Obituaries

Top Motown Songwriter Norman Whitfield

Norman Whitfield's hits included
Norman Whitfield's hits included "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "I Wish It Would Rain" and "War." (Louis Lanzano - Associated Press)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Norman Whitfield, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter who as producer of the Temptations helped create the Motown sound and was one of the most prolific hitmakers of the 1960s and early 1970s, died Sept. 16 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from diabetes. He was believed to be 67 years old.

With Barrett Strong, Mr. Whitfield wrote such chart-topping hits as "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)." He pushed the early, innocent Motown sound into funkier and edgier regions with "psychedelic soul" tunes and grittier lyrics reflecting the changing social ferment.

In such singles as "War," "I Wish It Would Rain," "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" and "Cloud Nine," Mr. Whitfield addressed lost love as well as political chaos and drug use. "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations won Motown Records its first Grammy, in 1968.

"My thing was to out-Sly Sly Stone," Mr. Whitfield told Marvin Gaye biographer David Ritz. "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."

His list of song credits goes on for seven pages at the Songwriters Hall of Fame Web site, citing such well-known tunes as "I Can't Get Next to You," "Psychedelic Shack," "Mama I Gotta Brand New Thing (Don't Say No)" and "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby."

The Temptations' 1972 version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," a seven-minute tour de force that Mr. Whitfield wrote and produced, won three Grammies.

As Motown began to fade and disco took over popular tastes in the mid-1970s, Mr. Whitfield left Detroit for Los Angeles, where he formed his own record label. He wrote the title song and soundtrack album for the 1976 comedy film "Car Wash" for the band Rose Royce, which won a Grammy.

Singer Lionel Richie told The Washington Post in 1984 that he once approached Mr. Whitfield with a song, trying to play a tape recording for him. "He said, 'If you've got a great song, hum it to me. No drums, no nothing. Lionel, it has to come from the melody.' "

A New York native, Norman Jesse Whitfield was a young phenomenon at Motown, arriving at the Hitsville USA headquarters when he was in his late teens or early 20s -- after his father's car broke down in Detroit.

He played tambourine on some records and worked in the quality-control department, where he offered advice on which tunes to release. He also began writing songs and producing singles such as the Velvelettes' "Needle in a Haystack" and the Marvelettes' "Too Many Fish in the Sea."

Mr. Whitfield and Strong were teamed up by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., and together they penned some of Marvin Gaye's earliest hits, including "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)."

Gaye recorded the duo's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" in early 1967, but it sat on the shelf for more than a year because Gordy didn't like how it sounded. Mr. Whitfield badgered the impresario to let him try the song again with Gladys Knight and the Pips. That gospel-tinged version became a huge hit.

When Gaye's sparer version of "Grapevine" was released the next year, it overtook the previous recording in sales. The song became one of the most valuable copyrights in Motown's enormous catalogue, and last week Gaye's version ranked at No. 65 in Billboard magazine's compilation of the top singles of the past 50 years.

By 1966, Mr. Whitfield had taken over producing the Temptations from Smokey Robinson in the wake of the song Mr. Whitfield wrote with Eddie Holland, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." A string of hits followed, and not just for the Temptations.

In 1970, Edwin Starr hit the charts with Mr. Whitfield and Strong's jackhammer chant "War," an antiwar protest that is periodically revived when hostilities threaten. The song was so well known, a biography at allmusic.com notes, that 22 years later, its lyrics ("War, what is it good for") figured in a key joke involving Tolstoy's "War and Peace" in an episode of the television show "Seinfeld."

Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, Mr. Whitfield had all but faded from the news until 2005, when he pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion for not reporting more than $4 million worth of income between 1995 and 1999. He was sentenced to six months of home detention and fined $25,000.


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