Norman Whitfield, one of the most successful and influential songwriter/producers to emanate from the formidable stable of Motown Records, died Tuesday at the age of 65, according to Reuters. Whitfield co-wrote and/ or produced many hits for the label, including “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Cloud Nine,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination,” “War,” the Grammy-winning “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and many others.
Whitfield had struggled for months with complications from diabetes, the site reported, and had recently emerged from a coma.
“It’s a very sad day,” Janie Bradford, who co-wrote the Temptations hit “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” with Whitfield, told the Detroit Free Press. Their friend Clay McMurray had reportedly spoken with Whitfield on the phone last week. “It sounded like he was fighting with everything he had to get it together,” McMurray said. “Just fighting back.”
In a statement released Wednesday (September 17), Motown great Smokey Robinson hailed Whitfield as “one of the most prolific songwriters and record producers of our time. He will live forever through his great music,” according to The Associated Press.
While his name has rarely appeared in lights, Whitfield was one of the driving forces of the Motown sound. He joined the label’s production team in 1962 and, over the following decade, worked with virtually every major artist on the label, including the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips and others.
However, perhaps his greatest contribution was bringing Motown artists into the psychedelic era during the late 1960s. Showing the influence of Sly and the Family Stone, Whitfield led Gaye and the Temptations into rock territory with hard-hitting songs that examined the social distresses of the day (“Runaway Child, Running Wild,” the drug-influenced “Cloud Nine”) and matched the gritty lyrics with driving rhythms, wailing guitars and ominous string arrangements. His most frequent collaborator during this era was lyricist Barrett Strong.
Whitfield left Motown in the mid-1970s and found chart success with Rose Royce and other artists — and won a Grammy Award in 1976 for his work on the “Car Wash” film soundtrack — but by the ’80s, he had largely dropped off the radar, only making headlines in 2005 when he pleaded guilty to settle a tax-evasion case.