Tag Archives: Norman Whitfield

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 4: I Heard it Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine is one of Motown’s highest achievements: a fantastic song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (writer and original performer of Money (That’s What I Want), produced brilliantly by Whitfield and featuring an inspired arrangement by Paul Riser, a career-highlight vocal from Gaye and top-notch performances from every musician and technician involved in it.

As was often the case when his staff produced something technically innovative or emotionally raw, label boss Berry Gordy was suspicious of the record and blocked its release as a single. Whitfield went on to produce another version with Gladys Knight. Despite a busy bassline by James Jamerson, Knight’s version is approximately one-tenth the record that Gaye’s is: a rather lame attempt to muscle in on Aretha Franklin’s turf. Gordy didn’t much care for Knight’s cut, either.

What Gaye’s version had and Knight’s lacked was genuine edge, the desperation that’s evident in Gaye’s record from the first note of its ominous intro: a single snare hit like the slamming of a door, quickly followed on the other side of the stereo field by that classic intro riff, supported by a simple kick-and-hi-hat groove, over which a tambourine hisses like a rattlesnake. The right hand of the piano and a harmonised guitar enter (again on opposing sides of the stereo field), the brass swoops in, and Marvin starts singing.

“Oooh-oooh I bet you wondered how I knew…”

It’s a bravura moment, and the record’s barely begun.

Whitfield’s genius extended right down to the way the drum track was arranged. Playable by one person, the drum part for Gaye’s take on Grapevine was – at least according to this article – performed by two drummers, with a third adding bongos. The three guys in question were Uriel Jones, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Benny Benjamin. I don’t know for sure who played what, but most of the sources I’ve seen suggest Allen and Jones both played “drums” (meaning a drum kit) and Benjamin “percussion”, implying that he was on bongos (the tambourine was almost certainly Jack Ashford). One of the two drummers played kick and hi-hat, with occasional full-kit fills, while the other simply hit two and four on what sounds like either a particularly slack-tuned tom-tom or a similarly low-tuned snare with the wires off.

It’s a fundamental part of the grammar of pop music that the backbeat is provided by a snare drum. Any time a drummer chooses to substitute a snare drum for a tom, the alert listener will feel that something is up. It creates a tension. Is the drummer eventually going to break out of this pattern and switch to the more open-sounding snare drum, releasing the tension, or will the drummer simply keep going and ratchet it up even further?

At 1.57, for four bars, the drummer playing full kit finally brings in the snare, while the other drummer reinforces the beat with his tom. But just as soon as the tension is released in this way, the final verse begins and the original groove is restored. And that’s how it stays, with Gaye unable to break free of the trap he’s caught in. It’s a demonstration of how a great drum track can narrate a song, just as surely as any singer.

The unbelievably incongruous sleeve of I Heard it Through the Grapevine


Give some to the bass player, part 3 – What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson had no peer. Even at Motown, who could also call on the services of Bob Babbitt in Detroit and Carol Kaye and Wilton Felder in LA*, Jamerson stood tallest, at the apex of the art.

The factory ethic at Motown instilled by Berry Gordy militated against too much individualism on the part of its players. Stylistically, the musicians that came to be known as the Funk Brothers played in a house style. Jamerson was the wild card. Jamerson could not be constrained. His outrageously (in their context) chromatic, syncopated and rhythmically complex lines seemed to come from somewhere deep within him, and he was wisely given the freedom by Motown’s producers** to play what he felt. Any of the bass players associated with Motown could play tight, tidy, groovy lines. Only Jamerson could rip your heart out.

His bassline on the title track of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has been admired and deconstructed by fans for four decades now, and it remains a thing of wonder. The story, whether it’s true or not, goes that Gaye was determined that Jamerson should play on the track and tracked him down, already drunk, at a local club and asked him to come by the studio. Jamerson, too drunk to sit upright, played the line horizontally. Arranger David Van DePitte claims to have written a part for Jamerson , which the latter played verbatim. If so, he captured Jamerson’s style perfectly. Listening to the isolated part, I find it hard to believe that all the little Jamersonian licks were written by Van DePitte, but then we are talking about a couple of musicians of the very first rank.

The fluidity, the sheer ease, with which Jamerson plays these complicated runs (listen to the part he plays on the B chord at the end of the first verse to hear the sort of thing I’m talking about) is what defines him as a player. Most of us can’t get near this. When most of us play complicated stuff, we make it sound complicated. Jamerson made it sound beautifully simple.

*There’s an extremely long-running controversy over the authorship of bass parts on Motown records, with Carol Kaye laying claim to some parts that thitherto had been considered signature Jamerson performances (I Was Made to Love Her is the most contentious). Kaye has an impeccable CV, so one would assume no reason to fabricate a story like that. Still, it’s hard to give her story much credence when numerous Motown insiders have denied it. Can they all really be complicit in a cover-up?

**Jamerson had the great good fortune to work under producers and songwriter-producer teams including Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Henry Cosby and Norman Whitfield. None of them got where they did without learning to get out of the way of genius.
James Jamerson (left)

One Day in Your Life – Michael Jackson

Few figures in pop music are as polarising, with good reason, than Michael Jackson. I’m old enough to remember when Jackson was a much more unambiguous figure, a hero to millions of young pop fans, when the only controversy surrounding him was the ‘bad’, more streetwise, image he attempted to cultivate in 1987. Apparently he succeeded in convincing my primary-school teachers of his toughness, because a few of them came to believe around this time that he was not a good role model. But even for someone who can remember the place he held in Western pop culture before the Jordan Chandler story broke, it can be hard to listen to the music without everything else flooding in. Whether we even should, well, that’s a different matter.

While later Jackson hits seem positively haunted (“I am the damned. I am the dead. I am the agony inside a dying head” – a Cannibal Corpse lyric? No, it’s from Who Is It?, recorded and released before the Chandler story), you can still get a sense of what made Jackson the unassailable biggest star in the world by listening to his pre-Thriller music: the joy that’s perceptible in every bar of Rock With You and Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough; the warm humanism of Let Me Show You the Way to Go; the good-humoured triumphalism of Can You Feel It; the tenderness of One Day in Your Life.

One Day in Your Life hasn’t had the best critical reputation, with Robert Christgau the only major critic I’ve ever read who gave it much credit. Tom Ewing’s review on Popular was mixed, while Marcello Carlin savaged it (“unforgivably opts for sentimentality rather than genuine emotion”). Christgau, meanwhile, heard in it “a first-rate tearjerker that achieves just the right mix of autonomy and helpless innocence”, even as he expressed reservations about the general idea of a child singer being given a ballad to sing: “Because it’s possible to believe that their sincerity is neither feigned nor foolish, it’s good in theory for children to sing romantic ballads. The reason it doesn’t work is that the sincerity is so transparently manipulated from above.”

While sharing at least some of Carlin’s reservations about the arrangement (who thought the Ray Conniff backing vocals were a good idea?), I hear the same song Christgau does. OK, I’m a sucker for a ballad, and I love a good extended melody, and this is a record that knows the buttons it’s pressing when it presses them. What makes it a minor classic is Jackson. Even at his worst, Michael Jackson’s commitment to his material and his projects was total. It made him easy to mock, even before he became a big enough star for the world to notice and care about his alarming eccentricities, and it marked his recordings – for better or worse – all the way through his career. Whatever he was singing, self-composed or not, he went at it full tilt.

A more mature or detached singer might have found the sentiment of One Day in Your Life excessively sentimental or uncool, with more in common with Broadway than with Norman Whitfield, but the 16-year-old Jackson’s performance is engaged and therefore engaging. He soars his way through a difficult melody – a range of an octave and a half, to be negotiated both piano and forte as the dynamics of the song demand, a couple of unexpected changes (the shift to C#major7 under the word “face” in the first verse is sure to catch the unwary karaoke singer), a key change, ritardandos… Credit to the producers for getting him through it, for sure, but few are the 16-year-old aspiring pop singers with the technical facility to do it in the first place. Sure, you’ll have to make some allowances for One Day in Your Life, but the song stands as an early indication of how incandescently gifted its singer was.

Jackson at 16

Luv n’ Haight – Sly & the Family Stone

In 1969, the outrageously talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, was one of the most celebrated figures in popular music. His band had triumphed at Woodstock, their seemingly warm-hearted, outward-looking psychedelic soul making even Motown seem old hat and forcing them to change their game and turn increasingly to the visionary producer Norman Whitfield. Their late-sixties hits, calling for love, peace, understanding and integration, were made all the more powerful by the mere sight of Stone and his band on stage: they were both multi-racial and multi-gender in an era where such things were extremely uncommon. 1969, remember, was the year of Kent State and just one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

But by 1971 Sly Stone had retreated to a very strange headspace. Holed up inside an LA mansion belonging to John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, Stone sacked half of his band (the white members, supposedly at the insistence of the Black Panthers, but also master bassist Larry Graham, upon whom Stone apparently took out a contract), surrounded himself with goons, dealers, pimps and hookers, and haphazardly set about making what would be his masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Recording was undertaken at the Record Plant in Sausalito near San Francisco, in a room Stone had had installed there for his own use. Progress was glacial, with Stone playing much of the record himself, or inviting guests in at the expense of his bandmates (Bobby Womack, for example, is much in evidence on guitar), cutting tracks and recutting them, over and over. The protracted nature of the recording took its toll on the master tapes, and they completely lost their high end through wear and tear. The resulting murk – in a happy accident – suited his new material perfectly, the cracked and paranoid deep funk shocking those enamoured of his outward-looking pop hits.

Family Affair was the album’s most enduring hit (its only hit). But it’s not exactly representative. Riot is not an album of expansive, memorable melodies. Family Affair is one of the few songs to let a bit of light in. For the most part, it’s an intensely claustrophobic album; Christgau nailed it when he called it ‘Despairing, courageous, and very hard to take’. These days, Luv n’ Haight – the album opener – seems to me the most crucial track: all that Riot is, is contained in its churning groove and airless (literally – the mix is dry as a bone) swirl of vocals and wah-wah’d guitars.



Sly, with Telecaster, 1969