In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It’s a dark, clammy creep. A cold, quiet drum-crack announces the arrival. Organ and guitar ooze out a sense of general foreboding. Horns sound a warning. And a man, wounded and tense, only barely chokes out his accusation. A woman is leaving him, and she didn’t have the decency to tell him herself. Or maybe that’s just what he’s heard, or what he assumes, and his own paranoia will be what undoes the relationship. He tells the woman that she should just tell him, but he’s already made up his mind that the rumors are true. He knows it’s over, and he can’t handle it. Strings and backup singers murmur their reassurance, but a feeling of dank apocalyptic dread still hangs over everything. It’s a pop song reimagined as a nervous breakdown.
By the time “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” hit #1, the song had been sitting there for more than two years. Barrett Strong was the singer behind Motown’s first hit, 1959’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” (It peaked at #23.) But he never scored another one, and when the label exploded, he was lost in the shuffle. Strong had the idea for “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” one day when he was walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1966. He turned it into a song, and then he brought it to Norman Whitfield, the Motown producer who would pioneer the label’s psychedelic soul sound. Whitfield fleshed it out, and then the song started making the Motown rounds.
Smokey Robinson’s Miracles recorded a version of “Grapevine” in August of 1966, and Motown founder Berry Gordy, who had the final word on what the label would release, decided not to let them make it a single. (Their version would come out as an album track two years later.) The Isley Brothers may have also recorded the song, but it’s not clear, since the tape of their version has never been discovered.
Marvin Gaye recorded his version of “Grapevine” in the spring of 1967. He wanted to release it as a single, and so did Whitfield, but Gordy again rejected it. Later on, Gordy said that he liked the song but it didn’t fit the smooth, romantic image that he was trying to craft for Gaye. Instead, Gordy decided that Gaye’s next single should be the Holland-Dozier-Holland composition “Your Unchanging Love,” which eventually peaked at #33.
We should talk about Marvin Gaye for a minute. Gaye grew up desperately poor in Washington, DC. He found his voice singing in the Pentecostal church, with his father accompanying him on piano; at home, his father (who was also his eventual killer) would beat him mercilessly. Gaye started out singing in local vocal groups, and he got more serious about it after a short stint in the Air Force didn’t pan out. His group the New Moonglows signed to Chess in 1959, and they didn’t have any success, though Gaye did sing backup on a couple of Chuck Berry hits.
In 1960, the New Moonglows broke up, and Gaye sang for Berry Gordy at his house. Gordy was impressed, and he bought Gaye out of his Chess contract. Gaye’s original idea was that he’d sing jazz, but his early solo recordings didn’t sell. So he ended up as a sort of all-around hand at Motown, doing whatever the label needed — songwriter, session musician, backup singer, anything. He co-wrote the Marvelettes’ “Beachwood 4-5789,” which went to #17 in 1962. He played drums on “Fingertips (Pt. II),” the amazing Little Stevie Wonder live song that became a fluke #1 hit in 1963.
Eventually, Gaye started releasing hits of his own, starting when “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” got to #46 in 1962. By the mid-’60s, he was consistently landing singles in the top 20. He developed a rep as a great singer of duets, teaming up with women like Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and especially Tammi Terrell. But he hadn’t joined the upper ranks of Motown stars. That took time.
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” eventually did become a hit, but not for Marvin Gaye. Gladys Knight & The Pips, from Atlanta, were newly signed to Motown, and Gordy wanted them to compete with Aretha Franklin. They recorded a version of “Grapevine” that reworked the song as a Southern-soul stomper. That version is great — a hard high-stepper that took the song out of the morose intensity of Gaye’s version. And that’s the one that hit. At the end of 1967, it peaked at #2 behind the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.”
Gaye finally got to release his version of “Grapevine” a year and a half after he recorded it. The song was buried as a deep cut on Gaye’s In The Cut album. But E. Rodney Jones, a DJ at WVON in Chicago, loved Gaye’s version of the song, and he started playing it. Gordy finally assented and let Gaye release his “Grapevine” as a single. Gaye’s version exploded, eclipsing Knight & The Pips’ version completely and turning it into an afterthought. It was Gaye’s first #1 and, for a time, it was the biggest hit that Motown had ever released.
Listening to Gaye’s “Grapevine” today, I can hear why Gordy was so reluctant to let Gaye release the track as a single, and I can also hear why so many people loved the song right away. Those two opposing forces are the same thing. Berry Gordy had gotten rich selling bright, upbeat pop music to white America. “Grapevine” is the opposite of all that. It’s one of the heaviest songs ever to hit #1 — a black hole of hurt and suspicion and bad faith.
A few years ago, someone isolated Gaye’s vocal from “Grapevine,” and it made the internet rounds. It’s breathtaking. Norman Whitfield convinced Gaye to sing above his natural range, just as Holland-Dozier-Holland had previously done with the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs. And so Gaye, straining for those high notes, finds a new raw urgency in his voice. Gaye was one of the greatest singers we’ve ever had, and most of his records show a warm, fluid grace. That’s not what he brought to “Grapevine.” Instead, he sounds like he can only just bring himself to sing those words. We can hear his sweat beading, his heartbeat rushing.
The arrangement mirrors that feeling. Musically, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is as lush and florid as everything Motown was releasing at the time. But everything on the song — those strings, those horns, those shivery backup vocals, that organ-swirl, that James Jamerson bassline — contributes to the sense of encroaching doom. Some days, I think “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was the greatest single of the ’60s. Some days, I think it’s the best song that ever hit #1. It’s a master-class in pop music tension. There’s no release. Everything about it contributes to the idea of Marvin Gaye as a man falling apart.
Marvin Gaye really was falling apart. When “Grapevine” blew up, he went into a deep depression, wondering if he deserved all this success. (He was near 30 when he became a bona fide pop star, so you have to imagine that he’d resigned himself to an identity as a B-lister.) Tammi Terrell, his frequent duet partner, was suffering from a brain tumor, and she’d die about a year later; her illness crushed Gaye. Gaye came close to quitting the record business entirely, even putting out the idea that he wanted to try out for the Detroit Lions. Instead, he made What’s Going On.
BONUS BEATS: The Slits’ skittering, seething 1979 postpunk reimagining of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is one of my favorite covers ever. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1986, the California Raisin Advisory Board began airing a claymation commercial for raisins. In it, a guy hallucinated some animated raisins, who sang a version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” — see, because grapes. (Buddy Miles, formerly of Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsies, sang the lead vocal.) The weird and vaguely racist commercial became a cultural phenomenon. There were California Raisins toys, lunchboxes, bedsheets, a prime-time TV special, a Nintendo game. Priority Records, a small LA indie, started releasing California Raisins albums, which sold in ridiculous numbers. Flush with California Raisins money, Priority signed N.W.A and became a rap powerhouse. Here’s that first commercial:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Stevie Wonder’s joyous “For Once In My Life” peaked at #2 behind “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” It would’ve been a 9. Here it is:
THE 10S: The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” peaked at #6 behind “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” It’s a 10. Here it is:
Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacher Man” peaked at #10 behind “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” It’s another 10. Here it is:
Other songs that peaked behind “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” include Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” (#3) and Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now” (#8). They’re both great. I wouldn’t give either of those songs a 10, but maybe you would.