By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
In honor of Gladys Knight’s upcoming Jan. 30 show at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, here’s a look back at how one of her most famous songs took on new life after she launched it to the top of the Billboard charts.
Gladys Knight is now known as the Empress of Soul (to Aretha Franklin’s Queen), but in the early days of her career she was an afterthought on the Motown roster. Signed to the label in 1966, Gladys and her backup singers, the Pips, were not a top priority—after all, the label had its hands full with the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops, and its other top stars. When it came time to record, Gladys was offered a song that had been recorded and then rejected by both Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. It was called “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Known for her hard work and extreme perfectionism, Gladys gave the newly-uptempo recording her all, and in 1967 it was released quietly to radio in the shadow of other Motown singles. To the surprise of everyone but Gladys and the Pips, the song shot straight up the charts, landing at No. 2 and becoming an instant classic. Fueled by Gladys’ fiery performance, the song was a soulful barnstormer.
Witnessing the success of Gladys’ rendition, Marvin Gaye reevaluated his own recording of the song. It was included on the album he released the next year, but only as a filler track—there were no plans to release his version to radio audiences. DJs, however, had other ideas. They began to play Marvin’s rendition of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” from the album, and demand finally dictated its release as a single. In 1968 Marvin’s song eventually topped the success of Gladys’, and for a time was the best-selling single Motown had released. With its slower, slinkier beat and Marvin’s haunting performance, the take was very different from the version released by Gladys and the Pips.
The story of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” continued. Rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival included an 11-minute rendition of the song on their 1970 No. 1 album Cosmo’s Factory, where it received extensive FM radio airplay, and on their 8 million-selling Chronicle compilation. With three very popular and quite distinctive versions in release, it’s hard to say which recording of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is the definitive one.
Jessica Wheeler is a columnist for AliveTampaBay.