Norman Whitfield became one of the most important producers at Motown Records after the departure of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team in 1968. That same year, he pioneered new territory for the label with his production of “Cloud Nine” for the Temptations, a hit single that brought in psychedelic and funk-rock elements a la Sly and the Family Stone into the Motown formula. He’d continue to pursue this approach for the next several years with the Tempts, encountering criticism for pushing the group in a direction that was too far out as a result.
The Undisputed Truth was put together in response to such criticisms by Whitfield, employing a trio of veteran but lesser-known soul singers to create a vehicle specifically designed for his new sound. This group would create a body of work that represented some of the most unique material released by Motown. The following Catalog Crawl entry looks at the group’s initial trio of albums, which found Whitfield refining a cinemascope approach to funk and soul for the early ’70s…
Members: Joe Harris (vocals), Billie Rae Calvin (vocals), Brenda Evans (vocals)
THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH (1971): The group that would become the clearing house for Whitfield’s wildest songwriting and production notions started their career the way Temptation’s psych-soul era started: with an album of mainly straightforward pop-soul material spiced up with a few way-out tracks, all of it held together by tight, soulful ensemble vocals. On the mainstream tip, “Since I’ve Lost You” is vintage heartbreak soul complete with a spoken intro and “Save My Love For A Rainy Day” is a charming midtempo groover that could’ve been recorded by any Motown act in the late ’60s. On the psych-inflected tip, the group take over the Temptations’ recent backing track for “Ball Of Confusion” to give it a Family Stone vibe and an ace redux of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” pushes the tribal backbeat upfront and offsets the strings with some sharp fuzz guitar. A cover of “Like A Rollin’ Stone” meanders but there’s an ace here in “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” a paranoid soul classic whose mixture of sinuous groove and cinematic orchestration pioneered the blaxploitation soundtrack aesthetic.
FACE TO FACE WITH THE TRUTH (1972): On the back cover, Whitfield describes the group as a perfect cross between the 5th Dimension and the Family Stone. Fittingly, the album divides its time between hard-edged funk material with adventurous, rock-tinged group vocals (“What It Is,” “Ungena Za Ulimwengu/Friendship Train”) and soul vocal showcases where the instrumentation creates a plush backdrop for the singing, like the old-school ballad “Don’t Let Him Take Your Love From Me” and an extended, somber yet gentle reading of “What’s Going On.” The two extremes are blended to a greater consistency on this outing and it contains one of the group’s finest recordings in “You Make Your Own Heaven And Hell Right Here On Earth”: this hypnotic epic that wraps a reflective life-lesson lyric in a dreamlike yet extravagant arrangement topped off by some of the group’s jazziest, most subtle vocals. Note for fans: Whitfield re-edited and partially re-recorded “What It Is” for a single release after the album sessions and it’s arguably the superior version: look for it on Undisputed Truth compilations.
LAW OF THE LAND (1973): The third album trends in a more pop-soul direction, mixing material that pares Whitfield’s cinemascope funk ambitions down to pop song lengths with several straightforward covers of then-current soul hits. The title track is the best example of the former approach, another life lesson-themed tune with an aggressive, kitchen sink arrangement that blends orchestration, wah-wah guitar and a dash of analog synth. The group recorded “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” before the Temptations did in a shorter but no less ornate arrangement and “Mama I Got A Brand New Thing” is one of their best uptempo tunes, offering a percolating groove and spirited trading of vocal lines between the singers. The covers are more standardized in approach but always professionally done, with a gospel-style take on “Feelin’ Alright” and a gentle, Evans-led version of “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” being the most memorable. Also of note: “Girl You’re Alright,” a lilting ballad that represents the only non-Whitfield production on an Undisputed Truth album, helmed by Motown vet Clay McMurray.