R.I.P. Motown Producer Norman Whitfield

R.I.P. Motown Producer Norman Whitfield
Norman Whitfield, the most important producer in Motown’s late '60s/early '70s history, has died at age 67 from complications arising from diabetes and other ailments.

An early player in the Motown story, Whitfield worked at the label’s quality control department while developing his craft as a songwriter. An early success was "Too Many Fish In The Sea” by the Marvelettes, but his first major hit was "Ain’t To Proud To Beg” by the Temptations in 1966, which got him the job as the group’s main producer until 1975.

Whitfield’s artistic breakthrough was his daring, spacey production of Marvin Gaye’s "I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Prior to its release in 1968, the song had sat on the shelf for a year, as Motown chief Berry Gordy was unwilling to release it. It became Motown’s biggest hit of the '60s, spending seven weeks at the top of the pop charts.

Also in 1968, Whitfield began to develop "psychedelic soul.” Influenced by Sly Stone and Detroit’s Funkadelic (George Clinton once claimed that Whitfield waited in the wings of venues taping Funkadelic shows), Whitfield boosted the role of guitars and special effects in the Motown sound. Guitarists Wah Wah Watson, Dennis Coffey and bassist Bob Babbitt became important members of the legendary Funk Brothers because of Whitfield’s productions.

Whitfield steered the Temptations into psychedelic soul on such hits as "Cloud Nine,” "Psychedelic Shack” and "Ball of Confusion” at the end of the '60s. In the early '70s, he embraced the cinematic soul sounds emerging in the wake of Isaac Hayes’s success. His biggest hits of this era were the Undisputed Truth’s "Smiling Faces Sometimes” and one of the Temptations' signature songs, "Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”

After leaving Motown in 1973, he scored only one more major hit, Rose Royce’s "Car Wash” in 1976. During his career, however, Whitfield won two Grammys and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2004.