While the owner and founder of Motown, Berry Gordy, Jr. may be the only immediately recognizable name other his label’s artists, Norman Whitfield is one of the most under appreciated talents in what would be soul, R&B, funk, rock, and pop. Early in his career at Motown he was teamed up with lyricist and writing partner Barrett Strong. You can probably attribute over half of all Motown hits to Smokey Robinson and Whitfield/Strong. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was an early hit for Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips. While his self-composed lyrics aren’t on par with those of Strong, Norman Whitfield was the key architect for the classic Motown sound of the 60s and 70s. Nearly every hit by The Temptations was written by Whitfield/Strong, and produced by Whitfield. Most of the few exceptions are early tunes written by Robinson. After “Get Ready” was outperformed by Whifield’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (co-written with Edward Holland, Jr. in 1966) , Whitfield took over Robinson’s position as main producer for The Temptations.
From 1969-1973, acknowledging the influence of Sly & the Family Stone, Whitfield produced mostly his compositions on a high-charting string of psychedelic soul albums beginning with Cloud Nine and Puzzle People in ’69, Psychedelic Shack (1970), Sky’s the Limit (1970), Solid Rock and All Directions (1972), and Masterpiece (1973). Though still including ballads like “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”, and “I Wish it Would Rain”, the lyrical emphasis shifted to political and social issues, and the instrumental passages extended the songs to epic lengths. A key part of the sound of these records is the guitar of Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin and percussionist Eddie “Bongo” Brown. This is in addition to all the exceptional musicians that played on the majority of Motown records from 1959-1972, given the nickname The Funk Brothers.
Next, Whitfield masterminded the band The Undisputed Truth. While many of their songs were perhaps alternate versions of Temptations songs, the biggest hit for The Undisputed Truth was “Smiling Faces Sometimes”. This song actually was recorded originally by The Temptations as 12-minute extended workout, but was given a new groove and first released as a single in a short three-minute length for The Undisputed Truth.
While there were some epic tracks done with The Temptations (particularly the 12:20 version of “Stop the War Now”), The Undisputed Truth albums were all highlighted by extended re-workings of hit songs like “Ball of Confusion (That’s what the world is Today)”, a song also notable for it’s pre-rap rapid-fire vocal delivery. The 10:30 version puts the electric guitar out front, and this one element perhaps puts the band out of the R&B/Soul category and into Rock. It may not be fully justified calling The Undisputed Truth a Rock Band, though the important concept is the elimination of borders of categorization, not only with regard to race, creed, or gender, but musical genre as well. Another notable example of Whitfield re-working his own tune is “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. This was a minor hit for The Undisputed Truth, and was extended into over 12 minutes for The Temptations for the album “All Directions”. It was edited down only slightly to just under seven minutes for the single version.
Whitfield received what would be his fourth Grammy for what would be the biggest hit single (“Car Wash”) from his next band creation, Rose Royce. The 1976 movie used it’s title, and the song and musical theme are the score of the film. This new band was formed from members of Edwin Starr’s band, and their name was appropriate for their polished, sophisticated sound. In the 80s, Whitfield returned to Motown to produce the Temptations again for the first time since his departure from Motown in 1973. In 2004, Whitfield and Strong were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Still, his name remains largely obscure, even though his songs are some of the most recognizable songs in Motown’s history.