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Norman Whitfield: Motown’s Loss–And Ours

Stop The Presses!

Norman Whitfield, who passed away yesterday at age 67 in Los Angeles after a long battle with diabetes, may not be a name immediately familiar to most music listeners. But I would venture a guess that virtually everyone reading this has at some point in their life heard Norman Whitfield's work--and well past the simple L.A. Times headline that accompanied his obituary: "Motown Songwriter And Producer Won Two Grammy Awards."

Yes, Norman Whitfield did win two Grammys--specifically as the co-author of the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" in 1972 and then as the composer/producer of the score for the 1976 film Car Wash. But that above-the-surface highlighting of Whitfield's accomplishments in music is kind of like noting the tip without the rest of the iceberg. Because when it comes to the evolution of R&B, soul, and urban music in the 1960s and '70s, you couldn't wade through any waters, big or small, without hitting something that Norman Whitfield was involved in.

Motown founder and chief Berry Gordy once noted that if any one person warranted his own wing in a Motown Museum, it'd be Whitfield. Without his contributions as a songwriter, arranger, and producer, it's hard to imagine that the label's "Hitsville USA" boast would have been taken very seriously--especially from 1966 to 1974, when he guided his main Motown charges the Temptations to no less than two dozen top 10 R&B hits, including 11 gold and five platinum-selling singles. Perhaps you've heard of some of them:

"Ain't Too Proud To Beg"
"Beauty Is Only Skin Deep"
"(I Know) I'm Losing You"
"You're My Everything"
"Cloud Nine"
"I Can't Get Next To You"
"Ball Of Confusion"
"Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)"

Does the list go on and on? It sure does--especially if you throw in the many collaborations between Whitfield, his longtime writing partner Barret Strong (who in 1960 helped put Motown on the map in the first place with a little thing called "Money [That's What I Want]")--and, oh, maybe another frequent composing mate, like, say, Marvin Gaye? It was these three who together co-wrote and created "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." History notes that Berry Gordy didn't like the song very much; in fact, he refused to release Gaye's bluesy version as a single until fellow labelmates Gladys Knight & the Pips' funked-up rendition hit number one in the fall of '67. Even then he waited a year to release Gaye's original. And it went to number one, too.

Whitfield is also credited as the one who semi-forced Gordy to make Motown "relevant" with such social commentary hits as "Cloud Nine," "Ball Of Confusion"--and, of course, "Rollin' Stone," one of a number of Whitfield's signature epic extended productions that paved the way for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their "Sound Of Philadelphia," as well as Barry White's and his "Love Orchestra" extravaganzas.

Norman Whitfield had his share of difficulties later in life. Besides failing health, he also got into trouble with the IRS government in recent years for unpaid taxes. But in any event, everyone really should know who Norman Whitfield was. Without him, you know, there'd be no "War" --as in "War/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothin'."

Say it again.

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