Producer Spotlight: Norman Whitfield
by Mosi Reeves | May 4, 2014
Norman Whitfield was a key contributor to the soul music zenith of the early '70s, but he's often overlooked. It's ironic, because in a time when behind-the-scenes studio workers ceded the spotlight to the pop stars, the late producer branded himself as an exceptional artist in his own right. His face was super-imposed on the back-cover artwork for The Temptations' All Directions, the album with "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." When he produced his soundtrack to the 1976 comedy-drama Car Wash, he gave himself equal billing alongside then-unknown disco-funk band Rose Royce. Yet today, we remember "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" as the last great Temps single, and Car Wash as Rose Royce's breakout moment, while forgetting the man who made both projects happen.
Whitfield specialized in "psychedelic soul," a sound he created during his work with The Temptations. It's abrasive and chaotic, filled with wah-wah guitar and strong, affirmative black voices conducting a pained search for self-consciousness. To this day, Temps fans debate the merits of their shift from the gallant soul routines of "My Girl" to the hot funk of "Cloud Nine." Whitfield was a songwriter, too, and his "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" number with Barrett Strong and Marvin Gaye was as much a commentary on societal paranoia as it was a love song. His "Smiling Faces Sometimes" classic with The Undisputed Truth asked a similar question in the Black Power vs. COINTELPRO era: Who can you trust?
Born in Harlem, Whitfield came of age as an in-house producer for Motown in the 1960s. Most of the brilliant staff that created the Motown sound hasn't gotten the recognition they deserve for their achievements, and Whitman is no exception. If he hadn't coaxed the Temps to make "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" in spite of their reluctance, the group wouldn't have landed what turned out to be their final No. 1 hit. He cowrote and produced Edwin Starr's "War," the penultimate soul statement against the war in Vietnam. "Psychedelic Soul" was a huge influence on Isaac Hayes' Shaft soundtrack, Parliament-Funkadelic's early work and so many others in the funk renaissance.
Whitfield may have been viewed as a flashy and sometimes arrogant guy. The popular 1998 TV miniseries The Temptations eviscerated his reputation when it portrayed him as an egotistical idiot. But give him his well-deserved due.