It seems like everyone in Motown heard about this song “through the grapevine” before it was finally recorded. The classic about a man who finds out his woman is cheating on him was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Strong came up with the idea and asked Motown writers Holland-Dozier-Holland to work on it with him. They refused to credit another writer, so Strong took it to Whitfield, who helped put it together. The song eventually became a Motown classic, but it had a rough start, as executives at the company thought it was too bluesy and lacked hit potential. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were the first to record the song, but their version wasn’t released until years later on an album called Special Occasion. The Isley Brothers then took a crack at it, but their version wasn’t released. Whitfield and Strong then had Marvin Gaye record the song but still no luck: Motown head Berry Gordy chose Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Your Unchanging Love” over “Grapevine” as his next single. Finally, a new Motown act Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded the song as a gospel rocker. Their version was a hit, entering the Top 40 in November 1967 and going to #2 in America.
Marvin Gaye’s version was included on his 1968 album In The Groove (later re-titled I Heard It Through The Grapevine). After E. Rodney Jones, the Chicago disc jockey at WVON, started playing it on the air, Berry Gordy reconsidered and released Gaye’s version as a single, which became even more popular and known as the definitive version of the song. Gaye’s “Grapevine” pounded the charts about a year after Knight’s, going to #1 in America on December 14, 1968.
By 1966, Barrett Strong, the singer on Motown Records’ breakthrough hit, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, had the basics of a song he had started to write in Chicago, where the idea had come to him while walking down Michigan Avenue that people were always saying “I heard it through the grapevine”. The phrase is associated with black slaves during the Civil War, who had their form of telegraph: the human grapevine. Producer Norman Whitfield worked with Strong on the song, adding lyrics to Strong’s basic Ray Charles influenced gospel tune and the single chorus line of “I heard it through the grapevine”. This was to be the first of a number of successful collaborations between Strong and Whitfield.
The lyrics tell the story in a first person narrative of the betrayal of the singer’s romantic partner, how he heard about it indirectly via gossip from other people (through the “grapevine”), and the emotional pain and disbelief he is suffering