SEPTEMBER 16, 2008 – Motown songwriter/lyricist/producer NORMAN WHITFIELD (b. May 12, 1940 in Harlem, New York City) died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California from heart and kidney failure resulting from diabetes at age 68.His many collaborations with Barrett Strong included such hits as “I Heard It through the Grapevine”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “Cloud Nine,” “War,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Car Wash.” 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 sub-genre of psychedelic soul.A native of Harlem, Whitfield 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. After graduating from Northwestern High School, Whitfield studied briefly at a technical school in Detroit before joining Thelma Records, a local label, when he was still a teen, then began frequenting Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. offices for a chance to work for the growing label. Founder Berry Gordy Jr. recognized the 19 year-old’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 told “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye” author David Rufkin: “My thing was to out-Sly Sly Stone,” Mr. Whitfield said. “Sly was definitely sly, and his sound was new, his grooves were incredible, he borrowed a lot from rock. He caught the psychedelic thing. He was bad. I could match him though, rhythm for rhythm, horn for horn.”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.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.In 1973, Whitfield left Motown 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. Whitfield had a smash hit in 1976 with Rose Royce’s “Car Wash,” issued on MCA Records. Rose Royce (whose members were originally Starr’s backing band while at Motown) went on to record three more popular albums, but they could never top the success of “Car Wash,” which served as the theme song to the 1976 motion picture “Car Wash.” The 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.In the early 1980s, Whitfield began working as a producer for Motown again, helming the Temptations’ 1983 hit single “Sail Away” and the soundtrack to “The Last Dragon.”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.Although he lived on a Toluca Lake estate, 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 and briefly improved, but he eventually succumbed to symptoms from diabetes. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood.During his 25-year career, Whitfield co-wrote and produced many enduring hits for various Motown artists, and 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.