Motown producer, songwriter won 2 Grammys
Norman Whitfield, the Grammy-winning songwriter and forward-thinking producer who helped shape the direction of R&B; and soul music at Motown Records in the 1960s and ‘70s, died Tuesday. He was 67.
Whitfield, the co-writer of dozens of Motown hits, including Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and producer of most of the Temptations’ recordings, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, reportedly of complications from his long struggle with diabetes. He also had a history of heart and kidney ailments.
“Norman Whitfield was one of the most prolific songwriters and record producers of our time,” fellow Motown veteran Smokey Robinson said in a statement Wednesday. “He will live forever through his great music.”
Whitfield wrote, usually with Barrett Strong, and produced such era-defining hits as “Grapevine,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” The latter earned Whitfield one of his two Grammy Awards as a songwriter and composer.
His ambitious production work helped move Motown from the catchy love songs that typified the label’s output in the early and mid-'60s into social commentary reflecting volatile issues that were at the heart of the civil rights movement.
“Of all the brilliant writer-producers that Motown has given to the world, I believe none was more brilliant than Norman Whitfield,” the Temptations’ longtime manager, Shelly Berger, said in a statement Wednesday.
“Most producers stick to basically one type of music,” Berger added. “When you listen to Norman’s body of work, from ‘Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,’ ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,’ ‘Ball of Confusion,’ ‘Cloud Nine,’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone,’ two [hit] productions of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ then top it off with ‘Just My Imagination’ . . . Norman [is] in a class of his own.”
Whitfield had a reputation as a tenacious songwriter and producer who extended the life of his songs by recording them with different artists and varying arrangements.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had been recorded with little success at Motown by the Isley Brothers and the Miracles -- and Gaye -- before Whitfield tried it with Gladys Knight & the Pips.
He recorded it with her in part out of frustration over Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.'s refusal to release Gaye’s version as a single. Knight’s record went to No. 1 on the R&B; chart and No. 2 on the pop chart, persuading Gordy to change his mind and put out Gaye’s version, for which Whitfield had pushed him to the upper limit of his vocal range.
“While working on the songs for the ‘M.P.G.’ album, Norman set the songs in keys that were too high for Marvin so he could get Marvin to strain and hit the top of his tenor range without going into falsetto,” said David Ritz, author of “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye.” “That drove Marvin crazy and they almost came to blows.”
Gaye once told an interviewer that while recording “Grapevine”: “I was reaching for notes that made my veins bulge. . . . Had I written the song myself, I would not have sung it at all like that, but there are many benefits in just singing other people’s material and taking directions.”
That 1968 recording spent seven weeks at No. 1 and pushed Gaye’s career to a new peak. “When people heard ‘Grapevine,’ they said, ‘This is a phenomenal artist -- he can do anything,” Strong said in 2003.
That success also gave Motown renewed cachet at a time when the hits were slowing down from the label’s earlier powerhouses such as the Supremes, Four Tops and the Miracles, before the Temptations got their second wind thanks to Whitfield’s guiding hand in the studio.
Whitfield and Strong’s “Psychedelic Shack” brought the sound of experimental rock into the halls of Motown in 1970 and became a Top 10 hit for the Temptations.
They scored an even bigger hit with the follow-up, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” a sonic whirlwind that piled on topical lyrics and rhymes a la Bob Dylan or John Lennon.
“To me, he gave Motown another 10 years of life by coming up with this new attitude,” said Ritz, who also collaborated on Robinson’s autobiography.
“Smokey said the great thing about Norman -- and they were extremely competitive with each other -- was that he brought out the best in everybody,” Ritz said. “It was almost like by being confrontational with the vocalist, he got them to not only sing their [best], he also got them to dig into their souls a little bit deeper.”
Whitfield was born in 1941, according to voter registration records, in New York City and was a teenager when his family moved to Detroit, where Gordy had recently launched Motown Records.
As a teen, Whitfield produced recordings for local R&B; acts at Thelma Records. He often hung around Motown, and in 1962 was hired as a songwriter, joining Gordy’s growing stable of writers that included Harvey Fuqua and the team of Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Eddie Holland.
Gordy teamed Whitfield up with Strong, whose 1960 recording of his own song, “Money,” gave Motown one of its first hits. After some early successes with their songs, Gordy recognized Whitfield’s talent at production and put him in charge of the Temptations, who first reached No. 1 on the pop chart with “My Girl,” written and produced by Robinson.
But starting with “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” in 1966, Whitfield wrote and produced more than two dozen hits for the group over the next eight years.
“We grew up together,” original Temptations singer Otis Williams said Wednesday. “He was my lifelong friend [and] one of the best producers Motown ever had.”
Whitfield also oversaw recordings by Edwin Starr, who hit No. 1 with Whitfield’s thunderously produced single “War,” and the Undisputed Truth.
In the mid-1970s, Whitfield left Motown and started his own Whitfield Records, and went to No. 1 again with Rose Royce’s disco-era hit “Car Wash.” The musical score for that 1976 film snagged Whitfield his second Grammy.
Said author Ritz: “I was working with Berry Gordy once and he told me ‘Man, if the Motown Museum should have a whole wing dedicated to one person, it would be Norman Whitfield.’ ”
In 2005, Whitfield pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was fined $25,000 for failing to report more than $4 million in income. He was sentenced to home detention rather than prison because of his failing health.
Information on Whitfield’s survivors or funeral services was not immediately available.