Motown hitmaker Norman Whitfield dies in L.A

Wed Sep 17, 2008 3:16pm EDT
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By Dean Goodman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Motown producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, who helped create some of the legendary label's most important anthems, including Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," has died in Los Angeles, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

The hitmaker died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Tuesday, said Motown Alumni Assn. spokesman Ron Brewington. He was 65. The cause of death was not immediately known, but Brewington said Whitfield suffered from diabetes and several other ailments.

Whitfield was one of the most successful producers at Motown, the Detroit label where acts such as the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and the Four Tops -- along with Gaye and the Temptations -- changed the face of popular culture.

But while Motown's pop sound was palatable to mainstream ears, Whitfield was influenced by the harder soul of James Brown and Sly and Family Stone. Along with lyricist Barrett Strong, he dragged Motown into the psychedelic era in the late 1960s with songs about race relations and urban decay.

"My thing was to out-Sly Sly Stone," Whitfield told Marvin Gaye' biographer, David Ritz. "Sly was definitely sly, and his sound was new, his grooves were incredible, he borrowed a lot from rock. He caught the psychedelic thing. He was bad. I could match him though, rhythm for rhythm, horn for horn."


New York-born Whitfield started out at Motown as a tambourine player, while Strong performed and co-wrote the label's first hit, "Money (That's What I Want)." They composed some of Gaye's early songs, including the 1962 pair "Pride and Joy" and "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)."

Gaye recorded the duo's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" in early 1967. But the song sat on the shelf for more than a year because Motown chief Berry Gordy, Jr. was underwhelmed by it. "Grapevine" eventually hit the top of the pop and R&B charts and became Motown's most successful song of the decade.   Continued...