Wednesday, September 17, 2008
NORMAN WHITFIELD: MOTOWN RECORDS' INNOVATIVE PRODUCERS DIES
Norman Whitfield, Motown Records prolific and innovative producers has died in Los Angeles at the age of 65. The cause of death was complications from diabetes. During his tenure at Motown, he had helped wrote and produced many hits for many of the label’s artists including The Temptations who helped bring Whitfield’s songs to life, and making them classics that still gets spins on radio and has been covered and sampled by many of today’s singers and Rappers.
Whitfield was born in 1943 in Harlem, New York, but migrated to Detroit Michigan during his early teens with his family, where his father worked with his sister and brother law at their pharmacy Barthwell Drugs. Whitfield had enrolled in Northwestern High School, and hung out with Otis Williams’ band The Distants (which consisted of future Temptations Williams, Melvin Franklin and Richard Street), and played tambourine on their single “Come On” before joining Motown Records as a member of Popcorn Wylie * the Mohawks. Wanting to be more creative, he left and secured a job as a produced at Thelma Records, before returning to Motown, where the label’s founder Berry Gordy, Jr, impressed by his persistence, gave him a position at the label’s quality control department where he helped decided which singles should be released. He also co-wrote Marvin Gaye’s hit “Pride And Joy” as well as The Misrelates’ “Too Many Fish In The Sea” and “Needle In The Haystack for The Velvelettes, which did well, but his ultimate goal was to write and produced for The Temptations, who was being produced by Smokey Robinson, Gordy’s best friend and Vice-President of the label, who had a tight grip of the group. A grip that Norman planned to break with his persistence and aggressiveness, which was something that he was known for.
“I didn’t have great hopes that he would be able to beat out Smokey Robinson” songwriter Eddie Holland said in liner notes of the group’s Emperors of Soul boxed set. “But he felt so strongly, I said, ‘Well, let me take a look at it.”
In December 1965, the group recorded Robinson’s “Get Ready” A few weeks later, the group recorded Whitfield’s “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” which the group’s founder and only surviving member Otis describe as different as night and day. “
“Norman’s melody had a touch of blues.” Williams wrote in his autobiography “Temptations” sounded as anguished and desperate as Eddie Holland’s words, which David Ruffin brought to life. David sang his ass off on that one. It was a fantastic song, and even though it was a departure from out previous hits, it suited us.”
The label decided to release “Get Ready,” but told both producers that if the song didn’t crack the Top Ten, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” would be the next single. Get Ready peaked at #29, and when “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” was released, it peaked at
#13, and made Whitfield The Temptations’ main producer who would have a eight year run of hits. It also marked a change for the group musically; the music had electric rock guitars, while the group’s harmony became more distinctive and the lyrics written with Eddie Holland, Cornelius Grant and Roger Roger Penzabene were about heartache, pain and regret, including “I Wish It Would Rain” which was written from the pain that Penzabeme was experiencing after he learned that his wife was creeping.
“Norman’s accomplishment, I think, was that he did with us what a producer should do; take us in a new direction without losing the heart of our sound.” Williams wrote in his autobiography.
Wanting to showcase his versatility, Norman began to collaborate with singer/songwriter Barrett Strong, and began to cut different versions of songs on different artists, including “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” which he first cut on The Miracles and The Isley Brothers, before he decided to cut a haunting version of the song on Marvin Gaye, who he had sing the song in much higher keys to capture the intensity of the lyrics. This caused friction between the two talented and strong willed geniuses.
“Norman and I came within a fraction of fighting.” Gaye told David Ritz. “He made me sing in keys much higher than I was used to. He had me reaching for notes that caused my throat veins to bulge….but even though we fought like hell; I knew he was good for me.”
The label thought other wise. They didn’t release the single because they though it was too dark for their Soulful Pop sound. Whitfield didn’t give up; he decided to redo another version of the song with Gladys Knight & The Pips, who’s Gospel and Southern version peak at # 1 one R&B charts and # 2 on the Pop charts becoming the label’s biggest selling single of 1967, and encouraging Norman to continue advocating for Gaye’s version to be released. Tired and impressive with his persistence, the label relented and released Gaye’s version the following year, and it topped both the R&B and Pop charts, sold over four million copies and became the label’s first platinum single.
Whitfield also gave The Temptations another musical makeover; The Tempts founder Williams had encouraged him to check out Sly & The Family Stone’s single “Dance To The Music” and at first he was resistant, but changed his mind and the group’s style; having each of the Tempts sing lead (including Ruffin’s replacement David Ruffin, who was eager to take the group to a new musical level), music that consisted of different rhythms, Indian chants and lyrics about the conditions of the world. Particularly the trials and struggles of inner city Blacks.
My thing was to out-Sly Sly Stone," Whitfield told Marvin Gaye' biographer, David Ritz. "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."
In October, 1968, the group’s single “Cloud Nine” which hit #6 and earned them Motown’s first Grammy Award For Best R&B Performance by Duo or Group. They followed with “Runaway Child, Running Wild, “Psychedelic Shack,” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s what’s The World Is Today)” which featured the famous line ‘and the band played on. ‘ He also co-wrote and produced Edwin Starr’s top charting hit “War” but his streak came to a temporary halt when The Tempts single “Ungena Za Lowing (Unite The World)” failed the Top 30. This forced Norman to do something The Tempts and their fans want them to do; write some ballads.
“We needed to do something a little different,“ Whitfield’s former writing partner Strong said in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.“ “”We had thought of ‘Just My Imagination’ a year of two ago before we recorded it, but the timing wasn’t right. Norman asked me, ‘What was that song we were messing around with a year ago? I played it on the piano and he said, “Meet me in the studio because I’m gonna record it today.'
In 1971, The Temptations’ ballad “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” topped the charts, went platinum and was dubbed one of Motown’s prettiest ballads. “When Jerry Long did the strings and horns, I had the feeling on ‘Just My Imagination” that I had on ‘My Girl” Williams said on The Temptations DVD “Get Ready: The Definitive Collection."
The following year the group scored with “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ which topped the Pop charts, and earned three Grammy Awards; it was one of the first singles that focused more on the music arrangements than the group’s vocals, paving the way for Cinematic Soul, music that would later be used in Black films like Shaft, Black Caesar and “Trouble Man.”
“I wanted to try some songs that had the scope and feeling of a movie” he told Billboard Magazine in 1973.
While Whitfield was being innovative, The Tempts had grown tired of seeing about the world’s woes, and was constantly fighting with him to record ballads. But Whitfield refused.
“Look, trends were changing and I was only interested in keeping them on top and in keeping them current” he said in the Billboard Books of Rhythm and Blues Number Ones” A transition was needed, but I admit I never really confided in them as to what I was doing.”
In 1974, Norman left Motown, formed his own label Whitfield Records and worked with his group Rolls Royce, who recorded the soundtrack to the film Soundtrack which featured the title track topping the Pop & R&B charts. They also scored with "I’m Going Down," "Love Don't Live Hear Anymore" and "Wishing on A Star.
In 1983, Whitfield produced The Tempts’ album "Back To Back" and #13 R&B hit “Sail Away” and did some work on “The Last Dragon” soundtrack, but have kept a low profile for many years. His music however have been covered and sampled by many artists including Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans and Madonna who covered “I’m Goin’ Down” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” while Public Enemy sampled “Psychedelic Shack” for their hit “Welcome to the Terrodome." Rapper Cam’Ron sampled “War” for his hit “My Hood” while Shaggy and Janet sampled “Oh Boy” for their single “Luv Me, Luv Me” for the “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”: soundtrack. Cam’Ron also sampled “I’m Goin’ Down” for his hit “Oh Boy”, which at the time was his former record label’s longest running single. He also joined Mariah Carey for her single “Boy I Need You” which contains samples of both songs, and Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot joined forces to remake the classic hit “Car Wash.” The Covergirls and Beyonce each covered "Wishing On A Star."
In 1998, actor Mel Jackson won wave reviews for his portrayal of Whitfield in the Award-winning mini-series "The Temptaions."
The success of these remakes, samples and mini-series earned Whitfield and Strong an induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, where both appeared to accept their long overdue honor, but his honor was short live, when he plead guilty for tax-evasion the following year. Norman was sentenced to 6 months house arrest and order to pay a $25,000 fine, in part to his battle with diabetes and other ailments including heart problems.
During the last months of his life, Whitfield was hospitalized in Cedars-Sinai Hospital where he lapsed into a coma and successfully emerged, before he entered the Motown studios in heaven.
Many are sadden by his loss. "He deserves more credit than he gets for what he did with the Temptations," says Jay, the leader of the group The Undisputed Truth. . "He was a genius in getting the most out of their sound. You hear the stories about how he pushed Dennis to get that 'It was the third of September' vocal [on 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone'].
"He took the whole Motown sound around the corner."
Norman was survived by one daughter, three sons, one brother, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Funeral arrangements are pending at this moment.
Suggested CD to listen to Norman’s great work
Emperor of Soul
The Master 1961-1984
1975 MCA Records