The Songwriters – Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

Norman Whitfield (left) and Barrett Strong

While Motown had its own very strong musical identity, one thing it couldn’t be accused of is following fashion. Motown was Motown and the rest of the world could do what it liked. The Beatles progressed from She Loves You to Strawberry Fields Forever as the Sixties  moved on, but in Detroit it was still sequined gowns, tight-fitting suits and dance routines. And as the quality remained peerless, who could complain?

One man who did like to move with the times, though, was producer and composer Norman Whitfield, usually working with lyricist Barrett Strong. As the man who directed the career of The Temptations, Whitfield managed to introduce new ideas that reflected the psychedelic sounds that were bathing music in mutating coloured light shapes, with singles such as Cloud Nine, Psychedelic Shack, Ball of Confusion and the masterly Papa Was A Rolling Stone, a tale of a young man’s tough upbringing in a poor family with a feckless father. Strong’s lyrics are delivered over Whitfield’s  loose, rather menacing production, resulting in a unique three minutes 40 seconds that showed the world the label didn’t live in a room full of mirrors after all. (Of the rest of the artists and producers, we should acknowledge Holland-Dozier-Holland for the rather naff The Happening and the utterly cool Reflections.)

Even if you’re not a fan of this strain of Motown, Whitfield is a significant figure in the label’s history. After typical early songs like Ain’t Too Proud to Beg and (I Know) I’m Losing You, later covered by Rod Stewart, he gave us the monumental slow burner I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which, as was the way at the time, had a double life. It was a big hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in the US, although the UK resisted its charms until the Marvin Gaye version appeared shortly afterwards. It’s hard to imagine The Beatles and The Rolling Stones having hits with the same song within months of each other, but such was the wealth of talent  within Motown – and the appetite of the fans.

Whitfield also wrote Edwin Starr’s War, I Can’t Get Next To You, a hit for The Temptations, Too Busy Thinking About My Baby (Marvin Gaye) and a late bloomer in It Should Have Been Me for Yvonne Fair in 1975. Previously recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips, this is a murderously intense tale of unrequited love, the singer dangerously close to the emotional edge as she sees her man marrying someone else.

Even later, and on his own Whitfield label, came his composition Car Wash, which launched the career of Rose Royce.

Again, this demonstrates growth on the part of the writer, as we see if we go back to Whitfield’s early 60s days and The Velvelettes’ Really Saying Something and the wonderfully blank-faced Needle In A Haystack.


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