HITS Daily Double


The home of the Motown Museum doesn’t look like it’s aged a day since t
he 1960s, when Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5 and other superstars regularly walked the halls.

Entering the squat two-story building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit—its blue-and-white exterior instantly recognizable from music documentaries like Hitsville: The Making of Motown—visitors are met right away with a visual display of Motown acts both unsung and immediately familiar. Memorabilia wallpapers the foyer, stretching past the gift shop and leading to the ticket counter: monochrome photos of Shanice, Lionel Richie and Vanity; covers of Rare Earth, Commodores and Dazz Band albums and soundtracks like The Big Chill, Mahogany and The Wiz. There’s no filming allowed.

Operational as a museum since 1985, the former Hitsville U.S.A. building currently displays an outsize reproduction of The Original Spinners album in a huge window at the entranceway—a tribute to the R&B quintet’s 2023 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Daily guided tours start with a brief video enlightening guests about the history of Motown Records, from founder Berry Gordy’s initial $800 investment in 1959, through musically guiding the spirit of the era, to the label’s relocation to Los Angeles in ’72.

After passing memorabilia like Michael Jackson’s sequined glove and a gold plaque of The TemptationsPsychedelic Shack, Gordy’s old den area and an untouched old candy machine (full of Little Stevie Wonder’s beloved Baby Ruths), we reach the historic Studio A. Amid the antique instruments, an affable museum guide demonstrates some Temptations choreography for our tour group to perform as he leads us through a verse of “My Girl.” His nuggets of trivia educate even the biggest Motown fans in the tour group: Paul McCartney once paid to refurbish the studio’s 1877 Steinway piano, and the final album recorded there was Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man.

Numerous master producers worked behind the boards of the Studio A control room—the Corporation, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Ashford & Simpson among them—but Motown perhaps wouldn’t have become quite the same global phenomenon without the artistry of the late Norman Whitfield. As co-writer and producer for a wide swath of Motown hits, including Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and much of The Temptations’ legendary discography, Whitfield qualifies as one of the first true auteurs of soul music production.

Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Missy Elliott, Babyface, Teddy Riley, Raphael Saadiq, Timbaland and any other songwriter-producers of the past 60 years owe a debt to how Norman Whitfield spent his time among the piano, drums, guitars, basses and organs of Hitsville’s Studio A.

“Norman Whitfield, one of the new producers, was tall and broad-shouldered with a thick head of hair,” writes Berry Gordy in his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown (distributed free at the museum on the day of my visit). “He was quiet and shy—not someone you’d think would turn into the boldly innovative producer he later became. He had started at Hitsville like many others, doing everything: assisting Mickey [Stevenson] in A&R, scheduling sessions, handling auditions on Saturdays, cleaning the studio—whatever. His first collaboration of note was Marvin [Gaye]’s ‘Pride and Joy’—along with Mickey and Marvin—but it would be a couple more years before I recognized what a talent he was.”

Born Norman Jesse Whitfield in May 1940, the future songsmith spent his earliest years in Harlem. Unlike Gordy, Diana Ross, Mickey Stevenson and other Motown greats, Whitfield never wrote his own memoir (he died of diabetic complications in 2008; he was 65). Public relations in the “Swinging ’60s” often dealt in easily digestible anecdotes, and so Whitfield’s history was always presented with the same factoids: He grew up as a teenage pool hustler, his family relocated to Detroit after their car broke down returning from his aunt’s funeral in California, he set his sights on a music career after seeing Smokey Robinson driving a fancy Cadillac, he was never musically trained, etc.

Digging a little deeper, you can go beyond the Norman Whitfield mythos. An old draft-registration card found on Ancestry.com reveals that he was born the son of William Whitfield and Gerda Elliot. His dad (employed by the Department of Welfare) was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and young Norman grew up at 925 St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. (Future addresses listed in census reports include 72 Hamilton Terrace, around the corner from the stately mansion featured in The Royal Tenenbaums.) An older cousin of mine, a longtime Bronx native, says Norman was baptized at Trinity Episcopal Church in the Bronx after his family had moved there for a brief period of time.

Former Aretha Franklin publicist Audrey LaCatis Onyeike (who grew up near Temptations lead singer David Ruffin) tells me Whitfield attended Northwestern High School and later lived near the University of Detroit Mercy campus during his Motown heyday. In Norman’s teenage years, his father worked at Barthwell Drugs, a chain of drugstores owned by his brother-in-law.

By the time Whitfield started writing for Motown, the label was such a burgeoning global force that The Beatles included cover versions of “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Please Mr. Postman” on their sophomore album. He entered the label at 19, willing to do a little bit of everything just to get his foot in the door at the House of Hits.

Whitfield’s first promotion involved joining Motown’s notorious quality-control department, made up of tastemakers who determined whether or not certain songs would be released by the label as singles. From there, the young upstart quickly landed the chance to join Stevenson and Gaye in co-writing 1963’s “Pride and Joy”—the latter’s first Top 10 single, a tribute to his future wife (and his boss’ sister), Anna Gordy. The Marvelettes’ hit “Too Many Fish in the Sea” followed in ’64—Whitfield’s very first production credit, co-written with Eddie Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland—as well as girl trio The Velvelettes’ “Needle in a Haystack” the same year.

Another of the beats in the legend of Norman Whitfield centers on how, at the age of 26, he bested Smokey Robinson when competing for the right to take over production duties for The Temptations. (Broadway’s Motown: The Musical recounts the entire episode onstage.) Smokey had produced the group since the quintet’s first Top 20 hit in 1964, “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

“Then, after [Smokey] had kept almost a complete hold on The Tempts for about three years, he did ‘Get Ready’ in early 1966,” Gordy recounts in To Be Loved. “It couldn’t get past #29 Pop. A crack in Smokey’s armor. That was all Norman Whitfield needed.” Whitfield famously inherited the responsibility of producing The Temptations by outperforming “Get Ready” with his own offering in May 1966: “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” written by Eddie Holland. As the producer with the bigger hit for the group that spring, Whitfield was designated by Motown as the group’s main producer thenceforth.

The new arrangement resulted in some of the greatest hits of the Motown era. Whitfield moved The Tempts away from their ballad-heavy aesthetic towards a more brass-heavy, soulful and ambitious sound: “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You.” After the rise of Sly and the Family Stone, the multiracial band who rocked the Woodstock festival with a sound critics categorized as psychedelic soul, Whitfield steered The Temptations in a similar direction, starting with 1970’s Psychedelic Shack. The results of this new emphasis included hits like “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” “War” and “Psychedelic Shack.”

By 1968, the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland team had taken leave of Motown, litigating with the label over unpaid royalties. This put more production work on Whitfield’s plate. He found a longtime songwriting partner in Barrett Strong, the star of Motown’s first hit from the late ’50s, “Money (That’s What I Want)”; Whitfield had already co-written “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with Strong, which he produced with Gladys Knight & the Pips in September 1967. After the departure of H-D-H, Whitfield also lent his talents to The Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Edwin Starr, The Undisputed Truth and Marvin Gaye—including classics like Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and The Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”

What’s immediately notable in Norman Whitfield’s production discography is how many cover versions of his songs were recorded during roughly the same time period as their originals, a practice that’s nearly nonexistent in the postmillennial music industry. Such repetition was standard operating procedure for Norman Whitfield in the ’60s and ’70s.

“When a song wasn’t a hit on one artist, [Norman would] produce it over and over again on other artists,” Gordy writes. This relentless passion for his own music is how radio ended up with versions of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by The Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye; “War” by Edwin Starr and The Temptations; “Smiling Faces Sometimes” by The Temptations and The Undisputed Truth; “Hum Along and Dance” by The Jackson 5, Rare Earth and The Temptations; etc. In fact, The Undisputed Truth—Motown’s psychedelic soul trio assembled by Whitfield in 1970—was practically a cover band, with albums full of Whitfield-produced Temptations covers like “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” “The Girl’s Alright with Me” and more.

“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” the glorious 12-minute #1 hit by The Temptations from 1972, marked a turning point on several levels for everyone involved. The cinematic soul masterpiece marks the last chart-topper of the Tempts’ career, earning the group their final three Grammy Awards. Once described by Stereogum as “a towering monument of tense hi-hats and pulsating bass and shivering strings and hard-strutting chicken-scratch guitars and panicked trumpet-blasts,” the song goes on for almost four minutes before The Tempts utter a word, suggesting that the wizardry of Whitfield’s instrumentation was taking precedence over the group’s vocals.

Around the time of Motown’s move to L.A., Berry Gordy began to prioritize Motown Productions films like Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany (directed by Gordy himself), which contributed to tension within the ranks. In 1975, Whitfield finally left the label to distribute his own Whitfield Records through Warner Bros. Records.

It was, of course, the height of the disco era.

The soulful vocals, orchestral strings and multitracked drums of his evolved ’70s sound already represented the zeitgeist reflected back to him by the likes of Barry White, producers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff and others. Whitfield Records stormed out of the gate with Rose Royce and their double album debut, a Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 1976 comedy film Car Wash.

Contrary to popular belief, Rose Royce was not a singer but the former backing band for Edwin Starr, newly fronted by lead chanteuse Rose Norwalt (aka Gwen Dickey). Nor were they one-hit wonders. In addition to “Car Wash” (covered in 2004 by Christina Aguilera with Missy Elliott for Shark Tale), the group flooded R&B radio with Whitfield-produced hits like “I Wanna Get Next to You,” “Wishing on a Star,” “Ooh Boy,” “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” (later sung by Madonna, Faith Evans and others) and “I’m Going Down” (mother of Mary J. Blige’s beloved 1994 version).

Whitfield Records hardly stacked up as a mini-Motown, as the variety of acts signed—former Motowners Willie Hutch, Junior Walker and Yvonne Fair, Mammatapee, Nytro—mostly failed to chart. Still, an in-demand producer with an illustrious reputation, Whitfield minted his final disco hit outside his own label in 1977, writing “Theme Song from ‘Which Way Is Up’ ” for R&B girl group Stargard.

With Masterpiece, one of the last acts to release an album on his label in 1980, Whitfield leaned on his propensity to cover previous material, such as on The Girl’s Alright with Me—a commercial flop featuring a reworking of The Undisputed Truth’s “You + Me = Love.” By 1982, three years after the infamous disco demolition night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park took its racist stand against Black dance music, Whitfield Records had unceremoniously folded.

Visitors pour out of the Motown Museum through its gift shop—an assemblage of boomers browsing through memoirs by Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, vinyl by Marvin Gaye and Elaine Brown, DVDs like Sparkle and Lady Sings the Blues, T-shirts and various bric-a-brac. If the omnipresent cultural impact of Motown wasn’t clear before entering the museum, there’s no way to leave without becoming a converted believer in the power of all those tambourines, handclaps, soulful vocals and poetic lyrics.

A local news crew stands near the exit, wrapping up an interview with an actor from Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, the touring Tony-winning play about Norman Whitfield’s most consistent collaborators. Whitfield actually has the distinction of being portrayed on Broadway twice: by actor Jarvis B. Manning Jr. in Ain’t Too Proud and Joey Stone in Motown: The Musical. Assaying his accolades and accomplishments comes easier than unearthing a sense of Whitfield’s personality. But both actors played Whitfield as an eager upstart in his early days who, by the ’70s, became a bit more egocentric as his sound dominated discos and R&B radio.

Come the early ’80s, new Black artist-producers like Rick James, Nile Rodgers and Prince were working studio magic for Mary Jane Girls, Sister Sledge, The Time and others, but Whitfield’s influence remains present in the contemporary music of writer-producers like Jermaine Dupri, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Rodney Jerkins and others, never to be forgotten. Norman Whitfield settled quietly into retirement in the ’80s, resurfacing in the aughts with his well-deserved induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.