Norman Jesse Whitfield (born in Harlem, New York in 1943) was a songwriter and producer for Berry Gordy's Motown label during the 1960s. He is credited as being one of the creators of the Motown Sound, as well as one of the major instrumental figues in the late-60s sub-genre of psychedelic soul.
A native of Harlem, New York, Whitfield spent most of his teen years in local pool halls. In his late teens, he became stranded in Detroit, Michigan while driving from California to New York. To survive, Whitfield hustled pool and performed with local Detroit bands.
At 19, Whitfield began hanging around at Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. offices, trying to get a chance at working for the growing label. Gordy recognized Whitfield's persistence and hired him in the quality control department that determined which songs would or would not be released by the label. Whitfield eventually joined Motown's in-house songwriting staff. Whitfield had a few minor successes, but he found his place at Motown when he began producing the recordings of his songs. His big break came when he took over Smokey Robinson's role as the main producer for The Temptations in 1966, after his "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" performed better than Robinson's "Get Ready" on the pop charts.
From 1966 until 1974, Whitfield produced virtually all of the material for The Temptations, experimenting with sound effects and other production techniques on the earliest of his records for them. He found a songwriting collaborator in lyricist Barrett Strong, the performer on Motown's first hit record, "Money (That's What I Want)", and wrote material for the Tempts and for other Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, both of whom recorded Whitfield-produced hit versions of the Whitfield/Strong composition "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." The Gladys Knight & the Pips version was the best-selling Motown single ever to that point, but it was replaced a year later by Marvin Gaye's version.
After Temptations lead singer David Ruffin was replaced with Dennis Edwards in 1968, Whitfield moved the group into a harder, darker sound that featured a blend of psychedelic rock and funk heavily inspired by the work of Sly & the Family Stone. The first Temptations single to feature this new "psychedelic soul" style was "Cloud Nine" in late 1968, which earned Motown its first Grammy award (for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance by a Duo or Group). A second Best R&B Group Performance Grammy for Whitfield and the Tempts came in 1973 with "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." The instrumental B-side to "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" earned Whitfield a Grammy with arranger Paul Riser for Best R&B Instrumental Performance, and Whitfield and Barrett Strong shared the songwriters' award for Best R&B Song.
The psychedelic soul records Whitfield produced for the Temptations and other artists such as Edwin Starr and The Undisputed Truth experimented with and updated the Motown sound for the late-1960s. Longer song lengths, distorted guitars, multitracked drums, and unusual vocal arrangements became trademarks of Whitfield's productions, and later of records produced by Motown staffers he coached, including Frank Wilson.
In 1975, Whitfield left Motown to form his own record label, Whitfield Records. In the beginning, his only act was The Undisputed Truth, which he had convinced to leave Motown. They never really had much more chart success, but W Records had a smash hit in 1976 with Rose Royce's "Car Wash". Rose Royce went on to produce 3 more popular albums, but never could top the success of "Car Wash," which served as the theme song to the 1976 motion picture Car Wash. The instrumental version of "Car Wash" won Whitfield another Grammy award.
In the early 1980s, Whitfield began working producing for Motown again, helming The Temptations' 1983 hit single "Sail Away" and the soundtrack to The Last Dragon.
On January 18, 2005, Whitfield pleaded guilty for failing to report royalty income he earned from 1995 to 1999 to the Internal Revenue Service. Facing charges of tax evasion on over $2 million worth of income, and was sentenced to six months of house arrest and aforced to pay a $25,000 fine. The producer was not imprisoned because of health problems such as diabetes .
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