Just His Imagination

Norman Whitfield -- 1940-2008: An Appreciation

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They buried Norman Whitfield on Saturday. He died in Los Angeles of complications from diabetes on Sept. 16. He was 68 years old. The name of the dear departed and the fact of his passing generated scant attention in today's breathless mediascape. But in a year already crowded with mourning, this was another huge loss to the world of music.

For anyone whose knowledge and embrace of modern music began in a more recent era, the name might well be no more than the answer to a trivia question or a citation in a musical encyclopedia. Norman Whitfield was responsible for music from an earlier time -- music that, like the oxygen we more or less take for granted, is so much a part of the American songbook that it's hard to imagine modern music without his contributions.

With songs recorded by Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Edwin Starr and the Temptations, between 1966 and 1971 Whitfield and numerous songwriting partners (including Barrett Strong, his principal foil, and Eddie Holland) wrote some of the '60's most enduring radio staples, a constant string of hit tracks that came to define "the Motown Sound" in an era when black presence on mainstream radio was far more marginal than today.

And Whitfield solidified his idea of those songs as the producer for the Temptations' biggest hits between 1967 and 1974. As the man in the studio behind the mixing board, Whitfield concretized the music he heard in his head, turned those musical ideas into the sounds on the radio or stereo, anywhere in the world, right now.

We may not remember when and where we first heard these songs, but we know them. The titles and melodies and lyrics are part of the cultural ether, part of the air we breathe. "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." "Just My Imagination (Runnin' Away With Me"). "Psychedelic Shack." We know the story lyrics of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," the topical stream of consciousness of "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)," the cautionary tales of "Runaway Child, Running Wild," "Cloud Nine" and "Smiling Faces Sometimes."

These tracks and more were the foundation of urban radio in the 60's and 70's. And if it was someone else's lyrics  we sang, it was Whitfield's melodies and arrangements— classically romantic, sonically adventurous, almost cinematically evocative— that lingered and haunted, as only music can.

It'd be easy to throw Whitfield and his work under the bus of irrelevance, write him off as so much pop-culture history, if it weren't for the evolutionary aspects of his songwriting. He started his career in the early 60s, working with Strong and others writing the romantic ditties of the day to suit a radio format that couldn't accommodate songs much longer than three minutes. His early work with such groups as the Marvelettes and the Velveletts was very much in a static mold, the black equivalent of June-moon-croon.

But Whitfield's music paired with Strong's lyrics made the pivot from poetical romantic expressions to songs that reflected a growing concern with the civil rights movement; the culture's growing fascination with the psychedelic social experience; social problems that plagued America, from drug abuse to absentee fathers; and the agony of war. That he made such a change while working mostly with the Temptations, a vocal group in the classic Motown soul-music mold, makes their work that much more compelling.

Maybe it's a bridge too far to credit Whitfield with the musical foundations that allowed the emergence of rap and hip-hop. But it's true that his approach to writing music – the pairing of meaningful lyrics and memorable music to address the social concerns of the day from a black perspective -- certainly helped make hip-hop possible.

It may be hard to fathom the pertinence of Whitfield's work in the face of the more brittle sonic palette of 21st-century pop culture. But Whitfield's passing — so soon after the death of Isaac Hayes, in early August — is another lost connection to the notion of soulfulness in black American music, the sound for which the phrase "back in the day" was invented.