Saturday, May 30, 2015
Track of the Week: Gladys Knight and the Pips "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"
From about 1999-2002 I went down a major classic soul rabbit hole. It was music I'd always liked hearing on the radio, but I began to buy a bunch of CDs and read a bunch of books to educate myself. One thing that intrigued me about Motown was the role of its in-house producers and musicians. I soon realized that I didn't like the Four Tops and the Supremes as much as I liked the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing and production team. I didn't adore the 1969-1971 vintage Temptations as much as I appreciated the talents of Norman Whitfield. When I finally saw the film Standing In The Shadows of Motown, I also realized that many of the different name artists I loved had the same musicians behind them.
I learned too that Motown would have multiple acts record the same song, then release the version most likely to be a hit as a single. For instance, I'd always adored Marvin Gaye's spooky "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," but my new education introduced me to the same song by Gladys Knight and the Pips, a group I associated more with the 1970s. It also happened to predate Gaye's version, by a year in its release, and had been given single status over the original performer, Smokey Robinson. Gaye's version was initially not a single either, even though it went on to be the bigger hit.
The Gladys Knight version has been buried by the brilliance and popularity of the Gaye version, but it deserves more attention. It starts with an absolutely crackerjack opening by the Funk Brothers (the in house Motown musicians) reminiscent of The Temptations' "I Can't Get Next To You" or "Cloud Nine," songs also produced by Norman Whitfield. It chugs along funkily with the distinctive piano line ("dunh dunh DUNH dunh") less the sound of pained disappointment and more righteous anger. Whereas Gaye takes the role of jilted lover deeply wounded by infidelity, Knight is defiant and angry. The Pips, as they always do, add that little bit of sweetness behind Knight's powerful soul voice to lighten things up a little. Motown was so good in its hey-day that a song this good could slip through the cracks as a second-best version.