Song Of The Week: “I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Part 1)” by Roger

Vocal effects and auto-tune dominate the rap and hip-hop world right now. The unadorned voice ain’t where it’s at, but hey, nihil sub sole novum, am I right? There is nothing new under the sun.

The 50’s applied copious amounts of echo and reverb to everyone’s throat notes; the 60’s manipulated vocals upside down and inside out in an attempt to mimic or enhance the, let’s say, “mind vacation” of their listeners; and the 70’s witnessed the introduction of the vocoder and the talk box, the latter of which became closely associated with both Peter Frampton, because of “Do You Feel Like We Do,” and our guest today, Roger Troutman, because of all his songs.

Roger and his brothers formed a number of short-lived groups in the 70’s until finally catching the ear of master funketeer George Clinton. The brothers settled on the name Zapp, and when Clinton’s record label quickly folded, Warner Bros. signed them up. The terms of the deal allowed for Roger to make solo albums, and after Zapp went gold in 1980, selling half a million copies of their debut, he returned to the studio and got down to work.

Having used the talk box with great success on Zapp’s smash R&B hit “More Bounce To The Ounce,” Roger proceeded to use it all over the place on his solo record, The Many Facets Of Roger. Along with five originals, he also cut one cover, a ten minute funk workout of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”

By this time, “Grapevine” was no stranger to the cover version. In fact, within a year of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield writing it, three different Motown acts – The Miracles, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and Marvin Gaye – recorded the song, only to have label owner Berry Gordy reject them all as singles. But when DJs across the country began playing the album tracks Gordy finally had no choice but to relent.

He usually possessed an unerring sense for a hit, but in this case Gordy was spectacularly wrong as Gladys Knight peaked at #2 in 1967 and Gaye topped the charts in 1968. Other well known versions include those by The Temptations and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Generally, singers go with a heart full of soul and a hint of betrayal on “Grapevine,” but Roger took it in an entirely different direction. With its playful, robotic voices and bouncy funk beat, Roger’s version was tailor-made for discos and dancefloors. When released as an edited single in 1981, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” went straight to #1 on the R&B chart. Roger may indeed have had many facets, but he will always be known as the king of the talk box.

And here’s the nearly 11-minute album version to fulfill the funk in full:

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