I Heard It Through The Grapevine
There are at least three great versions, but no one can top Marvin Gaye’s.
I try to hit the health club a few times a week. I have to drag myself there, but when I leave, after a couple miles or so on the treadmill, I’m feeling good and I get to puff my chest out a little as I pass the desk on the way out. The only downside is the music — people who run these places need an emergency remedial musical education.
The playlist is almost always some unspeakable form of modern dance pop, with every vocal altered by modern technology. This does not make for good mental health, so I wear earbuds that discretely function as plugs. Every once in a while, I drop a note in the suggestion box begging for mercy. But so far, they haven’t responded with Buck Owens or Muddy Waters playlists.
This auto-tune moment in music history is especially painful and nearly everywhere. It seems you can’t have a hit without it. If you listen to ‘80s music, there was a similar sonic boo-boo called “the gated snare.” It was a way of making drums sound like A-bombs going off in the Grand Canyon. These faddish touches put an unmistakable time stamp on the product, making them laughably irrelevant in short order.
As we get further and further away from singing — from that raw cry torn from a soul — it’s good to know that one of the hot trends on the internet is isolated tracks. Multi-track documents of classic recordings mean you can mute all the instruments and hear the voices or artists like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder laid bare, sometimes with a little dressing of reverb. With no production to hide behind, you can appreciate the very human beauty of their voices, which reveal the stirring center of the song you love. And the great voices sound just as great without their brilliant tracks.
Rhythm and Blues has never had a shortage of great vocalists. It is top heavy with talent, with a long list of singers who, it could be argued, are the greatest ever. Not all of them have their voice laid bare and posted conveniently on the web, but one legitimate contender does — it’s Marvin Gaye, and he will give you serious chills.
Recently posted on Facebook, there was a video I knew I would be clicking on. The title doesn’t lie: “Marvin Gaye’s isolated vocal tracks are stunning.” The song, which was #1 on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 Rock’n’Roll songs, is I Heard It Through The Grapevine. There could be a whole other essay about this particular tune. It exists in two miraculous versions, Gaye’s and Gladys Knight’s. (Maybe even a third if you count Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is pretty smokin’ itself.) Written by Motown stalwarts Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, it’s a great tune, dripping with romantic paranoia and suspicion, and, in Gaye’s version, executed with emotion, soul and precision.
Gaye did have the benefit of the great Motown house band and that never hurts. If you haven’t seen the documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, move it to the top of your queue and meet a lot of unsung heroes. So does Marvin stand a chance when you wipe their tasty contributions off the track and leave him exposed? You bet he does. His voice, which sparkles in the upper register, nearly tears itself apart at other times as he begs, screams and cries for mercy.
I love this video, they synch it up with a TV performance where he must have been lip-synching. The suave, handsome lady killer is emoting, clutching his mic. With a full beard, a dinner jacket and wearing a ruffled shirt, he is alpha and he knows it. It is strangely silent during the intro and between verses, which lends an other-worldly effect. Each time he comes back, he seems even more tortured. I tend to geek on things like this, but in the end, I am really glad that modern technology, so annoying when used to disguise lesser talents, also allows you to focus on the perfect details of a legendary artist’s voice.
I now am seeing some of these words for the first time, a couple were always hard to tease out the mix. Now that I see and hear them clearly, I like the song even more:
Ooh, I bet you’re wondering how I knew
About your plans to make me blue
With some other guy you knew before
Between the two of us guys
You know I love you more
It took me by surprise I must say
When I found out yesterday
Don’t you know that…
I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine, baby
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
Oh, and I’m just about to lose my mind
Honey, honey, yeah
I know that a man ain’t supposed to cry
But these tears I can’t hold inside
Losin’ you would end my life you see
Cause you mean that much to me
You could have told me yourself
That you love someone else
People say believe half of what you see
Son, and none of what you hear
I can’t help bein’ confused
If it’s true please tell me dear?
Do you plan to let me go
For the other guy you loved before?
Don’t you know…
Honey, Honey, I know
That you’re letting me go
Said, “I heard it through the grapevine”
Oh, heard it through the grapevine
© 1966 Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield Stone Agate Music
There is hope of course. At certain low points in our culture you sense a backlash and the search for something authentic now seems to be in full swing. Everybody likes ear candy, I just like mine made with real ingredients — a fine song, a genius singer with or without music and I’m happy once more.