Norman Whitfield was one of the architects of the Motown sound, from its early peak as a national label through its waning days of major chart success. More than that, however, Whitfield and his personal drive became an important part of the psychological dynamic of the label, often pushing Motown founder Berry Gordy to try out songs and sounds that he didn't fully appreciate himself, to their mutual benefit.
Born in New York in 1943, Whitfield wasn't yet in his teens when R&B began exerting itself as a major musical force. His main interest as a youth was centered on the pool hall, not the dance hall -- according to Nelson George in his book Where Did Our Love Go?, Whitfield not only developed a steady hand with a pool cue, but a good eye for observing and sizing up those around him. His interest in R&B dates from his mid-teens, and it was not long after that the New York-born Whitfield found himself stranded in Detroit, when his father's car broke down while on the way back from a relative's funeral in California. The family eventually relocated there, and Whitfield hustled pool and performed other marginal pursuits to survive, and also began watching and learning what was needed to work in music. He was a fast learner, too -- at 18, he'd written and produced at Detroit's Thelma Records, including sides by Richard Street (future member of the Temptations), and played as a member of the Distants, the precursors to the latter group; he'd also played tambourine with the band Popcorn and the Mohawks on some Thelma sides backing the Distants. He was to see sides and potential in that group's sound that would enhance both of their careers in the decade to follow.
In the meantime, he became an admirer of Berry Gordy as the latter emerged as the most promising new music entrepreneur in Detroit. Gordy wasn't always tolerant of the young man's presence at Motown's studios, and occasionally chased him off the premises, but not so often that Whitfield didn't pick up what he needed to know: watching recordings being made and songs being fine-tuned. Gordy finally came to appreciate Whitfield's persistence as an attribute they shared, and put him in charge of "quality control" -- he would listen to blank label copies of the company's latest finished sides and critique them without knowing who was on or behind them, boil his observations down to a numerical score, and give the results to Gordy to think about.
In late 1962, Whitfield became part of the early boom era at Motown Records, joining the ranks of Harvey Fuqua, Mickey Stevenson, and the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. Among his early successes was "I Couldn't Cry If I Wanted To," written in collaboration with Eddie Holland and cut by the Temptations in late 1962. It soon became clear to Gordy that Whitfield's talents extended to arranging and production, and it was in the latter capacity that he came to prominence at the label. Whitfield enjoyed some success as a composer with "Too Many Fish in the Sea" by the Marvelettes, and "Needle in a Haystack" by the Velvettes, but it was his drive and his vision as a producer that allowed him to take over the helm of the Temptations' records.
From 1963 onward, Whitfield had produced most of their recordings of his own songs, and by 1966, he'd completely taken over producing the Temptations in the wake of their huge hit "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," as well as "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" and "I Know I'm Losing You." For the next few years, Whitfield or his protégé, Frank Wilson, produced virtually all of the Temptations' recordings, although as Gordy recalled in his autobiography, Whitfield was ambitious enough to extend his influence as a producer far and wide; he still wrote songs as well, and he was always looking for different ways of presenting the same composition.
In this regard, Whitfield's approach to music resembled that of the record producers of what was, by then, a bygone era. Rather than content himself -- as most of his contemporaries did -- with producing one hit version of a song done a certain way and aimed at a particular audiences, he would treat the same song differently with a variety of artists, looking for new permutations of its appeal to put before the public. Had he worked for a label like Columbia or RCA Victor in the middle/late '50's, with a roster of artists spanning the musical spectrum, Whitfield might well have been cutting R&B, country, pop, and rock & roll (and vocal and instrumental) versions of his songs.
Gordy marveled at the moments when Whitfield was hooked on an idea. Even when one of his songs was a hit, he would try the song in a different way, placing it with an artist who would take it in a distinctly different direction. Gordy also soon learned to trust Whitfield's bouts of seemingly reckless enthusiasm. When the record label chief vetoed a single release of Whitfield's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" that had been cut by Marvin Gaye, opting instead for a more romantic song, Whitfield refused to let the matter drop. He turned around and annoyed Gordy intensely, finally cajoling him into okaying another attempt at the song by Gladys Knight & the Pips. Their version, almost a gospel rendition, was a huge hit, by some accounts the biggest-selling single in the history of the label up to that time; in its wake, the Marvin Gaye rendition, much more raw sounding (and also produced by Whitfield), was issued, and it chalked up even bigger sales than its predecessor. The song also became one of the most valuable copyrights owned by Motown, as it was covered by hundreds of artists, most notably Creedence Clearwater Revival, both on an edited single, and as an epic-length jam on their perennially popular LP Cosmo's Factory.
Whitfield became the company's spark plug as music entered the psychedelic era, taking to the new sound, and especially the use of sound effects, more easily than most of the label's production personnel. And the Temptations, whose singing had taken on a darker sound in 1968 when original lead singer David Ruffin was succeeded by Dennis Edwards, effectively became his "instrument," Whitfield conceiving ever more ambitious songs and productions in which to employ them; their singles and albums were his canvas, which he filled up with his songs, creating ever more involved and ambitious works in the process. Beginning with the single "I Wish It Would Rain," written in collaboration with lyricist Eddie Holland, he moved both the group and Motown into a new era, which opened up the subject matter as well as the sound of their songs. "I Can't Get Next to You," "Ball of Confusion," and "Cloud Nine" -- all written with his main songwriting partner, Barrett Strong -- were among the best records to come out of the label during the turn of the '60s and into the '70s. Additionally, the 1968 single "Cloud Nine" became the first Motown record to win a Grammy Award, for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance by a Duo or Group. When Whitfield wasn't producing the albums himself, Frank Wilson, using techniques and approaches he'd learned from Whitfield, was in charge. By way of Wilson's contemporary work with the Four Tops, Whitfield's influence extended to other corners of the Motown stable during this era.
Whitfield kept moving with the times, his songs taking on an edge of gritty social realism in their lyrics that were far removed from the romantic ballads on which much of the "Motown Sound" had been built across the company's first decade. The title track on the Temptations' album Masterpiece (1973) was the quintessential effort in this direction, an epic-length production propelled by a driving beat and lush instrumentation (in several layers) and filled with lyrics steeped in the urban landscape of the time -- ironically, as impressive as the latter was as a production, five people who were not entirely pleased with the track or the album were the Temptations themselves, who felt that they'd taken something of a back seat to the instrumentation and the overall production on what was supposed to be their album. Even amid all of this activity with the Temptations, he found other important outlets for his compositions, most notably in the person of Edwin Starr. He had been with Motown for several years without scoring a major hit, but in 1970 he enjoyed the biggest single of his career with "War," co-written by Whitfield and Holland. The song was so well-known that 22 years later, its lyrics ("War, what is it good for") figured in a key joke (involving Tolstoy's War and Peace) at the center of an episode of Seinfeld.
Whitfield created a new group around this time out of the ruins of a failed Motown act called the Delicates and one ex-member of a group called the Preps -- he put Billie Rae Calvin, Brenda Joyce Evans, and Joe Harris together as the Undisputed Truth and, calling all of the shots for the group as far as songs and recordings, they became one of his two principal vehicles for his musical ideas. The group hit right out of the box with another Whitfield song that managed to capture its time and place, "Smiling Faces Sometimes," which became a number three hit in 1971. The song itself may have said more than it meant to about the time in which it was written, recorded, and released, with a slow tempo and an ominous mood. The trio never hit again as big as they did with that song, as Whitfield concentrated most of his efforts on the Temptations, but he used the Undisputed Truth to try out funk and psychedelic experiments, both with his own songs (including the first version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone") and covers of other writers' songs.
Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's Innervisions saw the company enter a last, great flowering in its recordings. Whitfield enjoyed a professional triumph with the Temptations' All Directions (1972), and followed it up with his greatest effort, the appropriately named Masterpiece (1973); and it was a two-fold personal and professional triumph, for both albums featured a lineup of the group -- Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, Damon Harris, Melvin Franklin, and Otis Williams -- which, though well-regarded, lacked the presence of acknowledged stars Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. But Masterpiece's critical notices were better than its sales, and Whitfield soon found himself, like most of the label's other producers, being discouraged from further recordings as ambitious as that, particularly as Motown's fortunes declined.
The company had started the '70s in exceptional financial health, the world at its feet and the sky seemingly the limit, but by the middle of the decade it had taken huge losses, not only on some recordings, but more tellingly on several dubious film-related projects that truly crippled their bottom line. And even as the label's fortunes were starting to turn downward, Whitfield and the Temptations generated a triple-decker award-winning single in "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," which won two Grammys plus a songwriter's award. That success was complicated by the growing antipathy of the Temptations themselves, who sometimes felt like backup participants on their own records amid Whitfield's production efforts -- and Whitfield's prominent visual presence on Masterpiece's artwork -- a rare level of prominence for a producer -- couldn't have helped matters with the group.
Masterpiece, on In Japan. One is hard-pressed to find anything less than 100 percent enthusiasm from the Temptations, especially on "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," but while their performance of "Masterpiece" is energetic (and the song receives a rousing roar at start and finish from the crowd), it's also abbreviated and pushes the vocalists to the fore, and doesn't even attempt to emulate Whitfield's elaborate studio approach. It's very much the Temptations' own approach to the song, as distinct from Whitfield's, not that it would have been a simple matter to re-create the latter's approach live.
In 1975, faced with reduced options at the recording company that had been his professional home for more than a decade, Whitfield left Motown to start his own label, Whitfield Records. Its emblem, a W, was virtually an inverted Motown M with a different color scheme, and he took the Undisputed Truth with him and kept tinkering with their sound. He recruited new members, most notably Taka Boom (aka Yvonne Stevens, the sister of Chaka Khan), later with the Glass Family, to work with Joe Harris, and saw hits from this version of the group with "You + Me = Love" and "Let's Go Down to the Disco." Whitfield's big success with his own label, however, and his last big commercial hit, came in 1976 with the group Rose Royce, which he had discovered during their time as Edwin Starr's backup band (known then as Magic Wand). Beginning with their soundtrack to the movie Car Wash, the group enjoyed a series of three hit albums and accompanying hit singles for Whitfield's label.
Beginning in the '80s and with the decline of disco, however, Whitfield was virtually unheard as either a producer or songwriter, except for the omnipresent reissues of his 13 years of Motown productions -- in that regard, in 2002 and 2003, the Undisputed Truth were the subject of separate compilations on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Temptations' catalog has been mined regularly and remastered with increasing frequency since the late '90s. Whitfield did return to Motown briefly in the early '80s to produce the Temptations' "Sail Away," and also the soundtrack album to the movie The Last Dragon. Though largely invisible professionally in his later years, he did re-emerge in the news in 2005 when he pleaded guilty to settle a tax evasion case from the late '90s. After a long bout with diabetes and subsequent health issues, Whitfield died in Los Angeles, CA, on September 16, 2008, at age 65.