The Soulful Genius: Norman Whitfield
The sad news came through today that one of the greatest producers (and composers) in the history of modern music, Mr. Norman Whitfield passed away at the age of 67.
I’ve gone on at length in this space about my respect for Whitfield, who was as close to a visionary as you’re likely to find in the history of soul music. Whitfield was making important records for Motown (specifically his work with the Velvelettes) in it’s early days, but he is best remembered for dragging the label into the psychedelic era, producing brilliant soundscapes that also reverberated on a topical level, introducing a level of relevance that was sorely needed into the label’s catalog.
That he was also a major composer is evidenced by a short list of some of the songs he wrote or cowrote:
Too Many Fish In the Sea
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Needle In a Haystack
I Know I’m Losing You
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
Ain’t No Sun Since You Been Gone
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
Smiling Faces Sometimes
And on, and on, and on…
Up to and including a record that I have long considered to be one of the greatest ever made, in any genre, ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’.
A few years back I posted two versions of the song; the Temptations nearly 12-minute epic (I’ve posted the seamless edit of the tune), and a shorter, but very interesting reggae version by the Pioneers.
I figure that in tribute to the passing of this giant, I’d republish that post, one of my favorites.
I hope you dig it, and I’ll be back on Monday with the funk 45 with which I had originally planned to close out the week.
ORIGINALLY POSTED 7/12/2006
Listen – The Temptations – Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone – MP3
Listen – The Pioneers – Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone – MP3
Good day to you, sir(s).Here’s hoping that the morning finds you well, and ready to embark on some serious listening.
Though – as I stated yesterday – this is a theme week of sorts, devoted to soul music by Jamaican artists (all being cover versions of US soul records), I’ve decided that today’s selection simply cannot appear without also including the original version as well. “Why”, you ask, rolling your eyes and clenching your fists in frustration “would I do such a thing?”
I include the earlier recording of said song because it is, in the opinion of this writer one of the five or ten best records of any kind made in the last 40 years, and to rhapsodize about another artists version of this song without also doing so about the original would amount to a colossal sin of omission, from which my reputation (as it is) might never recover.
Either way, I think that hearing these records side by side enhances them both.
I first heard the Temptations ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ when it was released in 1972. I was but a lad of ten, but even then, absent a mature understanding of the lyrics of the song or music in general, I knew an amazing record when I heard it. I’m not even sure that I knew any other songs by the Temptations, and I certainly had no idea who Norman Whitfield was. I was just another kid with a transistor radio glued to my ear, beginning a love affair with music that would still be coming to fruition 34 four years hence (Oh, how it pains me to do that bit of math…).
Of course, with brilliant records like ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ (which as a Number One hit was unavoidable); I was also exposed to all kinds of crap. There are those of a similar vintage who embrace said crap nostalgically, as 70’s music, and will assault you with the likes of Paper Lace, First Class etc etc. However, a look at a survey from December of 1972 (from WABC in New York, the station I was listening to), the Top 20 was dominated, not by crap, but rather by the likes of Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Stylistics, Al Green, and Stevie Wonder. Sure, you also have stuff like Helen Reddy and Gilbert O’Sullivan, but looking at the law of averages, and taking into consideration that good taste has never been universal, taking a few bad songs in rotation with a bunch of good ones was hardly a high price to pay (especially in the universe of Top 40 AM radio).
I will assume that the vast majority of people reading this blog will hardly need an introduction to the Temptations. They were one of mightiest weapons in the Motown arsenal, and despite the brutal overplaying of some of their golden oldies (I can hardly listen to ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ or ‘My Girl’ without turning the dial), they were possessed of an embarrassment of riches as far as vocal talent is concerned (c’mon, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks in the same group?!?) and by 1972, they were firmly in the grasp of the label’s reigning mastermind Norman Whitfield.
It was not always thus. Despite the fact that Whitfield was always a genius (listen to some of the brilliant records he made with the Velvelettes in the mid-60’s), he was not always considered a “guiding light” at Motown. Even when he started to craft the “psychedelic soul” that would bring the Temptations back to prominence in the late 60’s (as well as groups like the Undisputed Truth, who recorded ‘Papa…’ first), it wasn’t until the hits started to roll in (being with money talking and bullshit walking, etc.) that he got the respect that he deserved – at least as an auteur of sorts, as he was already a very successful songwriter.
Starting in 1969, with the ‘Cloud Nine’ lp (by this point Ruffin had made his exit, replaced by Dennis Edwards, formerly of the Contours), Whitfield and the Temps made a string of amazing records that redefined funk and soul. By 1972, when they recorded ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’, Eddie Kendricks – who initially fought Whitfield on the group’s new direction – left to go solo and was replaced by Damon Harris.
So…it’s 1972, I’m ten years old, it’s way after bedtime and I’m huddle up with my radio and the DJ drops the needle on ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’. From the opening bass notes, through the ticking of the high-hat, into the strings, the wah-wah guitar and then – really setting the scene – the echoing trumpet, it is immediately obvious that what Whitfield has created here is more than just a record. It’s almost as if he took an aural snapshot of the ghetto and managed to transport a piece of that world onto two sides of a 7-inch record. Though ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ is in the most basic sense a “story song”, as a record, its reach is positively cinematic. When this record comes on, I can close my eyes and the story comes to life. It’s as if you’re in a bar, and you’re overhearing the Temps in the booth behind you telling the story.
Whitfield builds the record, layer upon layer, with each of the instrumental elements – from the gritty guitar to the sublime addition of elements that might otherwise seem incongruous, like harp and strings – as well as the different vocal sounds, Edwards’ growl, Harris’ falsetto and Melvin Franklin’s bass (and the group together in harmony) inhabiting separate strata, while blending together seamlessly.
Taking the record (as it appeared on the LP ‘All Directions’) as a connected 11:45 whole, with it’s almost five minute instrumental prelude, it’s nothing less than an epic. It’s the greatest of the Whitfield/Temps collaborations, and one of the greatest records of any kind ever committed to vinyl, standing as a testament to the skill of the Funk Brothers as musicians, the Temps as vocalists but more importantly as a showcase for Whitfield as arranger/producer, or dare I say conceptualist. It’s that amazing/important a record. In the midst of an era where records in excess of ten minutes were becoming more common (though usually the bloated purvey of pretentious art rockers), Whitfield took that concept and ran away with it. You always hear talk about producers/arrangers crafting the prefect “three minute” pop record, yet here, Whitfield carries it out to almost twelve minutes and I defy you to find a single, solitary second of wasted sound.
When the Pioneers decided to cover ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ in 1973, they wisely eschew any attempt to mount an epic version of the song, instead choosing to boil it down to its essence. They focus on applying their harmonies to delivering the story within the song. The backing, while at times a distant mirror of the Temps original, is much sparer, the brisk reggae rhythm driven by the rhythm guitar and minimal percussion. Their only concession to the scope of the Temps version is some atmospheric electric piano and organ.
Coming together in 1962 in Jamaica, the Pioneers has two big ska hits with ‘Longshot’ in 1967 and it’s sequel, ‘Longshot (Kick De Bucket)’ in 1969. ‘Longshot (Kick De Bucket)’ (both songs were about a famous racehorse) was a big hit in the UK, and the Pioneers relocated there in 1970. They recorded for Trojan and associated labels through the late 70’s as the Pioneers, the Reggae Boys, the Rebels and Sidney, George and Jackie. They specialized in covers (reggae, soul and pop); with their biggest hit being a reworking of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Let Your Yeah Be Yeah’ in 1971.
Though they broke up for good in 1989, they remain one of the more popular acts to have recorded for Trojan and their classic work is available on many reissues.