Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Jazz Loves Motown: Norman Whitfield

Back when CD compilations were a thing, I proposed to a certain label a series of discs devoted to jazz covers of Motown hits.

The people at the label seemed pleased. But instead of focusing on the legendary Motown’s historic artists – The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Jackson Five, etc. – my bright idea was to celebrate the composers of those great songs: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, etc.

That was my first mistake. Proposing a set devoted to Norman Whitfield was where I really went wrong.

“No one knows who that is,” I was told. Whatever the series could have been was pretty much shut down. While songwriters Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder had name recognition as artists in their own right, Whitfield worked tirelessly behind the scenes to craft some of Motown’s best – and best-known – songs. But he never had a hit under his own name – even though he crafted many Motown hits under other artists’ names.

Norman Whitfield (1940-2008) was born and raised in Harlem, New York. By the time he was in high school, he and his family had relocated to Detroit. After high school, Whitfield began hanging around Motown’s Hitsville USA offices looking for work. Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. took him on in the label’s “quality control” department, determining which records would and would not get released.

Soon thereafter, Whitfield began writing songs for Motown, scoring an early hit with “Pride and Joy” for Marvin Gaye. Whitfield started writing songs for the Temptations in 1963 and succeeded Smokey Robinson as the group’s producer in 1966 when “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” became a hit for the group.

Norman Whitfield was given free rein to experiment with studio technics and musical arrangements, inaugurating the group’s blend of psychedelic rock and funk known as “psychedelic soul” – a style which Funkadelic’s George Clinton, who also briefly worked at Motown, always claimed Whitfield appropriated from him/them.

If Clinton’s claim is right, then Whitfield clearly mastered the mechanics and the memorability of psychedelic soul well before Clinton came into his own. Certainly, Sly Stone was paying attention, too.

Whitfield worked with the Temptations through 1974, leaving to form his own label, the Warner Bros.-distributed Whitfield Records. One of the first acts he brought to his new label was the Undisputed Truth, a group Whitfield had overseen successfully on the Motown-distributed Gordy label since 1971.

Whitfield scored a huge hit in 1976 with his soundtrack to Car Wash, featuring several hit songs by Rose Royce, including the title track, “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” and a song, which surprisingly never had any jazz coverage, “I Wanna Get Next to You.” Rose Royce recorded several notable records for the Whitfield label while Whitfield himself scored another hit with his theme song to the 1977 film Which Way is Up by Stargard (another Whitfield group well worth hearing in more depth).

Norman Whitfield returned to Motown in the eighties, again producing the Temptations and co-writing and producing the title track by Dwight David to the 1985 film soundtrack to Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (complete with the Taco Bell-appropriated “dong” and classic-ish electric drums).

The label I worked with was probably right: who has ever said, “oh, that’s a Norman Whitfield song”? Not many… other than me. Maybe that’s just the way my brain works. To its credit, and much to my praise, the British Kent Soul label issued the terrific and highly-recommended compilation CD Psychedelic Soul: Produced by Norman Whitfield in 2021 – obviously focusing on Whitfield’s brilliant and wildly under-appreciated production ability.

Maybe if I had proposed a set of jazz covers of Temptations songs, I could have had my own Norman Whitfield compilation. Indeed, many – but not all – of the Whitfield songs noted here were written for the Temptations. But while Kent Soul’s job was an appreciation of Norman Whitfield the producer – a duly noble endeavor – my goal was and is to celebrate Norman Whitfield the composer. Sample his enduring brilliance in the following terrific jazz takes presented here:

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Written by Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland for the Temptations in 1966. The Rolling Stones covered the song in 1974, when it reached number 17 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” was revived in 1983 as part of the hit soundtrack The Big Chill, six years before Rick “Never Gonna Give You Up” Astley Rickrolled a minor hit of his own with the tune.

Above: Willie Bobo from Juicy (1967). Also: Count Basie and His Orchestra from Basie’s in the Bag (1967) and Mongo Santamaria from All Strung Out (1970). (Jimmy Smith recorded the song in March 1971, but the recording remains unissued.)

Car Wash: Written by Norman Whitfield for Rose Royce for the 1976 soundtrack to the film Car Wash. The song was a number one hit and the soundtrack album won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album. Christine Aguilera and Missy Elliott revived the song in 2004 for the Shark Tale soundtrack.

Above: Christian McBride Trio from Live at the Village Vanguard (2016).

Cloud Nine: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1968. The song reached number 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and earned Motown its first Grammy Award. Conguero Mongo Santamaria, who covered the song in 1969 and 1971, is said to have played on the Temptations’ original.

Above: Mongo Santamaria from Stone Soul (1969). Also: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Fire (1970 – as “Cloud 9”) and Mongo Santamaria from Mongo at Montreux (1971). (Woody Herman recorded the song during the Heavy Exposure sessions in 1969, but the recording remains unreleased.)

Friendship Train: Grammy-nominated song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1969. Whitfield also recorded the song using the same backing track for the Temptations in 1969.

Above: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Fire (1970).

Got Myself a Good Man: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1969. Surprisingly, the only song listed here not issued as a single, “Got Myself a Good Man” was issued as the b-side to the Norman Whitfield-produced single “The Nitty Gritty” – which did garner some jazz coverage, but as a Lincoln Chase composition, is not featured here.

Above: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Fire (1970): After Pucho’s fantastic cover became an acid-jazz favorite and breakbeat classic (The Chemical Brothers, Beastie Boys, DJ Spooky) in the nineties, the British BGP label issued this version of “Got Myself a Good Man” as a single in 2003. Also: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Strut (1993)

I Can’t Get Next to You: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1969, the second of the group’s No. 1 songs.

Above: Woody Herman from Heavy Exposure (1969). Also: Mongo Santamaria from Feelin’ Alright (1970), Woody Herman from Herd at Montreux (1974), Hiram Bullock Band from Manny’s Car Wash (1996), David Sanborn from Time and the River (2015) and Dave Stryker from Eight Track II (2016).

I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966 (apparently) for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, although, for whatever reason, that version wasn’t released until 1968. Marvin Gaye recorded the song in 1967 but Berry Gordy again blocked its release until 1968, when it topped the charts for seven weeks in December 1968 to January 1969 – becoming Motown’s biggest hit to that point. (Marvin Gaye’s version of “Grapevine” had a resurgence in 1983 as part of the film and the soundtrack of The Big Chill.) The third recording of the song, by Gladys Knight and the Pips, was the first one issued in 1967, when it went to Number Two. While Marvin Gaye’s version is the best known – and the one that all these jazz covers reference –Whitfield’s variation for Gladys Knight, where he set out to “’out-funk Aretha,” is the one to hear.

Above: Earl Klugh from Living Inside Your Love (1976). Also: Willie Bobo from Spanish Blues Band (1968), Harold Mabern from Rakin’ and Scrapin’ (1969), Mongo Santamaria from All Strung Out (1970), Bob Mintzer from Urban Contours (1989) and Bill Frisell from East/West (2005), Lucky Peterson from Brother Where Are You (2009). (Bill Frisell also coveredd the song on his download album The Boulder Theater – Boulder, Colorado – November 5th, 2003,posted in 2009)

(I Know) I’m Losing You: Written by Norman Whitfield, Eddie Holland and Cornelius Grant for the Temptations in 1966 (with arrangements by Wade Marcus and Paul Riser), a Top Ten hit for the group. Whitfield produced a nearly 11-minute version for Rare Earth in 1970 (a radio-friendly edit of which bested the Temptations’ version by reaching number 7) and another for the Undisputed Truth for their 1975 album Cosmic Truth. Rod Stewart also had one of his earliest hits with his 1971 version of “I’m Losing You.”

Above: The Soulful Strings from Groovin’ with the Soulful Strings (1967).

I Wish It Would Rain: Written by Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong and Rodger Penzabene for the Temptations in 1967. Bruce Springsteen recently covered the song on his 2022 disc Only the Strong Survive.

Above: The Soulful Strings from In Concert (1969). Also: Don Sebesky from The Distant Galaxy (1968) and Willie Bobo from Spanish Blues Band (1968).

Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me): Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1971 and the last of the group’s singles to feature founding members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. The Rolling Stones covered the song for their 1978 album Some Girls.

Above: Houston Person from Houston Express (1971). Also: Donald Byrd Places and Spaces (1975), David Matthews with Whirlwind from Shoogie Wanna Boogie (1976), Larry Carlton from Kid Gloves (1992) and Wallace Roney from Mystikal (2005).

Masterpiece: Written by Norman Whitfield for the Temptations in 1973, the group’s follow-up to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” “Masterpiece” was a Top Ten hit but it ended up being the last of the Temptations’ elongated hit cycle.

Above: Grover Washington, Jr. from Soul Box (1973).

Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Undisputed Truth in 1972, although the Temptations’ Grammy Award-winning version released later that year became much more popular. Often covered, as is here, as “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Above: Roy Ayers Ubiquity from Red Black & Green (1973). Also: Jay Berliner from Bananas Are Not Created Equal (1972), Gene Ammons from Big Bad Jug (1972), Herbie Mann from Deep Pocket (1994), Paul Bollenback from Soul Grooves (1991 – bizarrely misattributed to "Williams/Bryant/Franklin"), Michael Wolff from Impure Thoughts (2000), Ray Brown / John Clayton / Christian McBride from Superbass #2 (2001), ‘Papa’ John DeFrancesco from A Philadelphia Story (2011) and Marcus Miller from Afrodeezia (2015).

Smiling Faces Sometimes: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1971 but became a hit for the Undisputed Truth later that year.

Above: Bobbi Humphrey from Dig This! (1972).

Also: Charles Kynard beautifully covered "Smiling Faces Sometimes" on a little-known 1972 single well worth hearing that also featured not on any Charles Kynard album but rather on the Mainstream-label compilations Get it Together (1972) and Booty (1974).

Too Busy Thinking About My Baby: Written by Norman Whitefield, Barrett Strong and Janie Bradford for the Temptations in 1966 but the song became a hit in 1969 for Marvin Gaye, his follow-up single to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”

Above: Mongo Santamaria from Workin’ on a Groovy Thing (1969). Also: Harold Mabern from Workin’ & Wailin’ (1969).

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