Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight got the first cracks at the now iconic Barrett Strong–Norman Whitfield tune, but Gaye’s 1968 rendition is the famous one, the bestselling Motown single of the decade.
Gaye’s former brother-in-law, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, is perhaps the only one who wasn’t impressed, refusing to believe it could be a viable single until its enthusiastic reception by radio DJs and the listening public convinced him otherwise. In short order, In The Groove, the 1968 album on which it first appeared, was retitled with the name of its monster hit.
It’s given a considerable boost to the dancing raisins, Lawrence Kasdan’s film, The Big Chill, and the many emerging talents who’ve sampled the track in the decades following the singer’s untimely death.
Strip all that away.
For an even purer listening experience, strip away its famous orchestration, described by Time Magazine’s Gilbert Cruz as “ a single drum shot,” “a dangerous-sounding electric-piano riff,” and “a portentous tambourine rattle.”
In the ’60s Marvin bent his voice to the wishes of Motown, but he did so his way, vocally if not musically. He claimed he had three different voices, a falsetto, a gritty gospel shout, and a smooth midrange close to his speaking voice…. His version of “Grapevine” is so intense, so pretty, so goddamn black in spirit, it seems to catalogue that world of black male emotions Charles Fuller evokes in his insightful Soldier’s Play.
The superlatives that accompany Gaye’s 6th place ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2010 list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time speak to both the emotional power he brought to his work, as well as his “brilliant musicality”:
These days we have Pro Tools and a thousand tracks, and you can do different vocals on every track. But back then you really had to innovate, like the way Marvin answered himself in songs, or all that really distant backing work, where his voice is all the way in the back and echoing. It’s haunting; he delivered every single song with such clarity…
Even ex-wife Janis Gaye had sweet words for that voice in a recent interview with Voice Council magazine. Among the shocking revelations that got left out of her tell-all memoir about their tempestuous relationship—Gaye was a primarily self-taught artist who smoked unfiltered Camels:
…sometimes he would walk around like Pavarotti just to make the kids laugh. But, yes, he would also run through scales, drink tea with honey and lemon and little concoctions of cayenne pepper with vinegar and things like that. But he didn’t warm up before every performance.
via Twisted Sifter
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her at the New York Society Library on April 23 for her monthly low-budget variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.