Saturday, September 20, 2008

R.I.P.: Norman Whitfield

R.I.P.: Norman Whitfield
(born May 12, 1940, in Harlem, NY, USA)
(died September 16, Los Angeles, CA, USA)

(photo by Louis Lanzano/Associated Press)

I was introduced to Whitfield's artistry through The Temptations, when I bought their hit single "Masterpiece", the title track from one of the best albums ever issued by Motown. Both the LP and the single reached high in the Billboard charts (coincidently, #1 in Black Singles and Black Albums, # 7 in Pop Singles and Pop Albums). The Temptations' items were released in February 1973. One month later, Creed Taylor suggested Grover Washington Jr. to record "Masterpiece" on his ambitious 2-LP set "Soul Box". Bob James' lush score (of 13m22s!) for a funky jazz ensemble and a symphony orchestra, took Whitfiled's tune to another dimension, including strong contributions by Richard Tee, Ron Carter, Idris Muhammad, Eric Gale and Ralph MacDonald. Not surprisingly, "Soul Box" (which also includes Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man"), became a #1 album in the Billboard Jazz Chart (also #26 in the Black Albums and #100 in the Pop Albums). Like renowned jazz historian Thom Jurek points out on his accurate review of "Soul Box" for the All Music Guide website, "The early work of alto saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. is a rare and beautiful thing to behold. His entire Kudu period is brilliant, solid urban groove jazz played with grace, mean chops, and slippery funkiness... For its length, "Soul Box" is a modern classic for its instrumental and arrangement invention and for its deeply emotional bounty.

The NYT Times obituary folows:
Norman Whitfield, Motown Songwriter and Producer, Dies at 68
Published: September 18, 2008
Correction Appended

Norman Whitfield, a Grammy-winning songwriter, producer and arranger for Motown Records whose many hits, including the signature song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” helped solidify the Motown sound in the 1960s and afterward, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 68 and lived in Toluca Lake, Calif.

The cause was heart and kidney failure resulting from diabetes, his daughter, Irasha Whitfield, said.

Mr. Whitfield, who often wrote both lyrics and music, had more than 450 songs released in his lifetime, his daughter said. Many, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” memorably recorded both by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, were written with his frequent collaborator Barrett Strong. (The tune was by the Funk Brothers.)

For all his renown as a composer, Mr. Whitfield was even more prominent as a producer and arranger. He was known especially for his work with the Temptations; he produced many of their recordings for Motown, including the album “Cloud Nine,” whose title track earned the group a Grammy in 1969. He also helped usher in the era of psychedelic soul, producing the work of artists like Edwin Starr and the Undisputed Truth.

Mr. Whitfield’s songs were recorded by a string of Motown luminaries, who besides Mr. Gaye included the Temptations and the Jackson Five. His work was also recorded over the years by artists as varied as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bruce Springsteen.

Among Mr. Whitfield’s other hits were “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” written with Mr. Strong. With Eddie Holland, Mr. Whitfield wrote “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” for the Temptations, which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1966.

Norman Whitfield was born in Harlem on May 12, 1940. When he was a teenager, he and his family settled in Detroit after their car broke down there. Norman studied briefly at a technical school in Detroit before joining Thelma Records, a local label, when he was about 19.

Mr. Whitfield joined Motown in the early 1960s, when he was not much more than 20. He started there as a tambourine player; known for his keen ear, he was eventually put in charge of quality control by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy Jr.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Whitfield left Motown to start his own label, Whitfield Records. Among his hits there were the soundtrack album for the film “Car Wash” (1976), for which he wrote the score. Mr. Whitfield won a Grammy for the album, recorded by the band Rose Royce.

In 2004, Mr. Whitfield was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The next year, he was in the news again after he pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion. Mr. Whitfield, who had been charged with failing to report more than $4 million in income, was fined $25,000 and sentenced to six months’ home detention.

Besides his daughter, Irasha, of Los Angeles, Mr. Whitfield is survived by four sons, Norman, of Los Angeles; Michael, of Toluca Lake; Johnnie, of Atlanta; and Roland, of Murrieta, Calif.; a brother, Bill, of Los Angeles; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

In an interview with David Ritz for “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye” (Da Capo, 1991), Mr. Whitfield recalled the deep influence of the new, hard-driving funk of Sly Stone, and how he tried to bring something of Mr. Stone’s sound to his work at Motown.

“My thing was to out-Sly Sly Stone,” Mr. Whitfield said. “Sly was definitely sly, and his sound was new, his grooves were incredible, he borrowed a lot from rock. He caught the psychedelic thing. He was bad. I could match him though, rhythm for rhythm, horn for horn.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 19, 2008
An obituary on Thursday about Norman Whitfield, a songwriter, producer and arranger for Motown Records, omitted part of the name of the label’s founder. He is Berry Gordy Jr., not Berry Gordy. It also referred incorrectly to a recording Mr. Whitfield produced for the Temptations, a Motown group. The Temptations won a Grammy for their single “Cloud Nine,” not their album of that name. (Both were produced by Mr. Whitfield.) And they won in 1969 — the single was released late in 1968 — not 1967.

More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on September 18, 2008, on page B8 of the New York edition.

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