It’s a sad fact that Norman Whitfield was not better known at the end of his career. When he died of complications due to diabetes, the obituaries mostly mentioned the fact the wrote “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” with longtime lyric-writing partner Barrett Strong for Marvin Gaye. But I’d argue that Whitfield was perhaps one of the most influential writers and arrangers of his time.
Whitfield’s first break came when he worked in Motown’s “quality control” department, effectively choosing the songs that were to be released. He then joined the writing team, but really hit his stride when he started producing the songs he wrote.
He continued to strike gold as both a writer and producer, with classics such as “Ain’t no Sun Since You’ve Been gone” (for Diana Ross and the Supremes) and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”. He later started writing and recording darker material with a direct connection to the changes in society, leading to further landmark tracks such as “Cloud Nine”, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War (What is it Good For?)” which was later covered by Bruce Springsteen.
By combining lush soul production values with distorted guitars and funk, he created an instantly recognisable sound that was later put to good commercial use in the soundtrack to “Car Wash” featuring Rose Royce, who later had a hit with his “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”.
Whitfield died on September 16, 2008. As a good example of his musical vision and writing talents, check out the aptly-named “Masterpiece” by The Temptations in 1973.