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norman whitfield

Norman Whitfield

b. 1943, New York City, U.S.A.

Simply stated, Norman Whitfield's writing and production work was way ahead of it's time.

A principal architect of the classic Motown sound of the 1960's, producer and composer Norman Whitfield helmed many of the greatest records in the pop canon, among them perennial hits from The Temptations and Marvin Gaye.

Born in New York City in 1943, he paid his dues as a staff producer at the tiny Detroit label Thelma Records before moving on to Motown in 1963.

Originally hired as a writer, Whitfield soon graduated to production, crafting singles for The Marvelettes ('Too Many Fish in the Sea') and The Velvelettes ('Needle in a Haystack') which were virtually indistinguishable from the prevailing Motown aesthetic pioneered by the Holland / Dozier / Holland team, their success allowed him to assume production duties for label superstars the Temptations.

In tandem with co-producer Brian Holland, Whitfield pushed the Temptations, towards a rougher, grittier R & B style typified by the smash 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg', the hits 'Beauty's Only Skin Deep' and '(I Know) I'm Losing You' quickly followed, and when Whitfield took over sole control of the group in 1967, he stripped even more of their gloss away.

A series of bluesy hits for Gladys Knight and the Pips further established his raw, dramatic sound as a commercially and artistically viable counterpoint to the style and sophistication of the Holland / Dozier / Holland trio.

Still, Whitfield's finest work was yet to come in 1968, he brought his song 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' previously recorded by Gladys Knight, to Marvin Gaye, the match was perfect, and the single with its remarkable vocals, spartan arrangement and pulsing rhythm remains arguably the pinnacle of the Motown era.

Around that same time, Whitfield teamed with lyricist Barrett Strong to compose a new series of Temptations records which reflected the emergence of psychedelia, beginning with 1968's 'I Wish It Would Rain' the first Motown release to incorporate the use of sound effects.

Whitfield and Strong masterminded a string of classic Temptations hits, among them 'Cloud Nine,' 'I Can't Get Next to You' and 'Ball of Confusion,' mirroring the social, political and sexual turmoil of the 1960's.

Subsequent classics like Edwin Starr's 'War' and the Undisputed Truth's 'Smiling Faces Sometimes' were as much pop hits as messages from the front, and Whitfield matched his increasingly progressive material with productions that stretched the Motown aesthetic to its limits, culminating in the Temptations 1972 symphonic epic 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone.'

In the wake of unified artistic statements like Gaye's 1971 landmark 'What's Going On' and Stevie Wonder's 1973 classic 'Innervisions', Motown's focus shifted from the seven-inch single to the LP format.

Whitfield, too, conceived not simply individual songs but complex, multi-layered albums, reaching his apex on the Temptations' aptly titled 'Masterpiece'.

However, feeling increasingly stifled by Motown's creative restrictions, he left the label in 1975 to form his own Whitfield Records, its corporate logo a stencilled 'W' little more than the Motown 'M' simply flipped upside-down and recolored.

Moving into a contemporary funk sound, he scored an early smash with the group Rose Royce and their soundtrack to the 1976 film 'Car Wash', but in the years to follow, Whitfield productions grew increasingly out of step with the times, and by the early 1980's he had essentially vanished from the pop landscape.

...why not take a listen to 'Sunrise', taken from the Rose Royce album 'Car Wash', right here.

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