Norman Whitfield: Songwriter and producer who added a political edge to Motown

While Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier defined "The Sound Of Young America" which was championed by mid-sixties Tamla Motown, the songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield took Berry Gordy Jr.'s label in a whole new direction with the psychedelic soundscapes he created for The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth, Edwin Starr and Rare Earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With Barrett Strong, another Motown mainstay, Whitfield had written "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", a hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips (1967) and Marvin Gaye (1968), and now one of the most recorded songs in the catalogue of Jobete, Motown's publishing arm. But, when he finally took over The Temptations from Smokey Robinson in 1968, he turned them into a socially-conscious act whose material – "Cloud Nine", "Runaway Child, Running Wild", "Psychedelic Shack", "Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)", "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" – chimed in with the more militant times and reflected their audience's concerns.

The Temptations' vocalist Eddie Kendricks might have declared "I don't dig those weird, freaky sounds" before leaving the group in 1971, after singing lead on the soulful ballad "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" – another Strong-Whitfield composition – yet albums like Puzzle People (1969), All Directions (1972) and Masterpiece (1973) were big sellers, making the Top Ten in the US and keeping Motown relevant in the Black Power and funk era.

The anti-Vietnam war protest song "War" originally appeared on The Temptations' Psychedelic Shack album in 1970, but Gordy was wary of releasing it as a single, despite the fact that students strongly identified with its message. Whitfield cut another backing track of the composition he had written with Eddie Holland and offered to it to Rare Earth, the white group signed to Motown. They turned it down. "Edwin Starr was walking down the hall and I said: 'I got a song for you'," Whitfield remembered. "When we got ready to dub it in, I got a couple of school kids to share the experience with him, of them coming to Motown. I did that from time to time, because I realised there was no vision there, because of the poverty." Starr's gritty take on "War" topped the US charts at the end of 1970.

Arguably the first black/African-American producer as auteur, Whitfield also helped The Temptations win Motown's first Grammy, for "Cloud Nine" in 1968, and repeated the feat with "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" in 1972. The producer earned a third Grammy in 1976 for the soundtrack to the film Car Wash, which launched the group Rose Royce. They went on to score a dozen more hits produced by Whitfield for the self-titled label he started after leaving Motown in 1974.

In the Eighties he made a brief return to Motown, renewing his association with The Temptations on the Back To Basics album (1983) and working on the soundtrack to the martial arts film co-produced by Berry Gordy, The Last Dragon (1985). Whitfield lived comfortably off his royalties but fell foul of the IRS after failing to declare over $2m [£1.2m] of income in the second half of the 1990s. Because he suffered from diabetes and pleaded guilty when the matter came to court in 2005, he was only sentenced to six months' house arrest, but had to pay a $25,000 fine.

Whitfield was born and raised in Harlem, New York. He wound up in Detroit when his father's car broke down on the way back from his grandmother's funeral in California and the family settled in the Motor City. In the 1950s, Whitfield was keener on playing pool than making music, until he realised how lucrative the business could be.

"I don't have any formal musical training," he said. "It was done basically by a desire. When I saw Smokey Robinson driving in a Cadillac, to be absolutely point-blank, that's what inspired me. I actually ran up behind him and asked him: 'How do you get started?'"

In between working in a service station and hustling pool, Whitfield played percussion on recordings by Popcorn and The Mohawks and began hanging around Motown's premises. In 1961, he scored a local hit with "I've Gotten Over You", and Gordy started to take him more seriously, offering him $15 a week to work for Motown in 1962. Whitfield was nominally in charge of appraising white labels without knowing who the artist was. He was competing with Holl-and/Dozier/Holland and Robinson when trying to place his songs with the label's artists. "There was a certain tenaciousness inside of me, something that would always drive me to make something very special," he said.

At first, he wrote with the lyricist Eddie Holland, notably on "Too Many Fish In The Sea" (1964) for The Marvelettes, "Needle In A Haystack" and "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'" (1964) for The Velvelettes, as well as "Ain't Too Proud To Beg", "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You" (1966) for The Temptations.

Most famously, he also struck up a partnership with Strong, who had scored Motown's first hit with "Money (That's What I Want)" in 1960. Whitfield and Strong had been rivals for the affections of various girls but put this aside to write together. "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" was probably loosely inspired by their former rivalry, though Whitfield also stated that "there's a tremendous story behind that song." The expression, he said, "went all the way back to Confederate black soldiers. They had a grapevine in order to pass on their words and experiences to each other."

Whitfield believed in "Grapevine" and recorded versions by The Miracles and The Isley Brothers as well as Marvin Gaye; the version by Gladys Knight & The Pips reached No 2 in the US. Gaye's take on "Grapevine" topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

By then, Strong and Whitfield had hit a rich seam writing for The Temptations, though Whitfield always produced alone. He had a knack for building epic, near-symphonic tracks and never giving up on a song. Both "Smiling Faces Sometimes" and "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" were hits for The Undisputed Truth which he subsequently cut with The Temptations.

When asked which of his compositions he favoured, Whitfield tended to ignore "Grapevine" and plump for "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby", a 1969 hit for Marvin Gaye, or "Ooh Boy", one of Rose Royce's dozen or so hits in the late 1970s. "Melodies and good lyrics are forever," he said about his peerless catalogue of songs, which have been covered by Bruce Springsteen ("War"), the Rolling Stones ("Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "Just My Imagination") and Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Grapevine").

"The people make the songs what they are," he said. "As writers, we only do what we do and then we have to give it to the public. They're the ones who determine if you're a genius or a failure."

Pierre Perrone

Norman Jesse Whitfield, songwriter, producer: born New York 1943; married (three sons); died Los Angeles 16 August 2008.

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