Tuesday, September 23, 2008

RIP Norman Whitfield (1940 - 2008)

Sadly, after the recent passing of Isaac Hayes, the music world has now lost another soul colossus. Songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield died last week aged 68. While not a household name, Whitfield was responsible for some of the greatest songs in the soul music canon, such as "War" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine". Starting out at Motown records, often working in partnership with Barrett Strong, he wrote and produced virtually all of the Temptations' output from 1966 to 1974, as well as hits for Gladys Knight & The Pips, Edwin Starr, Undisputed Truth and Marvin Gaye.

Production-wise, it was Whitfield who dragged the Motown label into the 70s, moving the Temptations away from boy-meets-girl cuteness and towards psychedelic soul and socially aware lyrics. Then after parting company with Motown, he wrote and produced for funk band Rose Royce, who had a stellar string of hits in the disco era.

Below are some key Norman Whitfield compositions and productions to check out:

Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1967)
Originally a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, Whitfield re-recorded it with Gaye a year later, turning it into Motown’s biggest ever hit. Although also covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Gaye’s desperate vocal over creeping organ and edgy, dramatic strings and horns make this the definitive version of one of the all-time great songs.

Edwin Starr – War (1970)
Songs protesting the Vietnam War had previously been the province of the hippie/folkie set, fairly meek give-peace-a-chance stuff. Then this just blew the roof off – “War! Huh! Good God! What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin!” Whitfield’s powerful arrangement and Starr’s muscular vocal showed that you could be pro-peace yet also be tough as nails.

The Temptations - Ain’t Too Proud To Beg (1966)
A killer hit that gave Whitfield carte blanche to write and produce for Motown’s greatest vocal group. It also showed signs of the rougher, rawer musical territory Whitfield was dragging the company into.

The Temptations – Cloud Nine (1968)
Truly signalled a new era for Motown; no longer the polite crossover music of the 60s, this was a polyrhythmic extravaganza of searing psychedelic guitars and lyrics told from a drug user’s perspective. So ahead of its time that it scared label head Berry Gordy, who delayed its release by 6 months. Won Motown its first Grammy Award.

The Temptations – Papa Was a Rolling Stone (1972)
Whitfield was pulling out all stops now with this one, a 12-minute slab of tense, heavily orchestrated funk, with the Temps’ voices dropping in and out to lament the disintegration of the black family. Won 3 Grammys.

The Temptations – Just My Imagination (1971)
Its elegantly swirling strings and Eddie Kendricks’ plaintive lead vocal make this possibly the most beautiful ballad in the entire Motown canon. The other Temps' sweet backing vocals have never sounded better.

Rose Royce – Car Wash (1976)
Turning his attention to disco, Whitfield created this classic of the genre, which bounces to some real funk and elaborate orchestrations. A #1 hit, while the Car Wash album won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack.

Rose Royce – I’m Going Down (1976)
Majestic ballad showcasing Whitfield’s knack of orchestration and song dynamics. Well known for Mary J Blige’s cover version. Another #1 hit.

Rose Royce – Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (1976)
A mighty bassline and fat-ass horns make this pure, unadulterated funk of the best kind. Unlike anything Whitfield had pulled off before.

Rose Royce – I Wanna Get Next To You (1976)
Want to seduce someone? Invite them over, put this on and your chances of making out increase by 400%, it’s that good.

Rose Royce – Wishing on a Star (1977)
Beautiful, majestic and covered by Soul II Soul a decade later.

Rose Royce - Love Don't Live Here Anymore (1978)
One of the great lost-love songs of its era, proving Whitfield's mastery of big ballads yet again.