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Norman Whitfield - RIP


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Motown songwriter Norman Whitfield known for his genius


He could be thorny and ornery, a real pain in the neck.

But when you walked into Norman Whitfield's world, you rubbed elbows with genius.

The Motown family lost one of its virtuosos Tuesday, as Whitfield succumbed to complications from diabetes. He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he had been for several months, at one point lapsing in and out of a coma. He was 67.

The Grammy-winning Whitfield was the most prominent of Motown's second-wave songwriter-producers, sculpting deeply textured, sophisticated music for artists such as the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Rare Earth. In the late 1960s, he helped propel the Detroit label into ambitious new territory, pushing Motown beyond the sweet melodies and puppy-love tales of its early days into edgier, more expansive music.

It was the difference between "My Girl" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone": Whitfield's work was darker, funkier, often laced with exotic instrumentation. Drawing inspiration from San Francisco psychedelia and British hard rock, he crafted music with social themes: the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion," Edwin Starr's "War," Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Friendship Train."

His post-Motown career was most famously marked by his soundtrack for the film "Car Wash," which included a chart-topping hit of the same name in 1977.

The talent was instinctive, but it didn't always translate easily. Friends and colleagues remembered Whitfield as a maverick with a bite, a musical visionary who fiercely battled for his ideas.

"Norman was a taskmaster in the studio," said Otis Williams of the Temptations. "He wanted what he wanted. Everybody who worked with him knew he could be very adamant and vocal about what he believed in."

But Whitfield was usually right. He racked up hit after hit, many written in collaboration with close friend Barrett Strong, including the song that would become Motown's most successful: "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," a smash for Knight and Gaye.

A Northwestern High School graduate, Whitfield started his music career in the late 1950s as a tambourine player with the band Popcorn and the Mohawks, his entrée into the local music circles that would soon lead him to Motown.

Songwriting on the side led to Whitfield's big break in 1966, when his song "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" became a smash for the Temptations. He became the group's go-to collaborator, and his knack for the rigors of studio work -- including intricate hand-editing of tape -- soon flourished.

"Nobody in the business could lay down funkier grooves than Norman," said Williams. "He was a master in the studio."

Gil Bridges of Rare Earth recalled his band's first Whitfield session: The producer charged into the studio, dictated the players' parts, then rolled tape as the group jammed for nearly an hour. Bridges recalled Whitfield darting around the studio, a towel around his neck to absorb sweat, gesturing to signal the start of solos and breaks. Whitfield later trimmed and shaped the jam into a searing 3 1/2 -minute single, and Rare Earth had a top 10 hit: "(I Know) I'm Losing You."

"Norman was a pretty complex guy. He could bring artists to tears," said longtime friend Clay McMurray. "But respect was a two-way street with him. Underneath, he was a very decent guy. We could sit and laugh, and that's something a lot of people didn't get to do with Norman. Not everyone knew that side."

"Norman was making tracks in a way nobody else was at the time," said Gary Stromberg, the "Car Wash" producer who enlisted Whitfield for the film. "He had this incredible vision. He lived in his own world. It was his way or no way. He didn't work very well with people. But you let him on his own, let him create the way he wanted to create, and he was brilliant. Getting tracks from him was like being handed pure gemstones."

Whitfield is survived by four sons and a daughter. Funeral arrangements are not yet set.

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or mccollum@freepress.com.

He's responsible for some of my favorite tunage....from "Ball of Confusion", "War", "Smiling Faces", "Cloud Nine", "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Heard it Thru the Grapevine".....a musical genius.


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