(May 12, 1940 – September 16, 2008)
(May 12, 1940 – September 16, 2008)
The late, great Motown producer-songwriter Norman Whitfield would've turned 70 today, so we got together with Schlockmania's Don Guarisco, another big Whitfield fan, for a crossover birthday post lists. Don's "Top 10" list of essential Whitfield songs is here, and we recommend you head over there for delicious appetizers before coming back to the Temple for our belly-busting feast. Bon appétit!
TEMPLE OF SCHLOCK'S
TOP 25 NORMAN WHITFIELD PRODUCTIONS
TOP 25 NORMAN WHITFIELD PRODUCTIONS
1. “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” The Undisputed Truth: Yes, “Cloud Nine” was Motown’s first Grammy winner, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was proclaimed the greatest pop single of all time by Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul, and “War” is still timely as ever and good for absolutely something (namely, ASCAP royalties that must be well into the six-figure range), but for me, this dazzling hit (#3 Pop, #2 R&B) and oldies station staple is the quintessential Norman Whitfield production and a fine example of his "psychedelic soul” style boiled down to 45 rpm length. Whitfield was a master at grabbing the listener from the start, and this one’s a whopper, but the hair standing up on my neck tells me the real heart of "Smiling Faces Sometimes" - the paranoia - is reached at the 52-second mark as horns, strings, and Dennis Coffey’s menacing fuzztone guitar slither in and around each other like the snake in the handshake Billie Rae Calvin, Brenda Joyce and Joe Harris are warning us about. In a perfect world, Whitfield would’ve been hired to score LIVE AND LET DIE, with something very similar to “Smiling Faces Sometimes” playing over the Maurice Binder credit sequence.
Recommended reading: “You Caught Me Smiling: The Smiling Faces Trope of Seventies Soul” (p.120-137) in Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (Faber and Faber, 2005).
Trivia: Whitfield also produced versions of this song by The Temptations, Rare Earth and David Ruffin.
2. “Lonely Lonely Girl Am I,” The Velvelettes: Whitfield had already produced a few pre-Supremes girl group hits for Motown (most notably “Too Many Fish in the Sea” by the Marvelettes) and was experimenting with the formula by the time this single came out and failed to make the charts. Lyrically it’s a spurned-girl-in-her-lonely-room number, only this one's uptempo and infectiously danceable despite a big, bold orchestral arrangement that seems to hover over the whole thing like a dark cloud. I think I get it: this lonely lonely girl plans to cry herself to sleep or dance herself to death, whichever comes first -- or until daddy bangs on the door and tells her to turn that damn noise down.
Extra credit assignment: Play the intro to "Needle in a Haystack" by The Velvelettes and name the first Dave Clark Five song that comes to mind!
3. Car Wash soundtrack, Rose Royce/Norman Whitfield: We never subscribed to the “great album but lousy movie” philosophy that seems to be popular nowadays regarding this box-office hit. We always dug the movie, and we really want Universal to issue an expanded edition on DVD that restores all the deleted scenes that show up in the T.V. version. On the other hand, we’re sick to death of having to skip over Richard Pryor’s “Daddy Rich” scene on the soundtrack – it isn’t funny at all without the visuals - and wouldn’t mind if future pressings of the CD omitted it entirely. Get that needless filler out of there and you’ll find Car Wash is not only a better album but it’s possibly the greatest soundtrack LP of the 1970s.
Note: Check out Don’s critique of Car Wash’s extended instrumental track “Sunrise” over at Schlockmania!
4. “Save My Love for a Rainy Day,” The Temptations: As much as I appreciate the psychedelic soul and funk of the early ‘70s Temptations, I wouldn’t argue with anyone who criticized Whitfield for downplaying the group’s vocal harmonies after “I Can’t Get Next to You” sold a zillion copies. As evidence of possible wrongdoing I present this dynamite album track, which closes out side one of The Temptations with a Lot O’ Soul. Not only does it boast a terrific lead by Eddie Kendricks and the very best foot stomps ever heard on a Motown recording, but the harmonies are dazzling and the tick-tock Swiss clock arrangement so infectious that you’ll find yourself clapping your hands and pounding the floorboards at the fade-out. Why this was never released as a single is a mystery for the ages.
Trivia: Whitfield also cut a version of this song as the debut single by The Undisputed Truth.
5. “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” The Underdogs: Motown president Berry Gordy chased the mid ‘60s garage rock explosion by signing this band from Grosse Point, MI. By the time they cut their one and only single on the label’s V.I.P. imprint (a cover of Chris Clark’s “Love's Gone Bad” b/w “Mojo Hannah,” previously recorded by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, among others), only the singer and lead guitarist remained, with the Funk Brothers filling in on all other instruments to guarantee that no one would ever confuse Gordy’s big discovery with The Sonics, Seeds or Standells. Sixteen other tracks were recorded by The Underdogs at Motown, none of them ever released except for this wacky cover of The Temptations hit, which didn’t see the light of day until 2004 when it turned up on the 2-disc Motown Sings Motown Treasures compilation. It’s a joke, with Motown handclaps, signature drums and James Jamerson’s rumbling bass leading in to singer Dave Whitehouse’s Syndicate of Sound-like exclamation, “Little girl, you’re so doggone fine! You’re about to mess up my mind!” The next minute and a half sounds exactly like what you’d expect a Motown-produced garage rock song to sound like, only funnier, and then -- when Whitfield skips a raunchy guitar solo at the midway point in favor of a half-assed “Land of 1,000 Dances” nah-nah-nah singalong -- we just about hit the floor…and we don’t mean the dance floor. Priceless.
6. “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” Rare Earth: Forget the hit single version -– we’re referring to the full album cut that runs nearly 11 minutes and, to these ears, holds its own against most of the Funkadelic catalog (Not surprisingly, the first Funkadelic album features future Rare Earth guitarist Ray Monette plus Motown session musicians like Earl Van Dyke and Dennis Coffey). It’s hard to say what gets more of a workout on this extended scorcher, the echo chamber or the wah-wah pedal, and I suppose the drum and bongo break around the 7-minute mark should remind me of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” but instead I see it as another chapter in the education of Tom Moulton. Oh, and this cut gets extra points for adding the jazzy sax at the fade-out. If the Red Hot Chili Peppers had dumped Rick Rubin after One Hot Minute like they should have and tried something new and different, I'd wish for a whole album of Whitfield favorites with the man himself at the helm and this song smack in the middle of the collection.
Trivia: In addition to The Temptations hit (#8 Pop, #1 R&B), Whitfield also cut this song with Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Undisputed Truth.
7. “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” The Undisputed Truth: Another example of echo chamber abuse is this acid-soaked 10-minute-plus rendition of The Temptations’ tongue-twisting hit (#3 Pop, #2 R&B). The back-and-forth between Billie, Brenda and Joe never got better than this, with the three working in bits from “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” and Kool & the Gang’s “Let the Music Take Your Mind” (The Truth also pop up in Edwin Starr’s version of the song, which is almost as far-out as this one), while Whitfield gives Dennis Coffey plenty of room to shred on his guitar and try out his latest effects pedals. We love the sax and flute, too…and did we mention that echo chamber? That echo chamber? That echo chamber? That echo chamber…
8. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Gladys Knight & the Pips: Motown’s best-selling single until Marvin’s take on it hit the charts a full year later, this one’s the out-of-control family response version with outraged Gladys working older brother Merald and cousins Edward Patten and William Guest into a frenzy, as opposed to the meditative slow-burn of Gaye’s way. After 40 years, we’re still not sure which we prefer.
Trivia: Whitfield also cut this song with The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, and even The Isley Brothers (although that version remains unreleased).
9. “That’s the Way Love Is,” Marvin Gaye: Whitfield and writing partner Barrett Strong took a cue from Holland-Dozier-Holland and rehashed “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in much the same way H-D-H had recycled “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” as the snickering quickie knockoff “It’s the Same Old Song,” only Whitfield-Strong played theirs straight and still managed to squeeze a second Top 10 hit (#2 R&B, #7 Pop) out of the same basic arrangement. We knew what it was the first time we heard it, and we loved it anyway -– but that’s the way love is, baby.
10. Masterpiece, The Temptations: Its detractors refer to it as a Norman Whitfield album with special guest appearances by The Temptations, but only the 14-minute title track lives up to that label. What’s left opens with the stunningly beautiful “Hey Girl (I Like Your Style)” and closes with the 8-minute long junkie nightmare “Hurry Tomorrow.” In between you get “Plastic Man” – not the funny superhero, unfortunately – plus “Ma,” a pleasant counterbalance to the previous year’s smash “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and “Law of the Land,” which overcomes its count-the-cliché lyrics with a terrific hand-clapping opener, an unrelenting beat and a tripped-out middle section highlighted by the jazz guitar playing of Joe Messina. There are 6 tracks in all, no filler to speak of, yet I still hesitate in calling it a masterpiece (Hell, I wouldn’t even call it the best Whitfield album produced that year). It certainly is the most powerful shot of pure uncut Norman that’s easily available on the market, though, and when it comes to Paul Riser arrangements, too much is never enough.
Trivia: Whitfield also cut versions of "Ma" with Rare Earth and The Undisputed Truth, two different mixes of "Law of the Land" by The Undisputed Truth, and in 1980 signed an R&B vocal group called Masterpiece to his Whitfield Records label.
11. "Runaway Child, Running Wild," Earl Van Dyke: The haunting Temptations message hit (#6 Pop, #1 R&B), which ran just under 5 minutes as a single and almost 10 minutes as an album cut, is transformed into a jazzy and comparatively upbeat 3-minute instrumental by the leader of the Motown house band, who played the organ on the original but here sticks to the piano. In other words, unlike earlier singles credited to Van Dyke, this one’s a whole different production and not simply an instrumental track. The Earl’s playing is marvelous and the snappy arrangement (presumably by David Van De Pitte) has him matching wits with Coffey on lead guitar and a killer horn section, while getting terrific support from either Jamerson or Babbitt on bass (the liner notes are incomplete) and Eddie “Bongo” Brown on congas. The b-side, a reworking of Jimmy Ruffin’s “Gonna Give Her All the Love I’ve Got” that was also tailor-made by Whitfield as a showpiece for Van Dyke and Coffey, is equally essential.
12. 1990, The Temptations: The follow-up to Masterpiece, released later the same year (1973), actually IS a masterpiece. Seven songs, all of them keepers, each one memorable and unique in its own way. Synthesizers, sound effects, looping, drum boxes -- this is not only the Tempts' most consistent and satisfying LP, it's also their toughest. Whitfield fleshes out the few remaining Motown session guys (Van Dyke, Willis, Wah Wah, Coffey) with Billy "Bass" Nelson and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic and a fresh group of L.A. musicians who would soon become famous under the name Rose Royce. The Temptations got a beautiful ballad out of the deal ("Heavenly") as well as a 14-minute trip to the moon ("Zoom") and one of their hardest funk numbers ever ("You've Got My Soul on Fire"), and still insisted that Whitfield be replaced as their writer-producer -- a big mistake, because they never did anything this good again.
13. "Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On," Edwin Starr: I like the Temptations version (an All Directions album cut, also the b-side to “Mother Nature”), I really like Yvonne Fair's take on it from The Bitch is Black, but I love Edwin Starr's loud, fuzzed-out, funked-up original -- and I'm not alone in that opinion, 'cause this is the only one that charted (#6 R&B, #64 Pop). A great song to have blasting out of your car stereo when you're stopped at a red light. "Ba-ba-ba-boom-boom, higher!/Music's got my soul on fire!"
14. Ma, Rare Earth: One of Whitfield’s three auteur pieces from 1973, released in between his final – and most artistic – Temptations long players (Masterpiece and 1990), Ma finds the man continuing to expand musical boundaries, this time with Motown’s album-oriented rockers Rare Earth. Side one consists solely of “Ma,” a song that ran 4:46 when the Tempts introduced it on Masterpiece but is blown out to 17 minutes and 22 seconds here for a completely unique listening experience. I’d be selling the work way short if I said it was a perfect fire-up-the-bong-and-sink-into-the-beanbag-chair album side, but you’re certainly not gonna dance to it. “Big John is My Name” later showed up on the Undisputed Truth’s Down to Earth album, and although I prefer that version because of its intense lead vocals, almost hostile harmonies, and gratuitous censor bleeps (“Some of my friends smoke a little *bleep*/Some of my friends sniff a little *bleep*”), this one proves to be a damn good groover as well, and forms a nice bridge from “Ma” to yet another cover of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (I defer to Don Guarisco's list for this one). “Hum Along and Dance,” previously done to perfection by the Temptations on Psychedelic Shack as a nod to Sly Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” is hardened almost to the point of industrial rock here. Interestingly, it's this arrangement that the Jackson 5 covered later the same year (8:38 on the Whitfield-heavy Get It Together LP, pared down from a staggering 15-minute-plus version that surfaced later on Joyful Jukebox Music) and not the more vocally interesting Tempts original. Finishing off Ma with a happy ending is "Come With Me," Motown's first hump-along: 5 minutes of mellow, spacey keyboard and electric guitar accompanied by pre-"Love to Love You Baby" female moans that out-"Pillow Talk" Sylvia Robinson. My only complaint with this set? There should've been a sixth song. Otherwise, A+
15. "Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down," The Temptations: Nestled between four bigger hits -- “Cloud Nine” and “Runaway Child, Running Wild” before it, “I Can’t Get Next to You” and “Psychedelic Shack” after it -- this is the one that stands the test of time, and only partly because it hasn’t been killed by oldies station overexposure. Mostly, the brilliant intro is pure soul cinema strut two years before SHAFT, and the breathless pace of everything that follows says this is the only one of the batch that could be convincingly covered as an all-out rocker by Little Richard. Speaking of covers, I can’t think of a single one, which means this could be the biggest hit Whitfield had that he didn’t beat to death through re-recording. Nope, the Tempts own this one.
16. "I Want My Baby Back," Edwin Starr: Guy screws up, loses his girl, and spends two minutes and forty seconds telling us how much he wants her back. The thing is, Starr is so cool about it that we don’t believe what he’s singing for a second, let alone the entire first verse. Then, at the one minute mark, he suddenly has a few too many words to work with as Whitfield picks up the pace and whips the production into a near-frenzy, revealing the panic and desperation behind a macho façade that threatens to crumble at any second. Done a couple years earlier by Stevie Wonder as an Uptight album cut, Starr’s version was a single that didn’t chart, and I’m not surprised: The 7-second bass intro nearly falls to pieces before the drums come in to bail it out, which makes sense artistically but isn’t the type of thing to set jukeboxes on fire. Oh well.
17. "Wishing on a Star," Rose Royce: I second everything Don wrote in his Top 10 post (where it comes in at #9), and add only this: It's one of the band’s signature tunes, and I know Gwen Dickey’s vocals really help knock it out of the park, but “Wishing on a Star” is and always will be Billie Rae Calvin’s song and I can’t get her out of my head whenever I hear it. Whitfield later cut an instrumental version with Junior Walker, but I still wish (on a star) that this heartbreaker had been written a few years earlier and recorded first by the Undisputed Truth, if only to give the underutilized Calvin (R.I.P.) a crack at it. Sequel: “Angel in the Sky” from Rose Royce III.
18. Cosmic Truth, The Undisputed Truth: The group's fifth album. The bad news is that Billie Rae Calvin and Brenda Joyce are gone. The good news is that Whitfield tries to out-funk the whole damn Parliafunkadelicment Thang, from Eddie Hazel's squealing guitars ("Earthquake Shake") and Bootsy's space bass ("UFO's") right down to the copycat album title (ripped from Funkadelic's Cosmic Slop), and winds up with something that sounds like the space between Westbound (Tales of Kidd Funkadelic) and Warner Brothers (Hardcore Jollies). We thought the cover of Neil Young's "Down by the River" was the album's weak link until our friend Bob Plante explained that it's actually a cover of Buddy Miles' cover of Neil Young's "Down by the River." Plus, the gatefold artwork looks more like Willie Hutch's Mark of the Beast than a Pedro Bell creation and the inside photo of the group calls to mind THE OMEGA MAN instead of the P-Funk clan. Memo to Hip-O Select: A remastered 2-fer CD of this paired with Higher Than High would be nice.
19. "I Saw You When You Met Her," David Ruffin: Estranged from the Temptations at this point, Whitfield reunites with the “superstar”
lead vocalist who split the group five years earlier in a blaze of glory. It’s a treat to hear egomaniacal junkie has-been and woman abuser Ruffin pushed painfully to the highest reaches of his vocal range and beyond by a producer who apparently hated his guts so much he made him do a cover of “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” -- the acidic Temptations hit written about him -– a few tracks later on the same album. A pathetic domestic situation gets inflated to near-Wagnerian proportions in this sweeping mini epic (running time: 6:49) arranged by Paul Riser, with rain-and-thunder sound effects and electric piano courtesy of L.A. Woman. “I must search the endless night/I was wrong and now she’s gone/I’ve got to make her see/The girl she saw me with meant nothing to me.” Yes, it’s another dumb-guy-screws-around-on-his-woman-and-loses-her song, but the best thing the dumb guy can come up with this time is “I didn’t go to stay/I only went to play,” which he has to repeat twice to himself, ‘cause even he doesn’t believe his jive anymore. The version Whitfield cut a year later with the Undisputed Truth for their Higher Than High LP is damn good also, but this one’s the keeper.
20. "You Can't Judge a Book by its Cover," Yvonne Fair: Like Tammi Terrell, Fair had recorded singles for James Brown before signing a contract with Motown, and -- like Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, Blinky, Barbara Randolph and all the other female vocalists at the label not named "Diana Ross" -- was pretty much relegated to third tier status by the time the ink on that contract had dried. Five years after she cut her first single for Motown, Fair underwent an image makeover and emerged a Millie Jackson/Laura Lee-style spitfire armed with an album titled The Bitch is Black that featured a half dozen new Whitfield produced tracks. Our favorite is this funked-up Stevie Wonder cover, which we're pretty sure was recorded during the same sessions that yielded much of the Undisputed Truth's Cosmic Truth LP the same year (especially "Earthquake Shake"). Babbitt's slap bass and the triple guitars of Eddie Willis, Wah Wah Watson and Dennis Coffey are pushed wayyyyy to the front of the mix (at a time when Wah Wah and Coffey's playing could be heard every week on S.W.A.T.), and Fair's guttural growls sound right at home on this bumpy ride.
21. Midnight Lady, Rare Earth: Speaking of judging a book by its cover, I've seen this slammin' LP referred to as Rare Earth's disco album, presumably by a handful of people who confused it with “Warm Ride,” the band's subsequent single, which was written by the Bee Gees and is a disco record. Except for one track written by Jerry LeCroix ("It's a Natural") and one arranged by Paul Riser ("Let it Go") -- the opening and closing songs on side one, respectively, and both very tasty -- Midnight Lady is an awesome slab of hard rock funk “written, produced and arranged by Norman Whitfield.” It also sports a 1976 copyright date, making it the last Motown recording to carry Whitfield's name until his reunion album with the Temptations in 1983, Back to Basics. The Foghat-like “Finger Lickin' Good” managed to beat the Dennis Coffey album of the same name to stores by several months while boasting some of Whitfield's most cringe-worthy lyrics (“44-24-38/You look like the Colonel's chicken on a plate/And that's my favorite dish I do declare!”), but you won't care once you hear the echoing harmonica on top of the killer keyboard and guitar combo. "Do It Right” is another rocker, this time backed by Riser's ominous orchestral arrangement, while the driving beat and sweeping strings on the LP's upbeat title track (and lone single) sounds to me like Whitfield's nod to the Doobie Brothers' cover of Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)" from the previous year. Hardcore Motown fans will eat up the two classic Whitfield covers included here, “He Who Picks a Rose” and “Ain't No Sun (Since You've Been Gone),” both of which manage to break new ground despite having already been produced by Stormin' Norman three times each.* “Wine, Women and Song” ends the album on a bittersweet note; at a length of nearly 12 minutes it's the last extended jam Whitfield recorded for Motown, ever -- and he must've known it, too, because he ends the song about 6 minutes in, then seemingly changes his mind and lets it go off in a completely different direction for another 5 minutes or so. A marvelous album from start to finish, Midnight Lady is criminally ignored, even by Motown fans and Whitfield buffs, but we love every second of it and can't recommend it enough.
* "He Who Picks a Rose" was previously recorded by the Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, and Edwin Starr, while "Ain't No Sun (Since You've Been Gone)" was done by Gladys Knight & the Pips, Chuck Jackson, and the Undisputed Truth.
22. "It Makes You Feel Like Dancin'," Rose Royce: The title says it all, and to write anything more would sort of defeat the purpose. Still, we’ll direct your attention to the running time (8:46) and tell you that this contains everything you’d ever want to hear in a Whitfield disco epic. “Feel the funk, feel the funk/Come on, come on, shake your rump!”
23. "Don't Let Him Take Your Love From Me," The Four Tops
24. "I Gotta Let You Go," Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: The departure of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting/production team from Motown in 1967 was a blow that the company never fully recovered from, and the two acts that suffered the most in their absence were the Four Tops and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. These catchy but minor Motown hits are included here more for their historical significance than anything else, since they’re the only singles Whitfield cut with the two groups. “Don’t Let Him Take Your Love From Me” (R&B #25, Pop #45) had been recorded previously by Jimmy Ruffin (a single that didn’t chart) and Gladys Knight & The Pips under Whitfield’s direction; he also did versions with the Temptations (1969) and the Undisputed Truth (1972). “I Gotta Let You Go” also began life as a Ruffin track, but Martha’s was the one that made the charts (R&B #43, Pop #93).
25. "The Cat and Me," Stargard: A funked-up, spaced-out girl group put together by Whitfield to fill the void left after Labelle broke up in early 1977, Stargard consisted of 3 gorgeous women (Rochelle Runnells, Janice Williams, Debra Anderson) with good voices and decent songwriting skills. Their first assignment was to record a Whitfield-penned disco-funk theme song for the Michael Schultz-Richard Pryor comedy WHICH WAY IS UP? Their second single was another Whitfield composition, “What You Waitin’ For.” Both hits were produced by Whitfield protégé Mark Davis, while Whitfield himself turned his attention toward Rose Royce, The Undisputed Truth, Willie Hutch and several less interesting acts signed to the newly formed Whitfield Records label. After Stargard appeared in Schultz’s SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978), performing a cringe-worthy cover of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with Donald Pleasence (!), the group quickly fell off in popularity, just as their recordings started to get really good with The Changing of the Gard, their third long-player. Whitfield stepped in and took over the production reins on their fourth, Back 2 Back, but Anderson was gone by then and sales continued to slip. “Diary” and the lovely Runnells-written ballad “Just One Love” are the best tracks on the album, but it’s Williams’ “The Cat and Me” that really lingers long after the record is back in its sleeve. First of all, it’s the only Stargard song that’s as adorable as the women who are singing it (Not surprisingly, it appears on the only album where said women are smiling on the front and back covers). Second, it’s probably Whitfield’s shortest, most straightforward and laidback latter-day production. Third, and most important, is this: the simplicity of the lyrics makes them easy to visualize, but also leaves a few important questions unanswered, namely who and why. “The cat sat in the window, and we both watched you leave/The cat had known you longer, but she didn’t cry like me.” We’ve known some pretty stupid men in our time, but never one who was so stupid he’d walk out on Janice Williams and his own cat!