LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Motown producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, who helped create some of the legendary label’s most important anthems, including Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” has died in Los Angeles, a spokesman said on Wednesday.
The hitmaker died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Tuesday, said Motown Alumni Assn. spokesman Ron Brewington. He was 65. The cause of death was not immediately known, but Brewington said Whitfield suffered from diabetes and several other ailments.
Whitfield was one of the most successful producers at Motown, the Detroit label where acts such as the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and the Four Tops — along with Gaye and the Temptations — changed the face of popular culture.
But while Motown’s pop sound was palatable to mainstream ears, Whitfield was influenced by the harder soul of James Brown and Sly and Family Stone. Along with lyricist Barrett Strong, he dragged Motown into the psychedelic era in the late 1960s with songs about race relations and urban decay.
“My thing was to out-Sly Sly Stone,” Whitfield told Marvin Gaye’ biographer, David Ritz. “Sly was definitely sly, and his sound was new, his grooves were incredible, he borrowed a lot from rock. He caught the psychedelic thing. He was bad. I could match him though, rhythm for rhythm, horn for horn.”
New York-born Whitfield started out at Motown as a tambourine player, while Strong performed and co-wrote the label’s first hit, “Money (That’s What I Want).” They composed some of Gaye’s early songs, including the 1962 pair “Pride and Joy” and “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home).”
Gaye recorded the duo’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” in early 1967. But the song sat on the shelf for more than a year because Motown chief Berry Gordy, Jr. was underwhelmed by it. “Grapevine” eventually hit the top of the pop and R&B charts and became Motown’s most successful song of the decade.
By then Whitfield was already the driving force behind the Temptations, which had long been his passion project. He got his big break with them in 1966 when he joined with Eddie Holland — one third of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting troika — to write “Ain’t too Proud to Beg.”
William “Smokey” Robinson had been the Temptations’ primary songwriter, but after the song hit No. 1 on the R&B chart, Whitfield and Strong took over, with Whitfield also sitting in the producer’s chair.
At the urging of Temptations member Otis Williams, Whitfield took the group into the socio-political arena with the 1968 hit “Cloud Nine.” The cautionary drugs tale, which introduced new singer Dennis Edwards, earned Motown its first Grammy award.
Other hard-hitting tunes quickly followed, including “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” and “Psychedelic Shack.” Whitfield can be heard at the start of “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” intensely counting into session player Bob Babbitt’s ominous bass line.
But Whitfield could also do ballads. In 1971, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” with Eddie Kendricks on lead vocal, was the group’s first pop No. 1 pop ballad since “My Girl” in 1964.
Perhaps Whitfield’s tour de force was the seven-minute epic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which reached No. 1 on the pop chart in 1972 and garnered three Grammys. The tale of a deadbeat dad teases listeners for almost two minutes with arranger Paul Riser’s funky orchestrations before a clearly frustrated Edwards begins singing.
Whitfield and Strong also worked with other Motown acts such as Edwin Starr, who went to No. 1 in 1970 with their Vietnam War protest song “War.”
After leaving Motown in 1973, Whitfield enjoyed success with the title song and soundtrack album for the 1976 comedy feature “Car Wash.” He reunited with the Temptations in 1984 to produce their single “Sail Away.”
He was last in the news in 2005, when he was sentenced to six months of home detention and fined $25,000 for failing to report more than $4 million in income to the U.S. government.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte