Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Norman Whitfield RIP

Yet another legend has passed away this week - Motown producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield. Although Whitfield is less well known than Stax counterpart Isaac Hayes (he didn't enjoy such a fruitful solo career), his influence and style are pretty similar. His songwriting partnership with Barrett Strong mirrored the collaboration between Hayes and David Porter at Stax. His production style, creating what has since been dubbed 'psychedelic soul' must surely have informed Hayes' work on the Shaft soundtrack.

Whitfield was responsible for writing one of the most enduring songs of the Motown era - 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine'. The song was immortalised by Marvin Gaye's extraordinary delivery (and the exquisite orchestration on that version), but was also recorded by many other groups Whitfield was involved with, including The Temptations and The Undisputed Truth.

His production work for The Temptations still sounds imaginative today and has been hugely influential. Tracks like 'Psychedelic Shack', 'Ball of Confusion' and 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' took them well beyond the conventional limitations of the soul vocal group.

The Undisputed Truth, very much a Whitfield project, have been less fondly remembered and remain criminally underrated. 'Smiling Faces (Sometimes)' and 'You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell (Right Here On Earth)' remain two of the most potent examples of Whitfield's skill with prodution and arranging - the mood of both is palpably threatening.

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