Friday, September 19, 2008

Norman Whitfield, Songwriter

The New York Daily News:

Norman Whitfield, the Motown writer/producer who died Tuesday at age 65, was one of those guys who could just plain flat-out make a great radio record.

That was the whole mission of Motown in the 1960s, of course, and while Whitfield did it a little differently than Smokey Robinson or the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, he did it just as well.

"People talk about Smokey and Berry Gordy and Holland-Dozier-Holland," says Bobby Jay, the former WCBS-FM deejay now heard on Sirius' "Soul Town." "Norman belongs right in there."

Whitfield co-wrote (with Barrett Strong) and produced the original "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," with Gladys Knight. Same with Edwin Starr's chilling "War."

He was mostly well known, starting in 1966, for producing the Temptations. He created their "psychedelic soul" sound, Jay notes, borrowing from Sly Stone for hits like "Cloud Nine" and "Ball of Confusion."

Where the Temptations were first known for great Robinson ballads like "My Girl" and "Since I Lost My Baby," Whitfield gave them a harder sound without losing the rhythm or melody.

On "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," their first single after Whitfield became their primary producer, David Ruffin's vocal blew out cheap car radio speakers all across America. It was raw power, a sledgehammer wrapped in sandpaper.

But Whitfield wasn't a one-trick musical pony. When the Temptations told him their fans wanted ballads to go with the psychedelic stuff in the early 1970s, he and Strong wrote the exquisite "Just My Imagination," which is pure and light as a September breeze. Eddie Kendricks never sounded better and, 36 years later, it remains a song that, once on the radio, is impossible to turn off.

While some fans associate Whitfield mainly with dark, dense message songs, he could also write pure pop love songs that make you feel like putting the top down, turning the volume up and just cruising.

"Pride and Joy" and "Too Busy Thinkin' 'Bout My Baby" for Marvin Gaye. "Too Many Fish in the Sea" for the Marvelettes.

Whitfield, who was born in Harlem and moved to Detroit as a teenager, had less success after Motown, scoring only with Rose Royce's "Car Wash."

But anyone who doubts his skill only has to compare the Rolling Stones' record of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" with the one by the Temptations. Great as the Stones are, there is no comparison.

"He didn't get the credit he deserved," says Jay. "He was a genius."