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Norman Whitfield was one of the architects of the Motown sound during the 60s and 70’s; he was a talented songwriter, arranger and record producer extraordinaire. He did not have a formal education but his talent for songwriting came natural. Growing up in his birthplace, Harlem, New York, Whitfield learned to survive in the streets and he may have been saved from an end in the bottomless pit when his family moved to Detroit, Michigan. There he found a home and his niche at Berry Gordy’s Hitsville U.S.A., the forerunner of Motown Records. Sources say that he often led the way in nudging Gordy to try new musical methods that were not initially understood by Gordy but eventually became beneficial to the company. Their relationship began on a rocky path but soon developed into a mutual admiration for their talents.
Prior to Motown, Whitfield did a stint at Thelma Records, a small label in Detroit, where he worked with Richard Street (a future member of The Temptations) and he also played the tambourine with Popcorn and the Mohawks, a Thelma group. In Motown, he started off in the quality control department that determined which songs would be released by the label and graduated to the songwriting staff. As a songwriter, Whitfield composed early hits for Marvin Gaye and The Marvelettes including “Pride and Joy” and “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” and later injected rock and psychedelic touches into the mainstay rhythm-and-blues music of the Motown sound. He moved up to producing and replaced Smokey Robinson as the main producer for The Temptations, Motown’s premier act, in 1966.
Whitfield’s ability as a producer found immense favor with Gordy and his peers at the studio and he justified their admiration of his work by belting out an array of hits for The Fabulous Temptations, as they came to be known, including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” and “Just My Imagination.” However, The Temptations were not the only group that gave life to Whitfield’s songwriting and producing musical creations. Others included Gladys Knight and the Pips, Rose Royce, The Undisputed Truth, Rare Earth and Edwin Starr. It became apparent that Whitfield’s talent as a producer superseded his abilities as a songwriter and it was there (as a producer) that he showcased his skills. He was always looking for different ways of presenting the same composition and he did it magnificently with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
To enhance his writing talent, Whitfield also played the piano/keyboard and experimented with sound effects and other production techniques. He often partnered with lyricist Barrett Strong, another one of the Motown hit wonders, and together they were an unbeatable combination. As an example of their diverse ability, after they composed and Whitfield produced, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It became one of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ best singles and then was diverted to a different version as a hit for Marvin Gaye whose version seemed to have rendered the previous rendition obsolete. “Grapevine” became one of the most valuable copyrights owned by Motown and it spawned hundreds of duplicates by other artists most notably Creedence Clearwater Revival as a single and on their epic-length album.
By the end of the 60s, Whitfield and Strong were riding high in the musical world and the most prominent vehicle for their work was The Temptations but they also saw the release of “War” for Starr and “Smiling Faces” for The Undisputed Truth. Through The Temptations, they added a psychedelic phase to their work belting out “I Wish It Would Rain” (Motown’s first of the genre) followed by “Psychedelic Shack,” “Cloud Nine,” and “Ball of Confusion.” Years later,
Whitfield was considered ahead of his time and when he realized there was a need for extended versions of his hits, he introduced multi-layered albums, combined with distorted guitar sounds and unusual vocal arrangements to the market beginning with “Masterpiece” by none other than The Temptations. These new techniques became his trademarks. Just about that time David Ruffin, the lead singer of The Temptations, left the group for a solo career and was immediately replaced with Dennis Edwards. So satisfied were the music fans with the group, its producer and songwriter (whom most of the buying public did not know back then), the replacement of the lead singer went unnoticed except to insiders. Whitfield had earned the trust of his contemporaries who considered described his energy as bouts of seemingly reckless enthusiasm.
Whitfield and Strong won a Grammy in 1972 for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a group with The Temptations’, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Tension grew between Whitfield and the Temptations because the group believed that Whitfield was focusing more on musical instruments and less on their vocals. The following year, he left Motown and formed his own label, Whitfield Records. The logo for his new company was a “W” he patterned the Motown’s inverted “M” with a different color scheme. A few Motown artists left with him, in addition, he developed a small but talented set of new artists and continue to produce and release hits. By then, some of the techniques that were created by Whitfield had been institutionalized by Motown and were continued in his absence. Those who worked and studied under his tutelage extended the influence of his trademarks to other areas of the music industry.
In 1976, Whitfield scored the biggest hit on his new label with “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, which also served as the theme sound to the motion picture with the same name. For “Car Wash,” he won another Grammy Award for the best score soundtrack in 1977 and was the Golden Globe nominee for the best original song. His movie soundtrack success apparently triggered a return to Motown in the early 80’s to score Berry Gordy’s “The Last Dragon.” (Gordy had relocated to Los Angeles and begun making films).
Whitfield’s versatility prompted “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll” to write, “Whitfield was able to go beyond R & B clichés with punchy melodies and arrangements and topical lyrics.” During his years with Motown and after, Whitfield influenced a bevy of the staffers at the music giant and worked in tandem with some of the greatest songwriters and producers in the music business including Leon Huff, Kenneth Gamble, Brian and Eddie Holland, Harvey Fuqua, Mickey Stevenson and Lamont Dozier.
By the 1980s, he became virtually unknown either as a songwriter or a producer to a new generation of music listeners; however, the continuous presence of his past hits was still inundating the marketplace and that kept his music alive. There was a slight re-emergence of his work around 2002 and 2003 through compilations of the Undisputed Truth and Temptations catalogs, but with the presence of rap, hip-hop and other genres, it never got very far. Whitfield did encounter some legal trouble with the Internal Revenue Service in 2004/2005 relative to unreported royalty income but, according to news reports, he got through that period with house arrest and a fine largely due to health problems.
The scope of songwriting and production attributed to Whitfield will certainly give music historians a large body of work to dissect. Starting in the early 1960s, he punctuated the musical landscape with some of the most memorable songs ever recorded all the up to and including the 1980s. After a long bout with diabetes, he died in Los Angeles at the age of 65 on September 16, 2008.
Smokey Robinson saluted him, “as one of the most prolific songwriters and record producers of our time. He will live forever through his great music.”
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.