The name “Norman Whitfield” carries a lot of weight with fans of old-school funk and disco. Your Humble Reviewer first discovered this when he developed a scholarly interest in both genres during his college days. For those who might not know the name, Whitfield was a brilliant writer and producer who cut a long string of classic records from the early 1960’s through the early 1980’s, including “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (both the Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight versions) and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by the Temptations. The presence of the Whitfield name on a record label is akin to a trademark of quality for genre devotees: whether it’s a hit or rarity, something creative and funky is bound to be going on within that record’s grooves.
Whitfield passed away in 2008 but his influence lives on via sampling and the countless R&B acts that have imitated his signature cinematic-funk approach. To celebrate his birthday, Schlockmania offers this tribute to his storied career. You’ll be spared a biographical essay because there are plenty of resources that can handle the task better. Excellent starting points include the following: The Temptations by group founder Otis Williams, Berry Gordy’s autobiography To Be Loved and the liner notes of countless Motown reissue CD’s (the best place to start is The Norman Whitfield Sessions, a killer comp of Whitfield’s best cuts with Marvin Gaye that features a fantastic interview/biographical piece of the producer penned by Gaye’s biographer David Ritz). For a “Cliff’s Notes”-style overview of his career, the Wikipedia entry on Whitfield offers a nice, quick info-fix. Anyone interested in his career will find plenty to get started with in those places.
Instead, Your Humble Reviewer offers this top ten list of favorite lesser-known Whitfield moments. Obvious choices like the hit versions of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” or “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” have been deliberately avoided so this list can take you deeper into the esoteric and interesting areas of the Whitman catalog. This is a fan’s favorites list and hopefully it will illustrate the idiosyncratic genius that makes the Norman Whitfield sound so appealing.
“The End Of Our Road,” Marvin Gaye: Gladys Knight had the hit with this tune but the best version is Marvin’s ominous, darkly-hued take. As the Motown players churn out a taut, small-combo jazz groove dominated a by a nagging, sitar-style guitar hook, Gaye wails with churchy authority as he puts and end to a negative-attraction love affair that has grown toxic. A female backing chorus provides excellent, percussive counterpoint to his vocal as orchestration creeps into its dark mood. Why Martin Scorcese didn’t use this as the finale music for one of his gangster epics, we’ll never know…
“You Make Your Own Heaven And Hell Right Here On Earth,” The Undisputed Truth: the followup to the smash hit “Smiling Faces Sometimes” was too lengthy and moody to be a chart-topper but it’s the best thing this group ever cut. It flows into the speakers on funereal organ and a gently pulsing bass line as the group outlines how a person’s future is determined by the morality of the choices they make from their earliest days. Graceful strings and carefully-deployed horn stabs give it that great cinematic grandeur that defined Whitfield’s 1970’s era recordings. It’s the great blaxploitation film theme that never was.
“Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me,” Gladys Knight And The Pips: this gem about romantic anticipation received its definitive waxing with Gladys at the helm. She lays down a vocal that carefully shifts between a seductive coo and church-choir intensity to map out the song’s constantly shifting and surging emotions. Whitfield gives her fiery delivery the ideal cushion by crafting a novel production that uses a harpsichord as its hook and insistent rhythm-guitar strums to push the sound along.
“Smiling Faces Sometimes,” Rare Earth: as stated before, the Undisputed Truth had the big hit with this song but Your Humble Reviewer’s favorite version comes from Rare Earth’s Ma album. It begins with frantic, crazed babbling in Spanish as the band creeps into focus via an acoustic guitar-led groove paced by lashings of jazzy horns. Pete Hoorelbeke’s world-weary vocal downgrades the stern warning provided in the familiar hit version to an ironic, bitter rumination. The overall mixture of elements and styles achieves a haunting sound that makes it a stunning reinvention on the part of Whitfield.
“You’ve Got My Soul On Fire,” The Temptations: this deep-catalog Tempts classic about a dangerously addictive love affair deserves to be better known. Whitfield offsets the usual wah-wah-ed funk grooves of the early-1970’s era with an upfront acoustic guitar riff that gives the song a novel hook. He also gets a dynamite lead vocal from Dennis Edwards, who testifies in the utterly convincing gospel style he was known for.
“It Should Have Been Me,” Yvonne Fair: Whitfield gave one of his Gladys Knight classics a memorable update for the 1970’s with this incendiary rendition from cult diva Yvonne Fair. As a metronomic drum machine percolates in the background, Fair builds from a soulful but gentle alto on the verses to bombastic, growling vocal pyrotechnics on the chorus. Whitfield uses an effective soft/loud dynamic to match her delivery, using a gentle guitar lick and light strings on the verses that flower into a soaringly-sad string arrangement on the chorus.
“Sunrise,” Rose Royce: the title track was the big hit from Whitfield’s soundtrack for Car Wash but its best, most inventive cut was this epic, thoroughly cinematic instrumental piece. Starting with a single jazzy horn line, it builds up into a hypnotic mass of constantly-shifting instrumental layers that include intricate guitar lines, insistent bass riffs, Latin-styled percussion, tart horns and ebbing-and-flowing strings. Despite their disco tag, Rose Royce was a talented band and this gem shows off their chops and skill for ensemble playing to beautiful effect. It also shows that, as a writer and producer, Whitfield knew how to use this multitalented group to breathtaking effect.
“You + Me = Love,” The Undisputed Truth: this group, an enduring pet project for Whitfield, followed him to the Warner Brothers label in the late 1970’s. He began to explore a more disco-tinged sound with the group that was along the lines of what he was concurrently doing with Rose Royce. This is their gem from this era, a throbbing epic that layers girl-group style vocals over a polyrhythmic backing track given flavor by elegant string and horn arrangements. Be sure to nab the full album-length version, which shows off Whitfield’s skill at creating inventively extended grooves for the dance floor.
“Wishing On A Star,” Rose Royce: this doesn’t get as much play as “Car Wash” or “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” but it may be the best song this group recorded. It’s a ballad-with-a-beat told from the viewpoint of a spurned lover seeking reconciliation and Whitfield draws out its pathos with a yearning string arrangement and a groove that is danceable yet meditative. The final touch is Gwen Dickey’s graceful vocal, which rides the twists and turns of the song’s cinematic arrangement with ease.
“Sail Away,” The Temptations: this unsung gem from the 1980’s-era Temptations catalog is a Quiet Storm classic-waiting-to-happen. It finds the group unleashing their multiple lead vocal stylings and knack for soul-satisfying harmonies on a stirring song about misunderstood lovers yearning for freedom from the negative attitudes of others. Whitfield gives their grand vocals the ideal backdrop by painting an alluring sonic backdrop: lush strings and delicate piano lines glide across a spartan groove anchored by a drum machine and a finger-popped bass line. The end result flawlessly evokes the romantic fantasy created in the lyrics.
If you enjoyed this top ten, please click on over to Temple Of Schlock, where fellow fan Chris Poggiali has written a companion post on this topic that mixes albums with songs to create a whopping 25-selection list. Once you’re there, stick around a while because it’s a great place to learn about exploitation cinema lore and obscurities. It even features a few pieces written by Yours Truly…