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|Birth name||Norman Jesse Whitfield|
|Born||May 12, 1940
Harlem, New York, New York, U.S.
|Died||September 16, 2008
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Genres||R&B, soul, pop, psychedelic soul, funk, disco|
|Occupation(s)||Songwriter, record producer, and arranger|
|Associated acts||The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Rose Royce, The Undisputed Truth, Rare Earth, Edwin Starr, Barrett Strong|
Norman Jesse Whitfield (May 12, 1940 – September 16, 2008) was an American songwriter and producer, best known for his work with Berry Gordy's Motown labels during the 1960s. He has been credited as one of the creators of the Motown Sound and as an instrumental figure in the development of the late-1960s subgenre of psychedelic soul.
During his 25-year career, Whitfield co-wrote and produced many enduring hits for various Motown artists, including "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", "(I Know) I'm Losing You", "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", "Cloud Nine", "I Can't Get Next to You", "War", "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)", "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)", "Smiling Faces Sometimes", and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone". Whitfield worked extensively with The Temptations as a producer and songwriter; he solely produced eight of their albums between 1969 and 1973. He started his own label, Whitfield Records, in 1975, which yielded the Rose Royce hit "Car Wash". Alongside his Motown lyrical collaborator Barrett Strong, he was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 2004. He has written or co-written 61 hits in the UK charts and 92 in the US charts.
Early life and career
Whitfield was a native of Harlem, New York, and spent much of his teen years in local pool halls. In his late teens, he and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, so that his father could join his sister and work in her husband's chain of drug stores, Barthwell Drugs. He attended Northwestern High School.
At 19, Whitfield began frequenting Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. offices for a chance to work for the growing label. Founder Berry Gordy Jr. recognized Whitfield's persistence and hired him for the quality control department, which determined which songs would or would not be released. Whitfield eventually joined Motown's in-house songwriting staff.
Whitfield had a few early successes, including co-writing the Marvin Gaye hit "Pride & Joy", The Marvelettes's "Too Many Fish in the Sea" and The Velvelettes's "Needle in a Haystack", but he found his place at Motown when he began producing. His big break came when he took over Smokey Robinson's role as the main producer for The Temptations in 1966, after his "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" performed better than Robinson's "Get Ready" on the pop charts.
From 1966 to 1974, Whitfield produced virtually all of the Temptations' material, experimenting with sound effects and other production techniques. He found a songwriting collaborator in lyricist Barrett Strong, the performer on Motown's first hit record, "Money (That's What I Want)", and wrote material for the Temptations and other Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, both of whom recorded Whitfield-produced hit versions of the Whitfield/Strong composition "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". The Gladys Knight & the Pips version was the best-selling Motown single ever to that point, but it was replaced a year later by Gaye's version.
After Temptations lead singer David Ruffin was replaced with Dennis Edwards in 1968, Whitfield moved the group into a harder, darker sound that featured a blend of psychedelic rock and funk heavily inspired by the work of Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic. He also began changing the subject matter of the songs, moving away from love songs to the social issues of the time, such as war, poverty and politics. The first Temptations single to feature this new "psychedelic soul" style was "Cloud Nine" in late 1968, which earned Motown its first Grammy award (for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance by a Duo or Group). A second Best R&B Group Performance Grammy for Whitfield and the Temptations came in 1973 with "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone". The single's instrumental B-side earned Whitfield a Grammy with arranger Paul Riser for Best R&B Instrumental Performance, and Whitfield and Strong shared the songwriters' award for Best R&B Song.
"Psychedelic soul" and the break with Motown
The psychedelic soul records Whitfield produced for The Temptations and other artists such as Edwin Starr and The Undisputed Truth experimented with and updated the Motown sound for the late-1960s. Longer songs, distorted guitars, multitracked drums, and inventive vocal arrangements became trademarks of Whitfield's productions, and later of records produced by Motown staffers he coached, including Frank Wilson. But friction and antagonism grew between Whitfield and the Temptations; the group hated how Whitfield put more emphasis on the instrumentation instead of their vocals, and that he was writing fewer romantic ballads for them.
Whitfield would often record notably different versions of songs with different artists in search of a hit, and did so successfully in the cases of Edwin Starr, with "War" (1970; originally recorded by The Temptations), and The Undisputed Truth, with "Smiling Faces Sometimes" (1971; also originally by The Temptations). "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" (1972) was done first by The Undisputed Truth, before Whitfield rerecorded the song with The Temptations for a longer, more definitive (and massively successful) version. One of Whitfield's last major hits at Motown was Yvonne Fair's "It Should Have Been Me" (1975), a song he had written in 1963 and recorded originally with Kim Weston.
Whitfield Records and later years
In 1975, Whitfield left Motown, following its move from Detroit, to form his own label, Whitfield Records. His first act was The Undisputed Truth, whom he had convinced to leave Motown, followed by Rose Royce, Willie Hutch, Nytro, Mammatapee and Junior Walker. The Undisputed Truth scored their second biggest hit in 1976 with the disco song "You + Me = Love", their first single on Whitfield Records. Whitfield had an international smash hit in 1976 with Rose Royce's "Car Wash", issued on MCA Records. Rose Royce (whose members were originally Edwin Starr's backing band while at Motown) went on to record three more popular albums, and had two huge UK hits with "Wishing on a Star" (1977) and "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" (1978), but could never top the success of "Car Wash", which served as the theme song to the 1976 motion picture Car Wash. The Car Wash soundtrack won Whitfield a 1977 Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album. He also composed the theme song for the 1977 motion picture Which Way Is Up?, performed by Stargard.
On January 18, 2005, Whitfield pleaded guilty for failing to report royalty income he earned from 1995 to 1999 to the Internal Revenue Service. Facing charges of tax evasion on more than $2 million worth of income, he was sentenced to six months of house confinement and a $25,000 fine. He was not imprisoned because of health problems such as diabetes.
During his last months alive, Whitfield was bed-ridden at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he underwent treatment for diabetes and other ailments. Whitfield fell into a coma, briefly improved, but he eventually succumbed to diabetic complications Whitfield died on September 16, 2008 at approximately 3:30 pm local time. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills).
Selected singles production/songwriting credits
- 1963: "Pride & Joy" – Marvin Gaye (US #10, US R&B #2)
- 1964: "Too Many Fish in the Sea" – The Marvelettes (US #25, US R&B #5)
- 1964: "Needle in a Haystack" – The Velvelettes (US #45)
- 1964: "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'" – The Velvelettes (US #64, US R&B #21)
- 1964: "Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)" – The Temptations (US #26, US R&B #11)
- 1966: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" – The Temptations (US #13, US R&B #1, UK #21)
- 1966: "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" – The Temptations (US #3, US R&B #1, UK #18)
- 1966: "(I Know) I'm Losing You" – The Temptations (US #8, US R&B #1, UK #19)
- 1967: "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" – Gladys Knight & The Pips (US #2, US R&B #1), also recorded by Marvin Gaye (US #1, US R&B #1, UK #1)
- 1967: "You're My Everything" – The Temptations (US #6, US R&B #3, UK #26)
- 1967: "I Wish It Would Rain" – The Temptations (US #4, US R&B #1), also recorded by Gladys Knight & The Pips (US #41, US R&B #15)
- 1968: "I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)" – The Temptations (US #13, US R&B #1)
- 1968: "The End of Our Road" – Gladys Knight & The Pips (US #15, US R&B #5), also recorded by Marvin Gaye (US #40, US R&B #7)
- 1968: "Cloud Nine" – The Temptations (US #6, UK #15)
- 1968: "The Nitty Gritty" – Gladys Knight & The Pips (US #19, US R&B #2)
- 1969: "Friendship Train" – Gladys Knight & The Pips (US #17, US R&B #2)
- 1969: "Runaway Child, Running Wild" – The Temptations (US #6, US R&B #1)
- 1969: "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby" – Marvin Gaye (US #4, US R&B #1, UK #5)
- 1969: "I Can't Get Next to You" – The Temptations (US #1, US R&B #1, UK #13)
- 1969: "Don't Let The Joneses Get You Down" – The Temptations (US #20, US R&B #2)
- 1970: "You Need Love Like I Do (Don't You)" – Gladys Knight & The Pips (US #35, US R&B #3)
- 1970: "Psychedelic Shack" – The Temptations (US #7, US R&B #2, UK #33)
- 1970: "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" – The Temptations (US #3, US R&B #2, UK #7)
- 1970: "War" – Edwin Starr (US #1, US R&B #3, UK #3), originally recorded by The Temptations
- 1971: "Smiling Faces Sometimes" – The Undisputed Truth (US #3, US R&B #2), originally recorded by The Temptations
- 1971: "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" – The Temptations (US #1, US R&B #1, UK #8)
- 1972: "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" – The Temptations (US #1, US R&B #1, UK #8), originally recorded by The Undisputed Truth (US #63, US R&B #24)
- 1973: "Masterpiece" – The Temptations (US #7, US R&B #1)
- 1973: "Law of the Land" – The Temptations (UK #41), originally recorded by The Undisputed Truth (US R&B #40)
- 1973: "Let Your Hair Down" – The Temptations (US #27, US R&B #1)
- 1974: "Help Yourself" – The Undisputed Truth (US #63, US R&B #19)
- 1976: "Car Wash" – Rose Royce (US #1, UK #9)
- 1976: "I'm Going Down" – Rose Royce
- 1976: "I Wanna Get Next to You" – Rose Royce (US #10)
- 1977: "Ooh Boy" – Rose Royce (US #72, US R&B #3, UK #46)
- 1977: "Wishing on a Star" – Rose Royce (UK #3)
- 1978: "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" – Rose Royce (US #32, UK #2)
- allmusic Biography
- "The Associated Press: Motown writer, producer Norman Whitfield dies". USA Today. September 17, 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-17.
- Corbett, John (1994). Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. pp. 149–150. Excerpt: "In fact, Motown's Temptations copped a good bit of P-Funkiness - 'Norman Whitfield should have stayed out of our shows with his tape recorder, recording our shit!' says Clinton, good-naturedly."