Obituary - Norman Whitfield Oct 26, 2008 15:25:10 GMT -5
Post by Motorcity on Oct 26, 2008 15:25:10 GMT -5
He co-wrote and produced some of Motown's greatest hits.
Dave Laing The Guardian, Friday September 19 2008
The success of the Motown "hit factory", founded in the 1960s by Berry Gordy, was built on the creative contributions of a large team of songwriters, musicians and producers - of which Norman Whitfield, who has died aged 67 of complications associated with diabetes, was arguably among the half-dozen most vital members. He co-wrote such classics as I Heard It Through the Grapevine, War, and Papa Was a Rollin' Stone, and among those whose records he produced were Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations.
Whitfield was born in Harlem, where his main achievement was to become a skilled pool player. He told later interviewers that his family had settled in Detroit after their car broke down there while returning from an aunt's funeral in California. After high school, he exchanged pool for music and produced records for the small Thelma Records label, including one by Richard Street, a future member of the Temptations. He also hung around the Motown studios, observing the production process until Gordy was persuaded to give him a job.
A former car worker, Gordy borrowed the idea of a quality control department from the automobile industry, and in 1961 Whitfield became its first head. He was paid $15 a week to lend a critical ear to new recordings by Motown staff, a job he said "consisted of being totally honest about what records you were listening to". He graded the tracks for Gordy's monthly staff meeting, where decisions were made on which should be released.
Soon dissatisfied with quality control, Whitfield fought to be allowed to create records himself. This involved competing with such established figures as Smokey Robinson, but he got his first opportunities in 1964 with lesser Motown groups, co-writing and producing Needle in a Haystack by the Velvelettes and Too Many Fish in the Sea by the Marvelettes. These records brought him the chance to work with the Temptations, already one of Motown's elite groups. After one of Robinson's productions flopped, Whitfield took over for Ain't Too Proud to Beg, a No 1 R&B hit in 1966 that was later recorded by the Rolling Stones.
For the next couple of years, he and Robinson shared production duties until Whitfield became the Temptations' sole producer in 1968. This heralded a six-year run of scintillating records with the group, many written with Barrett Strong, whose 1960 hit Money was covered by the Beatles in 1963.
Strong and Whitfield skilfully merged newer soul and psychedelic influences with Motown's traditional instrumental and vocal strengths. Although Whitfield had his overall concept of each song, it would be created as a studio recording through controlled experimentation and improvisation by the musicians under the producer's guidance. "It took a lot of research and I really consider myself somewhat of a perfectionist," he told writer Nelson George. "I don't like to speculate and I don't like to take chances with my guys."
A typical example of Whitfield's Motown-soul approach was I Wish It Would Rain, a 1968 Temptations hit, which found the group's Jimmy Ruffin emoting like a southern soul virtuoso with seagull and thunderstorm sound effects added by Whitfield. But the greatest of Whitfield and Strong's songs was undoubtedly I Heard It Through the Grapevine, first released by Gladys Knight and the Pips in a tambourine-driven version in 1967 and recreated in equally dynamic versions in 1968 with Marvin Gaye and the Temptations.
The psychedelic Cloud Nine in 1968 (Motown's first Grammy-winning record) was in many ways a homage to Sly Stone, who Whitfield said showed him that record production was "the science of sound". This was followed by Psychedelic Shack and Ball of Confusion (both 1970) and Papa Was a Rollin' Stone (1972). The lyrics of these songs concerned social and political issues of the day, though not always so coherently as War, the Whitfield-Strong protest anthem memorably sung with strategic grunts by Edwin Starr in 1970.
By the mid-1970s, Motown had moved its operations to California and many of its leading figures had left. In 1974, Whitfield joined the exodus after Warner Bros offered to finance his own record label. He took with him his last Motown "acid-soul" group, the Undisputed Truth, but the Whitfield label initially yielded few hits. His greatest post-Motown success came when he was asked to create the soundtrack for the 1976 film Car Wash. He wrote the lyrics of the disco-styled title song on a Kentucky Fried Chicken wrapper after watching a basketball game and used Rose Royce, a group of former Motown singers and musicians, to perform it. Both song and film were massive hits, and Whitfield produced several more hits for the group.
In the 1980s, he went into semi-retirement, occasionally appearing at music industry functions. He returned to the spotlight in 2005 when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges. The case revealed that even in the late 1990s he had been earning more than $500,000 a year from royalties as his songs were reissued, re-recorded and used in more than 50 film soundtracks. He was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $25,000, but was spared jail in favour of home detention on account of his failing health.
· Norman Jesse Whitfield, songwriter and record producer, born May 12 1940; died September 16 2008