September 18, 2008


Motown songwriter Norman Whitfield known for his genius (BRIAN McCOLLUM, 9/18/08, Detroit FREE PRESS)

The Grammy-winning Whitfield was the most prominent of Motown's second-wave songwriter-producers, sculpting deeply textured, sophisticated music for artists such as the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Rare Earth. In the late 1960s, he helped propel the Detroit label into ambitious new territory, pushing Motown beyond the sweet melodies and puppy-love tales of its early days into edgier, more expansive music.

It was the difference between "My Girl" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone": Whitfield's work was darker, funkier, often laced with exotic instrumentation. Drawing inspiration from San Francisco psychedelia and British hard rock, he crafted music with social themes: the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion," Edwin Starr's "War,"Gladys Knight & the Pipse Pips' "Friendship Train."

His post-Motown career was most famously marked by his soundtrack for the film "Car Wash," which included a chart-topping hit of the same name in 1977.

The talent was instinctive, but it didn't always translate easily. Friends and colleagues remembered Whitfield as a maverick with a bite, a musical visionary who fiercely battled for his ideas.

"Norman was a taskmaster in the studio," said Otis Williams of the Temptations. "He wanted what he wanted. Everybody who worked with him knew he could be very adamant and vocal about what he believed in."

But Whitfield was usually right. He racked up hit after hit, many written in collaboration with close friend Barrett Strong, including the song that would become Motown's most successful: "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," a smash for Knight and Gaye.

A Northwestern High School graduate, Whitfield started his music career in the late 1950s as a tambourine player with the band Popcorn and the Mohawks, his entrée into the local music circles that would soon lead him to Motown.

Songwriting on the side led to Whitfield's big break in 1966, when his song "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" became a smash for the Temptations. He became the group's go-to collaborator, and his knack for the rigors of studio work -- including intricate hand-editing of tape -- soon flourished.

"Nobody in the business could lay down funkier grooves than Norman," said Williams. "He was a master in the studio."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2008 7:37 AM
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