Norman Whitfield & The Birth of Psychedelic Soul

Psychedelia was cropping up in lots of different pop and rock in the late sixties, and acts as disparate as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Funkadelic, Jefferson Airplane, Love and more were all experimenting with non-traditional song structures, fresh lyrical themes, experimental sounds and new studio effects. Inspired by the hippies and movements for social change like the emerging civil rights movement, psychedelia in music also owed a large debt to perception-altering drugs like LSD and cannabis. 

One of the most successful early exponents of musical psychedelia in the late sixties was Sly and The Family Stone, who melded a hippie love and peace philosophy with soul, funk and acid rock. It was a potent blend that proved extremely popular and, via an introduction by The Temptations’ Otis Williams, one that was embraced and then developed by Motown songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield. 

In 1968 (as told in Nelson George’s seminal Motown book Where Did Our Love Go), “…according to drummer Uriel Jones, Whitfield “came into the studio one day and said ‘I wanna do something different. I wanna do something fresh.’” The result was The Temptations’ Cloud Nine, the record which launched the psychedelic soul genre. 

Throughout the late sixties/early seventies, Whitfield, in partnership with songwriter Barrett Strong, pioneered his vision of psychedelic soul with The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth, Edwin Starr and Rare Earth at Motown. It was an expansive, experimental sound which was characterised by topical lyrical themes that were often edgier and darker than Motown’s traditional love songs. Psychedelic soul introduced ‘trippy’ sound effects and production techniques to Black music, and its extended musical vamps and extensive percussion were also a precursor to the disco sound that would dominate the mid/late-seventies.

Cutting his music in Motown’s new, better equipped LA studio and using new musicians like funk guitarists Dennis Coffey and Melvin ‘Wah Wah Watson’ Ragin, Whitfield introduced a number of studio innovations. Cloud Nine was the first Motown record to use a wah wah guitar and Whitfield employed Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria to add the layers of fiery Latin percussion which would become a staple of the psychedelic soul sound. 

To hear just what a dramatic change Cloud Nine was, you can compare it to the three 1968 Temptations singles that preceded it, ‘Please Return Your Love To Me’, ‘I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)’ and big hit ‘I Wish It Would Rain.’ They were all a product of the classic Motown sixties production line, with lyrical themes of love, and straight-up pop/soul instrumentation sweetened with strings. Cloud Nine by contrast, with its harsh, realist lyrics, kinetic rhythmic rush, dark, brooding mood and futurist sound, arrived like a record from another planet.

Whitfield’s groups began to sing about subjects like racism, inequality and poverty rather than the love songs Motown had previously been famous for. Again influenced by Sly Stone, Whitfield also changed the way the Temptations sang, getting them to swap lead vocal lines back and forth and developing a much more percussive style of backing vocals. 

Whitfield’s records also experimented with delay and reverb effects on vocals and acknowledged the emergent acid rock sound by extensive use of fuzz and distortion on guitars. He also began to elongate his productions, adding lengthy intros, instrumental vamps and breakdowns, stretching out his songs into huge, epic, looping grooves, pioneering many of the musical tropes that would come to define disco a few years later. In Where Did Our Love Go legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson observed that “Norman had never just wanted danceable grooves, but ‘monstrous funk’ that used two or three basic chords to define the different grooves on any particular record.”

The length of many of Whitfield’s productions opened the door to a new, progressive and experimental period for Motown, whose albums throughout the sixties had often been little more than a collection of hits and some filler. Whitfield’s records also influenced artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Gamble and Huff at Philadelphia International Records, all of whom George says “…owed a debt to Cloud Nine for opening up black music and preparing the black audience for more progressive directions.”

Whitfield’s psychedelic soul productions simultaneously made the classic Motown soul sound an anachronism while completely revitalising the label. He, along with Motown house band The Funk Brothers, produced a body of revolutionary, edgy, funky, widescreen psychedelic soul music that proved to be extraordinarily influential and much of which sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when first released.  

The Bitch is Black cover

The only album from Yvonne Fair, who’s best known for her mid seventies hit ‘It Should Have Been Me’ which is included here. It’s a Norman Whitfield project, one of his last for Motown and includes a broad range of soul and funk tracks, from ballads to hard-edged dancefloor numbers. Fair had a big, raw, forthright voice and the production on the up-tempo tracks here is suitably nasty-funky. While not a fully-fledged Whitfield psychedelic album there are traces of his late 60s/early 70 hippie-soul sound in the interlocking guitars and congas. An overlooked down-and-dirty funkfest peppered with soaring ballads. 

All Directions cover

The Temptations’ aptly named All Directions from 1972 served up four wonderfully orchestrated ballads, a pair of funky jams, a languid take on Isaac Hayes ‘Do Your Thing’ and producer Norman Whitfield’s most fully realised psychedelic soul song, the epic ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone.’ Epic being the operative word as the album version comes in at twelve minutes. An album of contrasts, from the angry ‘Run Charlie Run’ to the sweet and gentle harmonies of ‘I Aint Got Nothing,’ All Directions is certainly varied but still one of the Temptations’ stronger albums.

Psychedelic Shack cover

The first full psychedelic soul album from The Temptations contains only one traditional soul song, with the other seven tracks full of the fuzz and wah wah guitar, sound effects, ‘far out’ lyrical themes, Latin polyrhythmic fire and elongated vamps that characterised Norman Whitfield’s early seventies Motown productions. Entirely written and produced by Whitfield, ‘Psychedelic Shack’ finishes with the churning hippie-funk of ‘Friendship Train’ giving Motown house band The Funk Brothers a chance to show off their impressive musical chops.

Cloud Nine cover

This 1969 album from The Temptations marked a radical new direction for them. With a new lead singer Dennis Edwards replacing David Ruffin, producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield began to develop his psychedelic soul sound, starting with the radical for the time ‘Cloud Nine.’ At odds with the contemporaneous Motown sound, ‘Cloud Nine’ featured, for the first time on a Motown record, wah wah guitars and had renowned percussionist Mongo Santamaria on congas. ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’ showcased many of Whitfield’s production innovations while the rest of the album was more traditional, high-quality Motown soul. One of their best albums.

Face To Face With The Truth cover

The debut 1971 album from Norman Whitfield’s musical vehicle The Undisputed Truth is psychedelia meets soul and funk via layers of funky guitars, big, memorable basslines, plenty of studio experimentation from Whitfield and a mood that is, throughout the first half of the album, dark and oppressive. The last three tracks in contrast sweeten the mood with more traditional Motown soul fair including a vamp-filled take on Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’

Sky’s The Limit cover

The stand-out track here is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of music Motown ever released and certainly a career highlight for vocalist Eddie Kendricks, the sublime ‘Just My Imagination.’ Elsewhere you get twelve and a half minutes of their version of ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’ in which Whitfield assembles one of his production-line wide-screen soul-epics featuring all manner of orchestration, vamps, jams and solos. A solid 1971 outing from Motown’s Temptations, a mix of the sweetest soul and Norman Whitfield-driven soul-psychedelia.

Ecology cover

US rock outfit Rare Earth’s Ecology from 1970 was their fourth album, and, with the benefit of Motown’s Norman Whitfield on production duties, was a potent mix of hippie-rock and blue-eyed soul. Most of side one is taken up with a classic Whitfield widescreen production, their near-eleven minute version of ‘I’m Losing You’ which features a fiery conga breakdown, funky drum breaks, space-rock guitar soloing and some nice little touches of studio trickery. An excellent more rock-flavoured version of Whitfield’s burgeoning psychedelic soul aesthetic. 

The Undisputed Truth cover

The second album released in 1971 by The Undisputed Truth featuring their first big hit, the brooding ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes,’ a song perfectly in tune with early seventies paranoid Nixon-era America. Likewise, their near eleven minute take on ‘Ball Of Confusion’ with its effects-laden vocals and fuzz guitar wig outs all sitting on a simple, solid three note bassline has a dark and introspective feel to it. The band also turn in a clutch of cover versions and hippie-soul including an edgy take on ‘Aquarius’ and they even manage to find the melancholy within the cheery ‘California Soul.’ 

Involved cover

A classic Norman Whitfield production from 1971 featuring many of the tracks — ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On’ and ‘Ball of Confusion’ — that Whitfield would record with his other Motown acts, as well as Starr’s definitive take on ‘War’ which had been recorded by the Temptations the previous year. The epic near-13 minute version of ‘Ball…’ was a vintage Whitfield production complete with vocal effects, lengthy vamp sections and fuzz guitar solos. The album finishes on a hippie note with spirited covers of Sly Stone’s ‘Stand’ and George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord.’

Me'n Rock'n Roll Are Here To Stay cover

Mercurial ex-Temptations lead singer Ruffin put out this Norman Whitfield produced and written album on Motown in 1974. It was his fourth album and not particularly successful at the time but it’s well worth a listen. Ruffin was a wonderful singer with an unmistakable soulful rasp and Whitfield provides a series of classic psychedelic soul and proto-disco tracks for him, which Ruffin makes the most of. There’s plenty of classic Whitfield production touches including sound effects, funky clavinet, the ubiquitous wah wah guitar and adventurous orchestration.