulars of Motown to explain that success.  But what is clear from even a quick-and-dirty study of Motown is that the company paid attention to details -- nothing was left to chance.

Motown founder Berry Gordy

For example, Motown had an artist development program.  Motown sought out talented musicians, but many of those musicians had been raised in housing projects and were very young and inexperienced -- they weren't ready for prime time, so to speak.

Marvin Gaye
Motown's artist development program turned out performers who were well-groomed, well-dressed, and very, very polished both onstage and offstage.

Motown acts were just as popular with white audiences as with black audiences, and that may have been as much the result of the demeanor and appearance of Motown performers as it was about their music (although their music was as good as anyone's).  Motown artists like the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations called into question many of the old white stereotypes about African-Americans.

The Motown production process has been described as "factory-like," but you can't argue with the results.  The 1960s were a time when the best-selling pop music was also the best pop music, and Motown's records were best sellers and very good.  The "Motown Sound" was as distinctive and recognizable as a Cadillac's tailfins, and the best Motown records sound just as good today as they did 40 years ago.  

Motown's founder and CEO, Berry Gordy, held quality-control meetings every Friday morning during the label's heyday, and his word was law when it came to which records got released.  As hard as it is to believe now, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" didn't make the cut the first time it was presented at one of the Friday morning meetings.

"Grapevine" was written by Barrett Strong, who was the singer on Motown's first big hit, "Money (That's What I Want"), which was released in 1960.  (The song was actually released on Tamla, another of Gordy's labels.)

Strong never had another hit as a singer, and eventually joined the Motown songwriting staff, where he teamed up with Norman Whitfield, a Motown producer.

The duo is best known for the series of "psychedelic soul" hits they co-wrote for the Temptations -- including "Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion," and "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone."

Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield

But in 1966, Strong had no track record, and Berry Gordy was not impressed by the version of the song that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded in August of that year.  In fact, he said it was "horrible."

Whitfield had worked successfully with Marvin Gaye, and persuaded him to record "Grapevine" in April 1967.  Gaye's recording of the song featured not only the usual Motown session musicians and backup singers, but also members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  The singer and Whitfield clashed over how Gaye should sing the song, but Whitfield eventually prevailed.

Once again, Berry Gordy gave "Grapevine" a thumbs down.  A couple of months later, Gladys Knight & the Pips were given a crack at the song. 

We'll continue the story of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" in a future 2 or 3 lines post.

Here's the Marvin Gaye version of "Grapevine":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from iTunes:

I Heard It through the Grapevine (Single  Stereo) - Every Great Motown Hit of Marvin Gaye

Here's a link to use if you prefer to buy it from Amazon:

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