Thursday, September 18, 2008

Norman Whitfield Dies-Writer of I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Prolific songwriter Norman Whitfield died on Sept 16th.
This from USA Today:

By Steve Jones, USA TODAY

Norman Whitfield knew how to get the best out of an artist, even if the singer hated him for it.
The opening of Papa Was a Rollin' Stone— "It was the third of September. That day I'll always remember, 'cause that was the day that my daddy died" — coincidentally rang true for Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards, whose own father had died on that date. Whitfield refused to change it, and Edwards' seething delivery set the tone for the stirring tale of paternal abandonment.

It was just one example of how the producer/songwriter steered Motown's sunny sound into darker territory in the late '60s and into the '70s.

Whitfield, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles at 67 from complications of diabetes, wrote and produced some of the label's most memorable pop hits in the early '60s before ushering in an era of socially relevant themes.

Much of what is now regarded as classic soul owes a large debt to Whitfield, who persuaded skeptical Motown founder Berry Gordy to let him stray from a wildly successful formula. His mold-breaking encouraged Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and others to pursue directions that would yield some of their greatest works.

Teamed with lyricist Barrett Strong, Whitfield produced such classics as Gaye's and Gladys Knight & The Pips' I Heard It Through the Grapevine and The Tempts' Ain't Too Proud to Beg.

But his most enduring legacy came with his Sly Stone/P-Funk-influenced shift to the psychedelic funk/soul sound that featured sinister keys, reverberating guitars, moaning horns and haunting strings.

After David Ruffin parted with The Tempts in 1968 and was replaced by gruff-voiced Edwards, the group de-emphasized love songs to deal with poverty, politics, drug abuse and despair.

Between 1968 and 1973, The Tempts took to Cloud Nine, scolded the Runaway Child, Running Wild, warned Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down, partied at the Psychedelic Shack and painted a grim urban Masterpiece. Meanwhile, Edwin Starr raged against War and the Undisputed Truth cautioned about Smiling Faces Sometimes.

Whitfield left Motown in 1973 as artists grew weary of long tracks dominated by heavy instrumentation — and his outsized ego. (The back cover of The Tempts' Masterpiece album was taken up mostly by Whitfield's huge Afro and face, with only a small picture of the band.)

Establishing Whitfield Records, he had his greatest post-Motown success with Rose Royce, who scored a No. 1 pop hit in 1977 with Car Wash and had other classics like I Wanna Get Next to You, Ooh Boy, I'm Going Down and Love Don't Live Here Anymore.

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