One thing that holds true for both the oldies and the modern tunes is that there is a song for almost every situation in life. This becomes especially true when it comes to love and the emotions it evokes in all of us. Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is one such song that talks about the ugly side of love – cheating, doubts, rumours, and suspicions. But that’s what makes the song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” such a hit, while the times might have changed, the emotions described in this song have not!
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was a track that had several versions recorded prior to becoming a part of Marvin Gaye’s repertoire. The song was composed by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966 It was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966, then by Marvin Gaye and later by Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967. However, Gaye’s version was preceded by Gladys’s version as Berry Gordy – the owner of Gaye’s record label Motown – rejected it. Hence, Gaye’s track was the last to be released as a part of his ‘In the Groove’ album released in 1968.
The success of the song was unexpected. Gaye himself thought the Gladys version was better than his own. Nonetheless, Gaye’s own tumultuous relationship with his then-wife Anna Gordy must have fuelled the emotion behind this rendition of the song. Gaye’s biographer David Ritz recorded that both Gaye and Anna were unfaithful to each other and Gaye was also struggling with the pressure of his career and contemplating self-harm. It was at that time that Gaye came across “Grapevine” – a song that describes the feelings of infidelity perfectly. Speaking to Ritz about this track Gaye remarked;
“I believed every word of the song. It was happening to me. The doubting, the friends whispering in my ear, the suspicions. I was surprised, I mean completely shocked, that the tune took off. I had no idea it would mean anything to anyone else, especially since Gladys had done such a great job with it.”
Yet it was “Grapevine” that put Gaye on top of the charts for the first time. It was certainly ironic that the lowest point in Gaye’s personal life was the peak of his professional life. “Grapevine” became such a hit that when Motown re-released ‘In the Groove’, the album was retitled ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, attesting to its popularity.
By 1969, Gaye’s version of “Grapevine” outsold the Gladys version of it and had hit the #1 spot in the UK Official Charts Company as well as in the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts. Gaye’s track holds the #119 position on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and also became BPI Platinum certified in October 2021.
Listen to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
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Marvin Gaye “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” Lyrics Review and the Song Meaning
The phrase to hear something through the grapevine is generally used to indicate that one heard it as a rumour. This is the basis of “Grapevine”, where Gaye uses his sultry vocals to speak of a lover that is cheating on him. The title explains the premise of the song, but it is the lyrics of the song that speaks to the listener intimately.
“I bet you’re wondering how I knew
‘Bout your plans to make me blue
“Grapevine” explores the feelings of a person who discovered that their lover was cheating on them. But unlike other songs which speak of the despair that people feel when cheated on, this song takes a different tone altogether. This song doesn’t speak of quiet heartbreak, it talks about confrontation. The lyrics are posed like a conversation – words of a lover confronting his cheating partner. This verse expresses the surprised confusion a man experiences when he discovers that his lover is cheating. First, his disbelief of the facts and then the creeping conviction comes through. It is also a matter of betrayal because she leaves him for a man she had been with before, which hurts him even more. But what stands out is the jealousy, the listener is immediately drawn to the lyrics which question the lover; which one of us is better? It is this very human reaction that grabs the listener and makes them want to know more about how this story will end.
“I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine”
In the chorus, we see how the confusion quickly turns into resigned acceptance. Gaye sings his heart out in the chorus, giving voice to the words of a jilted man. With the rumours surrounding him, he can’t do anything but accept that his lover is gone with another man. But that acceptance comes mixed with other emotions, so much so that the lover says that he’s going crazy. Perhaps, that’s what prompts this confrontation – he asks her directly as to why she chose to cheat on him.
“I know a man ain’t supposed to cry
But these tears I can’t hold inside”
The second verse of “Grapevine” brings out emotions that we’re familiar with typically. But then again these lyrics talk of the conventions of the time; how it’s unmanly to cry over a woman. And these lyrics also break these conventions by talking of a lover that cries for a woman that cheated on him. This is the mastery of lyrics by Whitfield and Strong; they show how messy feelings can be. This mix is even more complicated when you’re confronted with unfaithfulness. The lyrics of this verse talks of the anguish of a man who would rather die than live without his lover. Then it immediately turns to anger. The man questions his lover as to why she didn’t tell him that she was in love with someone else. And that brings us to the crux of the song. Why did this man have to hear about his cheating lover from other people? Why did he become the subject of rumours and had to experience both the pity and ridicule of others?
“But I can’t help being confused
If it’s true please tell me dear”
The final verse returns to the feelings of confusion and disbelief. The man is aware that rumours are not to be believed completely. So he comes back to his initial confusion and he pleads with his lover to tell him the truth and verify whether she is actually cheating on him. Again, the lyrics stand apart in the way how subtly the emotions can change. The lover moves from anger to hope, thinking that maybe the rumours are false. And so he does the only thing he can and confronts her directly, asking her whether she is going to leave him for the guy she loved before. The lyrics come to a full circle at the end of this verse; covering a whole gamut of emotions.
For Gaye, giving voice to this song must have been cathartic to a certain extent. It is his own doubts and suspicions that he puts out in this record. And perhaps the audience at the time recognized the true potential of Gaye when he decided to bare his soul, embodying what the R&B genre stood for. Hence, “Grapevine” became another track that marked its place among the oldies and is loved by many even today.