Norman Whitfield

The Grammy-winning songwriter who was a Motown legend

The Grammy-winning songwriter who was a Motown legend

Norman Whitfield


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Norman Whitfield, dead of diabetes at 67, was one of the major creators of the Motown sound. A composer of more than 450 songs, among them “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Whitfield wrote or produced dozens of hits for such artists as the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Jackson Five. His R&B colleagues thought him so clever that they dubbed him “Gray Fox.”

Whitfield’s career sprang from a lucky accident, said the Los Angeles Times. Born in New York’s Harlem, he was traveling with his family as a teenager when their car broke down in Detroit, and the family just decided to stay. He joined the Motown label as a tambourine player and before long was writing songs, most notably with Barrett Strong. His early efforts included light pop tunes such as “Too Many Fish in the Sea” and “Just My Imagination.” But soon, “his ambitious production work helped move Motown from the catchy love songs that typified the label’s output in the early and mid-’60s into social commentary reflecting volatile issues that were at the heart of the civil-rights movement.” In addition to the pacifist anthem “War,” Whitfield’s output included “Cloud Nine,” which won Motown its first Grammy, in 1969, and the seven-minute opus “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which snared three Grammys four years later.

Whitfield was a true innovator, said The Detroit News. “He sometimes had little more than a chord sheet to instruct the players, yet he could demonstrate exactly how he wanted sounds reproduced.” This informality worked both ways. Once, when Lionel Ritchie approached him with an idea for a song, Whitfield responded, “If you’ve got a great song, hum it to me. No drums, no nothing. It has to come from the melody.” By the 1970s, his work had come to define the edgy, funky sound known as psychedelic soul.

“As Motown began to fade and disco took over popular tastes in the mid-1970s,” said The Washington Post, “Whitfield left Detroit for Los Angeles, where he formed his own record label, Whitfield Records.” For the 1976 comedy film Car Wash he wrote the soundtrack and title tune, which won another Grammy. Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, he “had all but faded from the news” until the next year, when he pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion for failing to report more than $4 million worth of income. Whitfield was fined $25,000 and received six months of home detention.

“My thing was to out-Sly Sly Stone. He was definitely sly, his grooves were incredible,” Whitfield once said. “I could match him though, rhythm for rhythm, horn for horn.”

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