Thursday, September 18, 2008

RIP Norman Whitfield

I just heard this morning about the death of Norman Whitfield, the songwriter and producer, at the age of 68, so I had to mark the occasion by posting a quick tribute. I offer only a grab-bag of his production milestones here because you could lose the next day or two very easily exploring his work in soul and jazz-funk music.

An appreciation of Norman Whitfield needs first and foremost to pay respect to Barrett Strong, his writing partner and lyricist. And you have to place the Whitfield-Strong partnership in the context of the in-house machine at Motown - Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua...alongside such powerhouses, with the extraordinary Funk Brothers house band, and with groups like The Velvelettes to service with killer tunes, you're going to produce glorious soul music almost by default.

Norman Whitfield took things beyond even the collective Hitsville imagination and I'd place him in a triumvirate of visionaries, with Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield, who, in the mid-1960s, identified a role for soul music - the sound of the streets, the music of the masses, the soundtrack for lovers and dancers - as an explicit platform for social comment, resistance and agitation. Whitfield's weapon of choice was The Temptations - tracks 2 and 3 below. It's well-documented that The Tempts themselves weren't wholly committed to the political, psychedelic soul sound their new boss lumbered them with for the Puzzle People album and they'd insist on sticking to the love songs for live shows. Very possibly. But this paints them as bimbos and Whitfield as a dictatorial agit-prop merchant. I wasn't there but I can't imagine that any Black man in America at the time could have sung a track like Message... and not feel it to his core; and Whitfield's work on the group's whole sound transformed what could just be a plaintive lover's lament like Ain't Too Proud To Beg into a fierce, defiant anthem for a people on the move.
Whitfield-era Temptations is one of my absolute, unparalleled loves in music, and has to be seen as his greatest work. It wasn't a scenario in which he was in total creative control, though, and he recruited The Undisputed Truth to carry out his vision in the studio and in live shows. Not just dour social documentaries, though - this selection shows that feelgood soul had never left the agenda.
Last track offers another dimension - you know how you can be knocked out Scorsese, Kurosawa, Kiorastami, Fellini, whoever, but there's always a odd daft, knockabout comedy or musical that's closest to your heart? That film for me is Car Wash, and Whitfield's soundtrack for Rose Royce is the driving force (yes, I see what I did there) - in fact, it's probably the reason they'll soon be making a heavy-handed remake of the movie. But beyond its grooviness and empathy with the film's narrative, there's still a sense in the lovelorn lyrics of ...Next To You of striving for a better life that always lifted a Norman Whitfield song above the isolated concerns of two people, to speak for universal change.

6 comments:

DaddyPig said...

It's been a sad few weeks, but this is a great tribute to, as you say, a soul visionary. Rose Royce really stood out from the disco crowd in the late 70s; I'd almost forgotten about "I Want To Get Next To You" and I'm looking forward to a listen when I get home. And I'll give "Grapevine" a spin too !

I don't like it when great soul and jazz artists are judged according to their influence on white pop people. At great risk of falling into that trap, but an 'odd daft' guilty pleasure of mine is the Spice Girls "2 Become 1", where someone has been listening to Norman Whitfield and managed to capture some of the sweetness as well as the style.

steenbeck said...

Thanks May1366, another good post. Can I admit to having first heard of Rose Royce because the Beastie Boys have a line, "I want to get next to you, like Rose Royce"?

ejaydee said...

Good post, didn't know about the Rose Royce connection. But don't worry, a remake has already been released (basically a bit of fun between Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg) but it was a straight-to-video affair. I was thinking that old guru should comment on this since it's his specialty subject, and then I saw this:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2008/sep/18/normanwhitfield

Great minds, etc

ShivSidecar said...

If Isaac Hayes was a giant, Norman Whitfield was a colossus. Of the recent spate of music deaths, this is the one that's hit me the hardest.

As many of the pioneers of rock + soul era are now past pensionable age, will we soon reach a point where we're seeing several meaningful musician deaths every week? One hopes not, but odds are...

DaddyPig said...

Just popping back to say what a good playlist ! As lots of people know Grapevine, Papa Was A Rolling Stone etc, these are really good, less obvious, choices.

May1366 said...

Thanks for that, DP - like I said, a comprehensive representation of the man's career would keep us here for ages. So while it's incongruous not to mention Grapevine or PWARS, it's nice to shine a light on some of the other great songs he helped bring to the world. But what amazing productions those two immortal tracks had.