Ruling the charts after four weeks of Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? was a stone-cold soul classic. I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Motown legend Marvin Gaye was one of label’s greatest, and yet boss Berry Gordy, usually so sharp at spotting hits, just couldn’t see it.
Gaye was born Marvin Pent Gay Jr on 2 April 1939 in Washington DC. The Gays had it tough, and he was raised in Public Housing Project the Fairfax Apartments in the Southwest Waterfront neighbourhood. Most buildings lacked electricity and running water.
Gay developed a love of singing from the tender age of four, where he would perform in church while his father backed him on piano, and he was encouraged at school to pursue a singing career after singing in a school play when he was 11.
Sadly, poverty wasn’t Gay’s only problem, as his father ruled with an iron fist, and would often subject Marvin to beatings, which went on well into his teenage years, and of course ultimately led to a tragic end.
In the early 50s the Gays moved to DC’s Capitol View neighbourhood, where Marvin would stay until 1962. He joined a glee club in junior high, and then several doo top groups. As his relationship with Marvin Sr grew worse, he dropped out of high school and joined the United States Air Force. Gay’s relationship with his father clearly affected his dealings with authority figures, and he clashed with his sergeant.
Back in in DC, Gay formed The Marquees. They worked alongside none other than Bo Diddley, who helped them get signed and wrote their only single, Wyatt Earp. Although they were soon dropped, it inspired Gay to start writing. They changed their name to Harvey and the New Moonglows, and Gay recorded his first lead vocal in 1959. They also backed Chuck Berry on Back in the USA.
In 1960 Gaye became a session drummer for Tri-Phi Records, but that Christmas he performed at Berry Gordy’s house and earned himself a contract with Motown subsidiary Tamla. Before the release of his first single, Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, in May 1961, he decided to add the ‘e’ to the end of his surname, to stop jokes about his sexuality and distance himself from his estranged father.
His single and album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye failed to make an impression, but 1962 was an important year for the struggling singer, with second album That Stubborn Kind of Fellow featuring three hit singles. The next few years saw his star rise, with singles such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) in 1964.
Gaye became well known for his duets. He had made an album with Mary Wells, and early in 1967 It Takes Two with Kim Weston became one of his most famous songs. But he gelled best with Tami Terrell, recording classics including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Gaye suffered with shyness on stage, and helped to bring him out of his shell. Unfortunately, that October she collapsed in his arms on stage, and it was discovered she had a brain tumour. Although she continued to record, it spelled the end of her live career. Gaye was devastated, and became disillusioned with the music industry.
It had been in February that year that Gaye had recorded I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The song had been started by Motown’s Barrett Strong, writer of Money (That’s What I Want), in 1966. He had heard the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ in Chicago. Its origins came from black slaves during the Civil War, who had developed their own human telegraph system relay messages – the ‘grapevine’.
Working with producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, they developed their classic tune of suspicion and betrayal. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles recorded it first, but Gordy vetoed its release as a single (it eventually surfaced as an album track in 1968).
Gaye’s recording followed, but wasn’t straightforward either. With Paul Riser on board arranging the strings played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the track also featured The Funk Brothers and The Andantes supplied backing vocals. Production took two months, and an argument ensued between Gaye and Whitfield when the producer told the singer to try in a higher key than his normal range.
As the whole world now knows, Whitfield was right. Gaye’s performance, taken out of his already formidable comfort zone, really hits the point home. The singer has been hit with an emotional bombshell. He feels disbelief. He is wounded, angry, paranoid, confused. Gaye’s performance is the reason his version is remembered long after Robinson’s. If aliens landed tomorrow and asked me what soul music was, I’d play them this. And that intro is simply one of the coolest in soul and pop.
And yet, Gordy still couldn’t see it. Once more, he refused to allow it to become a single, but it did make it onto Gaye’s album Into the Groove in 1968. In the meantime, Motown’s head honcho did allow Gladys Knight & The Pips to release theirs as a 7″. And fair enough really, as it’s excellent in its own way. Inspired by Aretha Franklyn’s Respect, Whitfield sped things up, added some funk, and Knight sang it with real anger. In contrast to Gaye, Knight is really pissed off, and her man is going to rue the day he messed with her. Leftside Wobble’s techno update in 2011, Grapevine Boogie, is a real banger.
Gaye’s version began to be heard on the radio, and eventually Gordy relented. In 1968, to his surprise, it went to number 1 in the US, and propelled Gaye to superstardom. The UK is just one of many other countries in which it subsequently hit the top spot. In the Groove was even renamed I Heard It Through the Grapevine!. And yet, Gaye was still reeling from Terrell’s condition. She died from brain cancer in 1970.
Follwing a battle with depression, he returned that year with a new, politicised approach. Gordy didn’t want the single What’s Going On released, considering it too controversial. This time Gaye didn’t back down, and after going on strike, he won out. It was a huge hit in 1971, and the album of the same name is a landmark in music.
Despite signing a lucrative deal to remain on Motown, Gaye’s outspoken political views caused further ructions with Gordy. He was forced to shelve the 1972 album You’re the Man, which was finally released earleir this year. The carnal classic song of sensuality Let’s Get It On became his second US chart-topper in 1973. For me, I Want You, the title track of his 1976 album, is just as hot, if not better.
As 1975 drew to a close, Gaye was mired in lawsuits with former bandmates and he was going through a divorce with his first wife Anna, elder sister of Berry Gordy. Disco was big, and he was under pressure to adopt the sound. He responded with Got to Give It Up, a funky floorfiller with a supersmooth falsetto from Gaye. It went to number 1 in the US in 1977, and if you want to hear its influence on 21st-century pop, just listen to 2013 number 1 Blurred Lines.
As the 70s came to an end, Gaye’s personal problems had become too much again. He had money problems and was battling addiction to cocaine. He owed so much in taxes he feared a prison sentence, so he relocated to London following a European tour in 1980. While working on a new album, the master tapes were stolen and were given to Motown. Gaye was furious when the sessions surfaced in January 1981, edited and remixed without his knowledge, as (Far Cry). His time at Motown was over.
Relocating to Ostend in Belgium, Gaye quit the drugs, returned to the church, and was reborn. He signed with CBS in 1982, and released Sexual Healing. Another steamy, sexy classic, but with an updated sound (check out that 808), it became his biggest-selling hit ever, earned him two Grammy Awards, and the album it spawned from, Midnight Love, was also huge. It would be his last recorded work.
In 1983 he made his last TV appearances, most notably on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special. But his return to making hits brought back old problems, and his drug issues resurfaced. He was becoming increasingly paranoid, and that summer he returned to live with his parents. It would be a fatal choice.
The world was left stunned on 1 April 1984 when the news came out that Marvin Gaye had been shot dead by his own father. He was only 44. Years of bad blood had come to a head and ended in the worst possible way. Marvin had intervened in an argument between his mother and father, and Marvin Gaye Sr shot his own son twice. He was initially charged with murder but his sentence was reduced to voluntary manslaughter when it was discovered he had, of all things, a brain tumour. He died in a nursing home in 1998.
It’s likely my first exposure to I Heard It Through the Grapevine was in 1985, when Gaye’s version was copied and used in a Levi’s advert. One of the most famous commercials of the decade, it made Nick Kamen, the man who strips down to his boxers, into a star. It also propelled Gaye to number eight in the singles chart. Carling Black Label spoofed the ad the following year, which starred Steve Frost and Mark Arden.
Gaye’s life reads like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster, without the fairytale ending. But scrape away all the personal problems and you’re left with that versatile, beautiful voice. He was soul music.
Written by: Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong
Producer: Norman Whitfield
Weeks at number 1: 3 (26 March-15 April)
Sporting executive Karren Brady – 4 April
29 March: Eurovision 1969 took place, and the UK, represented by Lulu with the song Boom Bang-a-Bang, shared first place with not one, not two, but three countries – France, the Netherlands and host nation Spain.
April Fool’s Day: The Hawker Siddeley Harrier (‘Jump Jet’) entered service with the RAF.
9 April: Sikh busmen in Wolverhampton won the right to wear their turbans while on duty.