Norman Whitfield, an important record producer who rose to fame at Berry Gordy’s Motown company in the late-’60s and early-’70s, has died aged 67 from diabetes complications.
Born in Harlem in 1943, Norman Jesse Whitfield eked a living as a street-savvy, pool hall hustler before turning his attention to the music business in his late teens. After his family moved to Detroit – apparently they were attracted to the city after being stranded there on the way back from a family funeral – Whitfield began to make a name for himself as a percussionist and songwriter on the local Motor Town music scene (he appeared on records by Popcorn & The Mohawks and The Distants).
In 1962, Whitfield eventually got his foot in the door at Motown, where he joined the company’s quality control panel. Not content with that role, the fiercely ambitious would-be entrepreneur
emerged as a talented songwriter, his early successes including ‘Too Many Fish In The Sea’ by The Marvelettes and ‘Needle In A Haystack’ by The Velvelettes.
But it was largely as a songwriter and producer for The Temptations that Whitfield’s career took a quantum leap forward. Between 1966 and 1974 he fashioned a plethora of memorable hits for the vocal quintet, including ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,’ ‘Cloud Nine’ (Motown’s first Grammy-winning song), ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’ and the 1972 widescreen soul epic, ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ (which also grabbed a Grammy).
His ascendancy within Motown’s hierarchy was aided by the acrimonious departure of Motown’s ace songwriting/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland in 1967, who quit over a royalty dispute. Whitfield ably filled the vacuum left by H-D-H, producing a slew of hits not only for the Tempts but also Gladys Knight & The Pips and Marvin Gaye (the latter two artists both scored huge chart smashes with the Whitfield co-penned ‘I Heard It Thought The Grapevine’ in 1967 and 1968 respectively). Significantly, Norman Whitfield – who wrote most of his material alongside Barrett Strong – also facilitated the introduction of politics and social realism to Motown’s late-’60s records, as evidenced by songs like ‘Ball Of Confusion’ by The Temptations and ‘War’ by Edwin Starr. Sonically, too, Whitfield was an innovator, melding soul, pop, and gospel elements with lysergic rock to produce a sound that became know as ‘psychedelic soul.’ In the 1970s, Whitfield’s production values became more grandiose as he experimented with extended cinematic grooves on groups like The Undisputed Truth.
In 1974, Whitfield quit Motown and groomed a funk group called Rose Royce for stardom. In 1976, Whitfield and the group collaborated on the prodigiously successful soundtrack to the comedy movie, ‘Car Wash.’ The producer then formed his own Whitfield label, signing Rose Royce and The Undisputed Truth.
In recent years, Whitfield, who lived in Los Angeles, suffered chronic health problems. In fact, his ailing condition was the reason why the IRS showed leniency and reduced his punishment for over $2 million unpaid taxes to house arrest and a $25,000 fine.