When I recently paid tribute to the 30th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s death, I should’ve known he’d come up again. That’s the way things work in a plate of shrimp universe. You start thinking about Marvin Gaye, not only because of his death on April 1, but because of his 75th birthday on April 2nd, another milestone that adds gravity to the cosmic unconsciousness. That’s of course when your friends introduce you to Har Mar Superstar, whose latest album, Bye Bye 17, takes cues from a few different old-school R&B musicians, but Gaye is definitely one of them.
It was at this point that the video below of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” — with Marvin’s vocal tracks isolated — started making the internet rounds. Like the national anthem, it’s another lesson in Trouble Man’s baadasssssmotherfuckery. This is not new information. Every sentient being with an IQ above 30 knows that Marvin Gaye was a great singer. But, it’s overwhelming to see these vocals stripped away from the bone like they are here, isolated and naked, vulnerable and defiant. This description of Gaye’s vocal by Dave Marsh rings especially true:
“…now hoarse, now soaring, sometimes spitting out imprecations (curses) with frightening clarity, sometimes almost chanting in pure street slang, sometimes pleading at the edge of incoherence, twisting, shortening, and elongating syllables…”
–Dave Marsh, The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, 1989
Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine [A Cappella]
Recorded February & April 1967
Released as single October 30, 1968 (18 months later)
Marvin comes in at :19
Marsh considers “Grapevine” to be the greatest single ever and while I completely agree on its greatness, I’m not sure it’s any better than “Let’s Get It On” (my fave), “Inner City Blues,” “What’s Going On,” “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,” “Pride And Joy,” “Sexual Healing,” “Hitch Hike,” “That’s The Way Love Is,” or “Got To Give It Up.” That said, this performance is a strong argument in favor of “Grapevine.” God knows I love Norman Whitfield‘s production aesthetic and that’s a MAJOR bump. I’m just not sure “Grapevine” is the greatest single ever anymore than 20-30 other singles might be the greatest ever. I’ll put “Bring It On Home To Me” (Sam Cooke), “I Want You Back” (Jackson 5), and “The Weight” (The Band) above “Grapevine,” and that’s with zero criticisms of “Grapevine.” It’s a stellar choice, but if I’m not even sure it’s Marvin’s greatest single, how can it be EVERYONE’S greatest single?
The real story of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is the fact that Berry Gordy didn’t hear a hit when he heard Marvin Gaye’s version. Really??? If it’s the greatest single ever, don’t you think the guy who created fucking HITsville U.S.A. might’ve picked up on that? Apparently not. Marsh is right and 1967-68 Berry Gordy is so, so wrong. If this doesn’t illustrate how haphazard and driven by luck the music-industrial complex really is, I don’t know what does. In terms of efficient and profitable organizational design, Gordy was the Henry Ford of the independent postwar American music scene. But, he didn’t want to release “Grapevine” as a single and told Marvin upon hearing “What’s Going On” (the song) for the first time, it was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” WTF Berry Gordy?!?!