“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is one of the many songs that define the Motown sound. Co-written by legendary songwriters and producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song made its way around Motown Records throughout the 1960s and became a hit for many artists, most notably Marvin Gaye, who released it as a single in 1968 and took it to No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100. Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth and The Miracles are some of the other artists who’ve lent their voices to the timeless song.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Meet the Writers Behind the Song
Born and raised in Harlem, New York, in 1940, Whitfield moved to Detroit, Michigan, as a teenager with his family, setting the stage for his future success in music. In the 1960s, he joined Motown Records, founded by Berry Gordy in Detroit in 1958, as a songwriter and producer. His tenure with the label helped establish his legacy as one of the creators of the Motown Sound and psychedelic soul. He wrote countless hits for Gaye, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips and others.
Gaye’s “Pride and Joy,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty is Only Skin Deep,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “I Wish it Would Rain” are some of the many chart-toppers he penned for The Temptations, while he took Knight & the Pips to the top of the charts with “It Should Have Been Me,” “Friendship Train,” “You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You)” and others. Rose Royce, Edwin Starr and The Undisputed Truth are some of the other artists who cut Whitfield’s songs.
Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi, in 1941. Like his future collaborator, Strong moved with his family to Detroit when he was a child where he attended Hutchins Middle School with Aretha Franklin and future hit Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier. Strong was signed to Motown Records in 1959 as an artist, establishing himself as a key player when he recorded “Money (That’s What I Want),” written by Gordy and Janie Bradford. The song became the first hit for the label (then known as Tamla Records). “Money (That’s What I Want)” hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and reached the top 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960.
In the mid-1960s, Strong turned his attention to songwriting, becoming frequent collaborators with Whitfield. The two proved to be a powerhouse duo crafting such hits as Gaye’s “Where I Lay My Hat,” Jimmy Ruffin’s “Gonna Give Her All the Love I’ve Got.” The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine,” “Just My Imagination,” Starr’s “War” and The Undisputed Truth’s “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” are some of the other genre-defining hits they wrote together in addition to “Grapevine.”
In 1975, Whitfield parted ways with Motown Records to start his own label, Whitfield Records, where he produced Method to the Madness by The Undisputed Truth, In Full Bloom by Rose Royce and Music Web by Spyder Turner, among others before the label shut down in 1982. Strong also left Motown to transition back to an artist career, signing with Epic Records in 1972 and then Capitol Records. He released his debut album, Stronghold, in 1975, recording a total of four studio albums until 2001. In 1995, he started his own record label, Blarritt Records.
Whitfield and Strong were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. Whitfield passed away in 2008 at the age of 68 following complications with diabetes. Strong passed away in January 2023 at the age of 81.
Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns