Sep 022011

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” can legitimately lay claim to having three different artists record the original version. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded it before anybody else, but Motown president Berry Gordy vetoed its release. Gladys Knight and the Pips got their faster, sassier version released first – again, Gordy didn’t want it to leave the studio – and took it to number one. But the version Gordy fought hardest against putting out, recorded two months before Knight’s and released eighteen months after its recording, was Marvin Gaye’s.

Backed with a slower tempo and a string arrangement that’ll have your eyes darting back and forth, Gaye unleashed a vocal performance of paranoia, passion and pain. Confronting his partner with the recognition that it was all over, he flayed himself into bloody ribbons in the process. More than forty years later, the song’s familiarity hasn’t dulled its power; listen to Gaye a cappella and see if you aren’t shaken.

With the third – er, second – time being the charm (and a #1-for-seven-weeks charm, at that), “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is now well on its way to running the number of covers into the four figures. We’ve combed through the available versions to present to you this collection of 5 different approaches to the classic track.

The Temptations – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye cover)

One of the first out of the gate was another Motown act, The Temptations, whose version appeared on their pioneering classic album Cloud Nine in 1969. By emphasizing the beat over the music, and the harmonies over both, the group pointed the label and the world toward the psychedelic soul-funk sound.

The Slits – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye cover)

When The Slits released Cut in 1979, the press focused more on the band’s mud ‘n’ loincloth fashion statement than their musical (in)ability. Time has proven them to be pioneers in their field, tearing down barriers outside and inside. Their first single, 1979’s “Typical Girls,” had a cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” on the B-side, and rather than the usual loud, semicomic overhaul most punk bands gave rock chestnuts, they reinterpreted “Grapevine” as an itchy punk-reggae hybrid with an insistent bass, and a still-teenaged Ari Up’s distinctive vocals whirling about up top. Check out how she can’t bring herself to say the line “that you love someone else.”

Bill Frisell – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye cover)

Bill Frisell is known as a great jazz guitarist, but he’s really transcended that genre. Not only does he draw from other musical styles, but his technique and use of effects set him apart from the masses. Listen to his take on “Grapevine” from the live East/West album – he conveys all the emotions with none of the lyrics, including one passage you’d swear was backwards.

The Birds of Tokyo – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye cover)

The Birds of Tokyo are an alt-rock band in Australia. Their website says they’re the next big thing, and hey, who are we to argue? They perform “Grapevine” on their live album The Broken Strings Tour. It’s a nice acoustic take full of breathy vocals and soulful glances. This is the one you’ll want to sing you to your sleep.

Antonio Forcione – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye cover)

If Windham Hill had been the name of an Italian villa instead of a record label, one of its residents might have been Antonio Forcione. He’s got the acoustic New Age/World music sound down cold. Well, down warm, really, as there’s no off-putting chill to his tone, and he welcomes the opportunity to stretch his boundaries. Witness what he does with “Grapevine,” giving it an entirely different kind of rhythm and blues.

Check out more Five Good Covers posts in the archive.

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  9 Responses to “Five Good Covers: I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye)”

Comments (8) Pingbacks (1)
  1. What, no CCR? They have a fantastic 11 minute jam of it.

    • They made it better, as everything that they touch. CCR’s Proud Mary covered by Tina sucked. Go CCR!

      • Finally! Someone who agrees with me. She sings it like she’s on speed, she completely misses the point. The song tells of an ambling, “rolling”, slow moving river boat, not a speed boat. I love Tina otherwise, but she’s off on this one.

  2. Very true. I just figured everyone who comes to this site is already aware of that one; my goal is to introduce the reader to something new.

  3. I never tire of that one. Thanks for three that are new to me. The Creedence version that Justin mentioned started it for me back when it came out. One thing can be said about Creedence in general, they always picked good covers. For a young teenage music geek, they provided fodder for a lot of backtracking.

  4. How about Kaiser Chiefs’ version.

  5. Creedence Clearwater Revival made a great cover 11 minutes of class not sure which decade it was released though

  6. I probably should have read the comments before posting… Sorry

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