Norman, what were you thinking?
One of Motown’s greatest wongwriters and producers pleaded guilty Tuesday to failing to report more than $2 million in royalty income. He admitted to failing to file tax returns on about $600,000 a year between 1995 and 1999. Whitfield, 64, is scheduled to be sentenced April 18.
“Um, I forgot?”
Norman Whitfield stands as the most adventuresome and funky of the giant Motown songwriter/producers (Holland/Dozier/Holland, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy himself), and his greatest work: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War” and his seven-years of hits with the Temptations, ranks among the finest pop music of the last fifty years.
Norman Whitfield was born in Harlem in 1943 where he developed twin interests in music and billiards. Whitfield’s family fortuitously ended up in Detroit when his father’s car broke down on the way back to New York from an aunt’s funeral in California.
By 18 Whitfield had already written and produced local hits for the Distants and the Synetics. The persistent, observant youth could be found loitering about the Motown office, “always staring at something,” Berry Gordy told Nelson George in Where Did Our Love Go? Tall, thin and quiet, Whitfield somewhat creepily watched for a year before he was hired in 1962 by Gordy at $15 per week to listen to demos and rate them for future release as part of Motown’s mysterious Quality Control department. Following two long years of rating and waiting, Whitfield finally wrote and produced his first songs for Motown, the Velvelettes’ “Needle In a Haystack” and the Marvelettes’ “Too Many Fish In the Sea.”
The mild success of these songs led a call up to the majors, The Temptations. The group with “five lead singers” (David Ruffin – replaced by Dennis Edwards in 1968, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin), the temptin’ Temptations became the male vocal group of the ‘60s and the early-’70s. Mellifluous harmonies, dynamic dance steps, and killer material provided primarily by Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield (with cowriters Eddie Holland and Barrett Strong), yielded 43 Top Ten hits over 25 years.
After recording a series of unsuccessful singles with Motown beginning in 1962, The Tempt’s hooked up with Smokey Robinson for their first smash “The Way You Do the Things You Do” in 1964. Whitfield’s first attempt was “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)” which climbed to No. 26 on the pop chart, disappointing by Motown standards. Whitfield had to again step aside for the next year-and-a-half as Smokey Robinson cranked out hit after hit for the group including their signature tune, “My Girl.” After Smokey’s “Get Ready” stalled at No. 29 in 1966, Whitfield was brought back in to take another swing.
Whitfield came into his own with the classic “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Benny Benjamin’s crisp drum intro commands the listeners’ attention as David Ruffin’s abject first line is wrenched from his soul: “I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go.” The songs bounces along jauntily behind the fabulous Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, with the Tempt’s twirling and gesturing as Ruffin pleads for his relationship, and perhaps, his life. His friends lend concerned support on the chorus, but Ruffin’s regret-strained voice tells us that he is ultimately alone – so, so alone. This is on the other side of the universe from the satisfied pop of “My Girl.”
“Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” and the passionate ”(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “I Wish It Would Rain” also featured Ruffin on lead as the hits continued. Firmly established as the Temptation’s writer/producer, Whitfield kept up the Motown tradition of cross-pollination when he and Barrett Strong wrote “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” which sold 2.5 million copies and reached No. 2 for Gladys Knight and the Pips in ‘67. Whitfield let the group contribute its smoking uptempo vocal arrangement featuring Knight’s churchy soul-belt call, and the Pips’ empathetic, indignant response. Whitfield also produced the Knight hits “Friendship Train” and “The Nitty Gritty.”
In one remarkable week in October ‘68, Motown released both Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.” Gaye’s “Grapevine,” which had been in the can for over a year, sat atop the pop chart for seven weeks.
Gaye’s version embodies all of the insinuation and intrigue inherent in the lyrics. The recording opens with a tambourine strike redolent of gypsy campfires, closely stalked by a hushed piano figure, a furtive hi-hat pulse joins in as the tambourine shudders a sibilant warning. A guitar doubles the piano, a muted trumpet rears it head and Marvin Gaye’s magical instrument wordlessly crescendos into the opening line, “Oooh, I bet you’re wondrin’ how I knew..”
With the beat made explicit and strings swirling about, commenting, embellishing, Whitfield’s arrangement matches Gaye’s thrilling vocal line for line as he sways through the stages of grief from suspicion, to anger, to hopeful denial to stunned acceptance. Had Whitfield written and produced nothing else, he would still belong in this book.
In the mid-to-late-’60s Sly Stone psychedelicized black music by combining peace, love and social conscience with gospel melodies, funky beats and rock’n’roll. Whitfield wanted to follow him onto the new vibe with the Temptations. When David Ruffin, always suspect as a team player, blew off a 1968 live performance, he was fired and replaced by ex-Contour Dennis Edwards, whose gut bucket shout was perfect for Whitfield’s trip into uncharted waters. Whitfield began to write and use the studio differently as his hair sprouted into a militant afro, and the old Funk Brothers house band began to break up.
Uriel Jones replaced the ailing Benny Benjamin on drums. Bob Babbitt replaced James Jamerson on bass, while Dennis Coffey and Wah-Wah Watson came in on guitar. Jones tells Nelson George that “Cloud Nine” “began as a beat on the cymbal … He’d have you sit and play that two or three minutes by itself, and he’d tell you to add a certain beat on the foot. Actually, what he’s doing is just listening to see what he wants to add to it … A lot of times we’d just sit and play and just rap on the tune until somebody just opens up and does something. We’d have as many as twelve or thirteen guys in there just grooving on the rhythm.”
“Cloud Nine” experiments with structure, rough social commentary and vocal trade-offs in the context of a lyric that accepts, or at least sympathizes with drug use. Many were stunned. The adrenaline rush, the funk, the freaky instrumentation and the social realism that Whitfield and the Temptations strung out on “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” and especially “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” directly influenced Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Gamble and Huff, Barry White, among many others, and eventually led to the extended grooves and shameless hedonism of disco.
Gradually Whitfield’s experimentation with the Tempt’s yielded diminishing returns and he turned his attention elsewhere. In 1970 he produced the uncompromising “War” for the leather-lunged Edwin Starr, and in 1971 he worked more paranoid magic with the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”
In 1976, he left Motown and formed his own label, Whitfield, and scored the gold soundtrack for the movie Car Wash, performed by his new group, Rose Royce. Royce, with lead singer Gwen Dickey, also hit with “I Wanna Get Next To You,”, and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” which Madonna took to No. 1 almost twenty years later.
Norman Whitfield (along with Barrett Strong) has been honored with the National Academy of Songwriters’ Lifetime Achievement Award, but he still awaits induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor that is long overdue.
Like his tax bill.