It can be hard to grasp the depth and breadth of Marvin Gaye’s career. He seems to have lived one of those kaleidoscopic lives that could only have occurred at the birth of modern pop and celebrity culture: starting as a session singer for Chuck Berry before songwriting and drumming for Motown groups such as the Marvelettes and the Miracles; earning his stripes as a duettist with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell and then breaking out on his own, first as a tentative R&B man and then as a socially conscious soul auteur and hedonistic sex symbol. And then, at the age of 44, he was shot dead by his father.
His expansive life is much like his voice: all four octaves of range from honeyed baritone to raspy, yearning tenor (his “tough man voice”) and then the heart-rending, vulnerable falsetto, differing musical personalities contained within the singular liquid runs he would make in his songs. Reconciling these competing expressions would prove to be a lifelong evolution, one that can be traced back to Gaye’s first solo commercial success, 1968’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine.
Like much of the music in Gaye’s early career, the release of the song was heavily contested and almost didn’t happen. Originally written by Motown’s Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, the song riffed on the concept of the “human grapevine” that slaves coined during the American civil war to communicate information, adapting it to the tale of a singer longing after a partner they had heard was leaving them for another. It was recorded by the Miracles before Gaye got to it in 1967, and again later that year by Gladys Knight and the Pips.
The arrangement of Knight’s version is almost unrecognisable from the one made famous by Gaye: all funk and shuffling tambourine, it highlights her gravelly, full-throated voice in a call and response, reducing it to yet another light-hearted song about a wronged lover. After hearing this version and predicting it would be a hit, the notoriously controlling Motown boss Berry Gordy had Gaye’s recording shelved and blocked from release.
Luckily, producer Whitfield had it added to Gaye’s 1968 eighth solo album release, In the Groove, where it soon became popular via radio play and forced Gordy’s hand to release it as a single in October 1968. It became the biggest hit single in Motown history for the next 20 months and it earned Gaye his first solo No 1 in the US. It was so successful that In the Groove was ultimately reissued with the title I Heard It Through the Grapevine. It was also his first and only UK No 1, reaching the top in April 1969 for three weeks.
After almost a decade in the Motown camp, adhering to Gordy’s strict demands on appearance and music choice, this win for Gaye was a crucial step towards forming his own nuanced artistic identity. Gaye’s hits to date had been as the preppy, clean-cut counterpart to Weston and Terrell, songs that spoke to the all-conquering power of love, yet with Grapevine we hear the beginnings of Gaye’s true skill: the forlorn interweaving of loss, defiance and lust – those constituent parts of a more realistic love than the sickly exaltation of songs such as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
As on many of Gaye’s subsequent hits (What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On and Sexual Healing) an instrumental opening grabs the listener’s attention – a slowly vamping electric piano and bassline layered with a tambourine and a shrill call of horns – before Gaye’s plaintive vocal illuminates the opening lyric: “I bet you’re wondering how I knew.” From there, it’s his voice that brings home the narrative line after line, cushioned by strings played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra: his falsetto rasps through a longing for his lover; his tenor registers a defiant resignation to losing her.
One key tenet of Gaye’s solo work is this palpable sense of loss and the attendant sadness that exists just beneath the surface of his sentiment. It’s there in the eco-soul of What’s Going On and Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), and even in the aching opening of the lustful Let’s Get It On. This is the quintessence of his soul music, the knife-edge balance of opposites that momentarily reconciles to create a newfound whole.
Having had the first solo hit of his career, Gaye was characteristically resigned and dismissive, telling a reporter that he “didn’t deserve it”. This was likely due to the fact that his longtime friend and singing partner Terrell had brain cancer at the time. Her death less than a year later would send him into a profound depression, one that would leave him resolved to leave Motown and to ultimately create his conceptual masterwork What’s Going On in 1971.
Here, Gaye would establish himself as the bad boy of Motown, both a figurehead for rising anti-Vietnam sentiment and archetype of the socially conscious songwriter. It is a far cry from the straightforward sweetness of a Holland-Dozier-Holland recording such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) released only six years earlier, showing an emotional depth that would ultimately take a profound toll on Gaye’s life. With I Heard It Through the Grapevine, we find him stepping out into his independence, all potential buoyed on by the force of his first creation.
• This article was amended on 30 October 2020 to remove a mention of a Rhodes electric piano, as this was not the one used in the Grapevine intro.