XXLmag.com was obviously down yesterday, so my RIP post for Norman Whitfield is a day late. My apologies. Peep the news:
Norman Whitfield, the Grammy-winning songwriter and forward-thinking producer who helped shape the direction of R&B and soul music at Motown Records in the 1960s and 70s, died Tuesday. He was 67. Whitfield, the co-writer of dozens of Motown hits, including Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and producer of most of the Temptations’ recordings, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, reportedly of complications from his long struggle with diabetes. He also had a history of heart and kidney ailments.
Although Norman Whitfield may be a mystery to some, to Motown fans he’s the guy who changed the sound of the label, particularly with The Temptations, in the mid to late 60s. He ushered in an era of more psychedelic arrangements and harmonies, and used all types of studio tricks to achieve things sonically that hadn’t really been incorporated into Motown recordings before. A lot of the Temptations material from the 70s are these long drawn out compositions that actually downplay the Temps as vocalists and focus more on instrumentation and arrangements. It’s not uncommon for one of the album versions of a song from this era to be 12-15 minutes long. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” is a good example of Whitfield’s style during that era. He also is credited for helping bring a more socially and culturally relevant style of song-writing to the label. Note the Temptations hit “Cloud Nine,” which many regard as being about getting high, which at the time was a very “in” thing to be doing.
Norman Whitfield eventually left Motown and started his own record label, Whitfield Records, and he had some success with the group Rose Royce. But for the most part, his legendary status comes from his work with Motown. A lot of the elements of his production style- the brooding arrangements, the heavy usage of delays and wha-wha effects- they were adopted by others in the music business. And it’s hard to say who originated the style. But as any avid record collector knows, Whitfield’s records are true gems, something to listen to just for the sheer production value alone. They are meticulously put together and sound near perfect.
Norman Whitfield will be missed.