Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 30: Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"

Artist: Marvin Gaye
Song: "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"
Album: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (single)
Year: 1967


There are certain songs in history that are so iconic, so absolutely unmistakable, that they defy all trends and one can understand that generations from now, they will still remain relevant and a major part of music history.  In these extremely rare cases, one will find the ideal combination of an amazing vocal, equally fantastic music, and a lyric that is both universal as well as deeply personal.  These elite group of songs have been covered countless times over the decades, and one can be sure that this trend will continue, with new artists attempting to put a modern spin on a classic.  Truth be told, in the case of one of these songs, it is, in fact, a cover that almost completely overshadows the original, and one can make the case that Marvin Gaye's cover of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" is nothing short of the best Motown song in history.  Making such a massive statement may raise some eyebrows, but the question remains, what Motown song is "better" than the completely package found here?  Though he had hits before this single, and would later record his equally indispensable What's Going On? record, there is simply no other recording in history that is as unmistakable and absolutely perfect than this 1968 cover of a song that was originally performed by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.  Combining the unsurpassed level of soul and emotion within Gaye's amazing voice with one of the greatest compositions that The Funk Brothers ever created, one cannot imagine a world without the extraordinary presence of the 1967 single, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."

Remaining as one of the most under-represented groups in history, one can easily make the case that there was no more important band ever than The Funk Brothers.  As the backing band on well over one hundred of Motown's most successful singles, the groups' ability to create amazing, original grooves remains unrivaled to this day.  The music they put forth on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" is nothing less than the group at their finest and every second of music on the song is absolutely extraordinary.  With the unmistakable opening, deep organ riff followed by the almost snake-like tambourine of Jack Ashford, there is simply no other song that even remotely sounds like "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."  The song also excels beyond its peers in the fact that it was literally revolutionary in the fact that it features two drummers overdubbed over one another, and this technique would be used across the musical spectrum, yet it was on this track that it was first used.  Further adding to the unique sound of the song is the presence of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the way in which they seamlessly integrate into the overall sound not only serves as a testament to the extraordinary composition skills of those on the session, but to the overall amazing sound and mood of the track.  Rounded out with brilliantly punctuating horns, as well as the irresistible groove of the guitar and bass of The Funk Brothers, it is moments like these where one would find it hard to argue that any band in history even comes close to rivaling the power and talent found within the ranks of The Funk Brothers.

Until this point, a majority of Marvin Gaye's biggest hits had been alongside his longtime singing partner, Tammi Terrell, and her not being on this track was the subject of great controversy during the studio session.  However, even with this in play, there are few moments not only in his own history, but that of all of music, where Marvin Gaye delivered a more impressive vocal performance.  Working all over the vocal range, legend says that at first, Gaye backed away from the upper register, and it was at the insistence of Norman Whitfield that Gaye took what is now an iconic approach to his singing.  The way in which Gaye's vocals wrap around and slide through the amazing, grooving music is like nothing else ever recorded, and due to the amazing nature of the music, the fact that at its core, it is a rather haunting composition is almost lost.  Stepping back, one can see what a dark and somewhat cold number the song is, yet the power is nothing short of stunning.  Presenting what remains an unparalleled juxtaposition between vocal eloquence and unguarded, almost unhinged emotion, the true soul and meaning behind the lyrics of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" have never been as clear or as moving as they are on this version.  As Gaye presents the unguarded torment of a man who has found out that his love is going to leave him for another man, but of course not from her, the pleading and near humiliation is pushed to the limit with the brilliant backing vocals from the legendary Andantes that perfectly compliment Gaye's stunning performance.  Much like the mixing of musical styles, the vocals on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" revolutionized music, and there has rarely been a performance of equal power since.

When musical perfection on every level comes together on a single track, the song itself is instantly catapulted into a category all its own.  Though over the years, the song may become seen as "overplayed" in some cases, the fact of the matter is, the songs' continued relevance serves as proof to the overall greatness of the song in question.  Bringing together music legends The Funk Brothers, behind the vocals of Marvin Gaye, it is not surprising that "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" remains one of the most important and influential songs in history.  Presenting one of their finest grooves ever, it is often the subtleties, such as the tambourine, that make the music of The Funk Brothers so distinct.  From the deep, funky bass guitar to the bring, punching horns, every member of the band is in top form, and it is performances like this that make it even more puzzling how this band seems to remain virtually unknown to the masses.  Though the band had recorded with Gaye on numerous occasions previously, the addition of the dual drums, as well as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra make this recording like nothing else in music history.  Furthermore, the song features one of Gaye's most brutally honest and unguarded vocals in history, and one can feel the pain and agony within ever word he sings.  Though there were countless amazing songs to come out of Motown, there was simply never another that measures up to the overall power and sound of Marvin Gaye's 1967 landmark recording of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."

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