Although in this case, the year is 1969 and the hottest hit in America is irrefutably Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” It’s been ruling the roost since the middle of December, and will continue that way through most of January. In a few short weeks, it will be released in the UK, to become Marvin’s first (and only) No. 1 there.
And so this album, perhaps more than any other issued during Motown’s first decade, stands in the shadow of that particular song. According to legend, “Grapevine” was only included at the last minute, when quality control queen Billie Jean Brown was assembling a new Marvin Gaye long-player for release in the late summer of ’68.
But wait, you say, isn’t this album called I Heard It Through The Grapevine? Yes, indeed, it was – after the explosive success of that song. Back in August 1968, the LP’s title was In The Groove, and its accompanying single was “Chained.” So let’s dig a little deeper into, uh, the groove.
The first three tracks alone qualify this as one of Marvin’s most satisfying ’60s albums, belying the belief that it wasn’t until the ’70s that he became The Master. What’s also notable is the inclusion of two songs co-written by the singer, and two unexpected shots at recreating the 1959-61 New York sound of the Drifters.
On “You” and “Chained,” Marvin is pushing his voice to its limit, straining to a point perfectly in tune with lyrics of desperation. The protagonist of “You” is from the wrong side of the tracks, trying to persuade his lover that, one day, he’ll make the grade, he’ll make it right. To help, the Funk Brothers under producer Ivy Hunter and the manly background singers are pushing Marvin up the gradient. “You” was released as a single nine months before In The Groove came out, but it barely – mystifyingly – crossed to the pop Top 40.
On “Chained,” desperation is an even greater driver, fuelled throughout by a riveting lead guitar riff and rattling drums. Here, Marvin is also working to make it right, while admitting that he hasn’t been “the perfect guy.” To biographer David Ritz, Marvin said that the song reflected his current feelings about first wife Anna, as mutual infidelity strained their relationship. For Frank Wilson, the writer and producer of “Chained,” Marvin’s performance must have been satisfying, with an edge utterly absent from its previous version by Paul Peterson, cut at Hitsville more than a year earlier. Peterson was simply white bread, star of television’s The Donna Reed Show, and no match for the song.
(“Chained” has since been rendered by others, including the Jackson 5 on their debut album; by Rare Earth, complete with blistering rock guitar; by under-rated songstress Barbara Randolph; and by Bobby Taylor. Only Bobby rivals Marvin for intensity, with a five-minute, in-concert rave-up which even includes a snatch of James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud.”)
Between the darkness of “You” and “Chained,” there is “Tear It On Down,” a bright, irresistible piece of crossover candy from Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. It’s as perfect as Marvin’s Ashford/Simpson duets with Tammi Terrell, sweetened by a catchy guitar riff and bouncing bass lines. Maybe this should have been the first 45 from In The Groove.
There’s also a momentary hint of Marvin & Tammi’s “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” in the opening of “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.” Marvin sings this with a lighter touch than Levi Stubbs in the Four Tops’ original, but Ivy Hunter (who produced theirs and Marvin’s version) keeps the track fluid. In addition, the Tops haunt “Every Now And Then,” where Marvin’s closing plea recalls the playout of “7-Rooms Of Gloom.”
Those interested in further analysis of Marvin’s relationship with Anna can turn to “At Last (I Found A Love)” and “Change What You Can,” which credit the couple as songwriters, together with Elgie Stover. Marvin’s musical mentor, Harvey Fuqua, co-produced both tracks, which are stronger on performance and lyrics than melody. At least in “At Last,” Anna – assuming it is she – is the apple of the singer’s eye.
In The Groove’s other matching pair is “Some Kind Of Wonderful” and “There Goes My Baby,” two hits first cut by the Drifters for Atlantic Records with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Motown’s go-to producer in New York, Mickey Gentile, has this assignment with Marvin, and he effectively recreates the subtle rhythms and swirling strings of the originals. For his part, Marvin is faithful, even restrained, but his vocal aim is true. Gentile deploys female background vocalists, conjuring up speculation that one of them might be Cissy Houston or Dee Dee Warwick in session-singer mode.
And so to “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” As one of the two or three mightiest Motown recordings ever made, it needs no description here, no recap of its virtues. Perhaps only a reminder that, after its rejection in a 1967 quality control meeting as a candidate for single release, producer Norman Whitfield was determined to have Marvin’s version – voodoo drums and all – available in some form or other. That the song had subsequently been a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips gave him some traction in 1968, and because of that name value, Billie Jean Brown agreed to add “Grapevine” to In The Groove. After “Chained” had run its course as a 45, disc jockey E. Rodney Jones at Chicago’s WVON spun “Grapevine” from the album during a record hop, and the crowd went crazy. “I put it on the air here last night,” Jones told Motown marketing man Phil Jones, “and the phones lit up.”
Around the world, the lights have stayed on ever since.
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