I Heard It Through The Grapevine...
September 17, 2008 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Legendary Motown songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield dead at 65. Whitfield co-wrote (often with Barret Strong) many of Motown's greatest songs, including I Heard It Through The Grapevine, War, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Ball Of Confusion, Cloud Nine and Just My Imagination. He also worked as a producer for The Temptations, among others, and won a Grammy in 1976 for the score to the film Car Wash.
posted by The Card Cheat (31 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
a fuller list of songs
posted by pyramid termite at 3:53 PM on September 17, 2008


I didn't even know those songs were all written by the same guy. Amazing.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:54 PM on September 17, 2008

What a legend. It seems like a lot of music legends have gone on during the past two years. He will be greatly missed...that I am sure of. My prayers are for his family and loved ones.
posted by stellar at 4:04 PM on September 17, 2008

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:05 PM on September 17, 2008

There were few people who were more talented or who wrote and produced more enduring classics, especially his stuff for the Temptations. Very sad that another musical genius is gone.
posted by blucevalo at 4:06 PM on September 17, 2008

posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:27 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I missed this in the news today. Truly, one of the music-makers.

posted by evilcolonel at 4:33 PM on September 17, 2008

Whitfield was a giant. His Temptations productions in particular stand as some of the most satisfying and innovative in R&B history. His imprint was actually so strong that, in the opinion of some in the business, he actually overshadowed the Temps themselves. I remember reading somewhere that the Temps were referred to (in whispers behind their backs) as "the Norman Whitfield singers"!

And as prodigious and amazing a composer as he was, hell, even if he'd never written a thing, his greatness as a producer would've assured him a prominent place in the R&B pantheon. His arrangements were unbeleivable. "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", for example: the way that arrangement slooooowly builds... my god, the vocals don't even come in until, what a minute or more into the song? And so much air, so much space in that gorgeous arrangement. No way you could do that today. Can you imagine anything as great becoming a hit record (I mean tons of mainstream radio airplay) today?

And lordy, that "psychedelic soul" era that he pretty much singlehandedly created: what fantastic stuff. We've seen the passing of one of the great figures in American pop music, and we're talking about a time when "pop music" didn't equal "embarrassing" or "depressingly banal".

His Wiki page features a photo of the young Whitfield with a fabulous 'fro.

RIP, Norman Whitfield.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:42 PM on September 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

I was thinking of making some links here to a few favorite Whitfield productions, but, there's just so damn many, it gets hard to choose. Still, War is one of the tippy tops.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:56 PM on September 17, 2008

Here's a little live Rare Earth* belting out Smokey Robinson's Get Ready. Whitfield was their producer and composed a ton of their stuff but I'm actually posting this clip for the hair and the flares and the bares.

*as snarked on by Gil Scott-Heron for the heinous crime of being white and funky and on a Motown offshoot

Thanks, Norman, you really were one of the greats.
posted by Wolof at 4:59 PM on September 17, 2008

"Folks say papa was never much on thinkin' Spent most his time chasin' women and drinkin'.

The first album I ever bought was Black Sabbath's Paranoid, the second was the 3 album Temptations greatest hits. Smokey then Norman defined my outlook on life and love,but I can also can sing Iron man from beginning to end.
posted by pianomover at 5:12 PM on September 17, 2008

Mr. Whitfield's production of Ball Of Confusion stands with any of the best work of Brian Wilson, George Martin, or Phil Spector-He was clearly influenced by their work but not imitative. A giant and a hero.
posted by vurnt22 at 5:18 PM on September 17, 2008

posted by Ber at 6:01 PM on September 17, 2008

posted by ob at 6:17 PM on September 17, 2008

My own personal favourite: I Wish It Would Rain.

I looked at the live performances, but they all lack the sheer magic of the production on the single, so I'm linking to that instead. And fuck me if that David Ruffin didn't have the sweetest voice a man could hope to have.

posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:27 PM on September 17, 2008

I feel like Homer Simpson right now, incredulous of the idea that bacon, ham, sausage and pork chops all come from the same wonderful, magical animal. All of these songs are great. I'm sad to learn through the composer's death that they were all written by the same person.

posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:27 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

that "psychedelic soul" era that he pretty much singlehandedly created

With more than a little help from Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic... I think Norman Whitfield was fantastic, a very important producer and writer and really after James Jamerson the least recognized of the key contributors at Motown, but it's pretty well documented that he, let's say, codified a lot of the things that especially Funkadelic were doing. Actually this dates back to their Detroit period when Funkadelic were hanging out and recording with Motown musicians (their first album features some Motown session musicians) and Whitfield regularly attended their shows. This is backed up by a few of the Funkadelic crew, not just George Clinton, so I'm more than inclined to believe it. That's not to take away Norman Whitfield's enormous contribution to popular music. I just think that it's fairer to say that he contributed to and popularized the psychedelic soul sound, than to claim that he singlehandedly created it.
posted by ob at 6:41 PM on September 17, 2008

In small-town Iowa, after about 10pm when the world was settling down and the nightsky was clear, you could just tune in 89 WLS Chicago. I'd sleep with the radio on all night. Turns out, his songs were the soundtrack of my dreams. Thank you, Mr. Whitfield.

posted by hal9k at 6:44 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

The man was a giant. No question. If you like his more epic stuff such as "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", I strongly recommend the entire Temptations albums "Masterpiece" and "1990" (both released in 1973).

Also, I've seen no mention yet of "Smiling Faces" which he produced for The Undisputed Truth.

posted by philip-random at 6:45 PM on September 17, 2008

I grew up with this man's influence all up in my ears and brain and heart, and had no idea he existed!?

You know that ain't right, America.

RIP, Mr Whitfield
posted by droplet at 7:18 PM on September 17, 2008

I love this:

His enthusiasm was infectious, and Gordy marveled at the moments when Whitfield was hooked on an idea. Even when one of his songs was a hit, he would try the song in a different way, placing it with an artist who would take it in a distinctly different direction. Gordy also soon learned to trust Whitfield's bouts of seemingly reckless enthusiasm. When the record label chief vetoed a single release of Whitfield's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" that had been cut by Marvin Gaye, opting instead for a more romantic song, Whitfield refused to let the matter drop. He turned around and annoyed Gordy intensely, finally cajoling him into okaying another attempt at the song by Gladys Knight & the Pips. Their version, almost a gospel rendition, was a huge hit, by some accounts the biggest-selling single in the history of the label up to that time; in its wake, the Marvin Gaye rendition, much more raw sounding (and also produced by Whitfield), was issued, and it chalked up even bigger sales than its predecessor.

The Temptations are my favorite group from that era. Mr. Whitfield, I'll miss you.
posted by lukemeister at 7:23 PM on September 17, 2008

Like droplet, never heard of this incredible songwriter and I've been listening to his music since I was 10 years old (Pride and Joy and Too many fish in the sea), loving the songs he wrote. What a specially likable songwriting style he had.

Like hal9k, I slept with a small transistor radio under my pillow and wonders never cease, I find out now that Norman Whitfield is part of my deep programming.

There are moments in time defined by when I first heard a really great song, that remained indelible. I had no idea many of those moments were created by this man.

"You're My Everything" - The Temptations
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" - Gladys Knight & the Pips
"Runaway Child, Running Wild" - The Temptations, the summer of '69 when I was a runaway child, running wild.
"Too Busy Thinking About My Baby" - Marvin Gaye
"War" - Edwin Starr
"Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" - The Temptations
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" - The Temptations
"I Wanna Get Next to You" - Rose Royce
"Wishing on a Star" - Rose Royce

Psychedelic Shack

Looking at his songs I realize that his lyrics were quite different from the other Motown songs about bad relationships, abandonment, misery, so codependent they make me cringe. Whitfield's songs are mostly joyful, mini-biographies and his War is superbly passionate anti-war.

It's wonderful to get to know about him now, after all these years and honor him in my thoughts. May he rest in peace.
posted by nickyskye at 8:33 PM on September 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

hal9k, nicky,

Listening to my transistor radio in bed as a kid was great. I could get WLS in San Antonio.
posted by lukemeister at 9:49 PM on September 17, 2008

Persuasions: Tempts Jam
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:32 AM on September 18, 2008

Aw, shit. This year gets worse and worse.

posted by ninthart at 4:01 AM on September 18, 2008

Well I never heard of Norman
But I really like his music.

So this is who made the Temptations one of my all-time favourites. And I've found they hold up well, as I get older. Not all my favourites do that.

Getting older sucks. You see too many people die that have links into your own soul.
posted by Goofyy at 5:20 AM on September 18, 2008

lukemeister, YAY transistor radios in bed as a kid. Between 1962 and 1968 I listened to Cousin Brucie on WABC here in NYC. Loved Motown. some of the odd white songs were good too, like Leader of the Pack, Walking in the Sand, Downtown, Ferry Cross the Mersey and Little Honda.

Pre-Beatles Motown was, imo, the best on pop radio. Never was a fan of Elvis particularly. And now, knowing about Norman Whitfield, many of his songs were Motown greats that weren't just great then but lasted and are still very listenable.
posted by nickyskye at 5:47 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, man. I've always loved Motown, but I didn't even know who this man was and what he did until I heard this some twenty years ago.

Norman Whitfield and Barratt Strong
Are here to make everything right that's wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you

And what nickyskye said about the joy and passion in Whitfield's music.
posted by maudlin at 11:34 AM on September 18, 2008

Getting older sucks. You see too many people die that have links into your own soul.

See, I love getting older. Always love the better knowing about the world, the appreciation, grateful for each day's treasure of joy. I seem to laugh a *lot* more as I get older. Getting older means, imo, one gets an extended opportunity to savor and honor connections while knowing about the impermanent nature of things.
posted by nickyskye at 12:05 PM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Norman Whitfield was responsible for some timeless classics from Motown. "War" is a favorite of mine and such an appropriate song for today. Car Wash the movie is such a guilty pleasure for me, one of the reasons is the music - R.I.P.to Mr Whitfield.
posted by conradsalvador at 12:38 PM on September 18, 2008

It was the 17th of September. That day I'll always remember...

posted by jonp72 at 6:33 PM on September 18, 2008

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