The Review/Feature/

The Car Wash soundtrack marked the move from Motown to disco

How veteran Motown producer Norman Whitfield helped usher in the sound that dominated the ’70s

Dec 13, 2017

Car Wash screens this Saturday, December 16 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Black Star.

In our ongoing series Deep Cuts, Chris Cummings — a.k.a. Toronto chamber-pop sensation Marker Starlingunearths some of the film songs, scores, soundtracks and musical moments that have helped shape his love of cinema.

In late 1968, new sounds were bursting through the speakers of Black American radio stations. Sly and the Family Stone’s rock-tinged “Dance to the Music” had broken through into the top ten earlier in the year, and then the Chambers Brothers made an impact with the equally heavy “Time Has Come Today.” Both records featured a heavier, more psychedelic sound than had ever been heard in rhythm and blues music before.

Motown Records, the Detroit-based label that styled itself as “The Sound of Young America,” knew it had to respond to this insurgent wave. But how? The label’s main songwriters Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland — authors of such enduring songs as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” — had quit the label to start their own business in 1967. This was Norman Whitfield’s moment.

Norman Whitfield, circa 1970

A Motown staff member since 1961, the Harlem-born Whitfield (1940-2008) had recently taken over the reins as the main producer for The Temptations, one of the label’s elite acts, producing their hits “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and “I Wish It Would Rain,” and he also helmed the now-classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” in both the Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye versions. With these successes under his belt, he wrested control of the group away from their former producer (and star in his own right) William “Smokey” Robinson, author of the group’s biggest hit “My Girl.” The two clips below show the Temptations lineup known as the Classic Five: David Ruffin (lead), Paul Williams (who often sang a kind of secondary lead), immediately identifiable falsetto Eddie Kendricks, distinctive bass singer Melvin Franklin, and baritone Otis Williams, today the only surviving member.

By the end of 1968, Ruffin had been fired and new lead singer Dennis Edwards was being broken in by the band, whose shows included elaborate choreography in every number. As Edwards explained in a 2010 interview, it was Sly and the Family Stone’s use of multiple lead singers on “Dance to the Music” that inspired the group’s new approach, which involved each of the five Temptations taking turns alternating phrases rather than following the traditional lead/backup singer roles. Combined with a Motown-minted version of the new, rockier sound — aided by the recently invented wah-wah pedal — the result of this experimentation was the “psychedelic soul” single “Cloud Nine,” which sounded unlike anything in the Temptations’ catalogue and won Motown Records its first-ever Grammy award.

The Cloud Nine album followed the single in early 1969, and was notable for the inclusion of the nine-minute track “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” one of the first album cuts to exceed the then-standard three- or four-minute running time for “radio-friendly” pop songs. Later that year, Isaac Hayes — who had helped shape the sound of Motown rival Stax Records as a songwriter and producer — would completely break the mold with his surprisingly successful Hot Buttered Soul LP, which contained not one but two record-breaking tracks: the 12-minute “Walk on By” and the super-epic “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which clocked in at almost 19 minutes (including a sermon-like spoken-word introduction that runs a full eight minutes and 40 seconds).

The success of Cloud Nine catapulted Whitfield to the top tier of Motown producers, and he began a string of successes with The Temptations that included “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” most of which were released in a shorter, radio-single version and a (usually much) lengthier album version. During the same period Whitfield developed the group The Undisputed Truth and their signature song, the haunting “Smiling Faces, Sometimes,” and produced the Edwin Starr classic “War.”

Following “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” magnificent in its 12-minute album version, Whitfield had crafted the sprawling follow-up “Masterpiece,” which, while successful, failed to hit quite the same heights as prior Temptations singles. Following the dismal showing of 1974’s 1990 LP (which includes the little-heard but hard-edged “You’ve Got My Soul on Fire”), the group, now in the new lineup of Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams, Richard Street (who replaced Paul Williams following his decline into mental illness and eventual 1973 suicide), and new falsetto Damon Harris (replacing Eddie Kendricks, who, urged on by Ruffin, departed in 1971 for a solo career), put in a request to stop working with Whitfield, complaining that their albums were showcasing his arrangements more than their own vocals. They weren’t wrong — the back cover of the Masterpiece album shows Whitfield’s face superimposed underneath the much smaller Temps, a rare star billing for a producer. But leaving Whitfield would prove to be a move the group would never fully recover from.

For his part, Whitfield left Motown in 1975 to start his own label Whitfield Records, taking The Undisputed Truth with him. He also continued working with Rose Royce, the group of musicians whom he’d met as Edwin Starr’s backing band. Before leaving, though, he did interesting work with ex-Temptation David Ruffin (“I Saw You When You Met Her,” from 1974’s Me n' Rock'n Roll are Here To Stay) and new signee Yvonne Fair (including the drum-machine driven “It Should Have Been Me,” from 1975’s The Bitch is Black).

Towards the middle of the ’70s, Motown’s fortunes began to wane. A more escapist sound was sought, and the hard-edged music of the Nixon era gave way to the faster, cheerier, and upbeat sounds of the Ford and Carter presidencies. It was the dawn of disco. But before the sugared strings and incessant hi-hats completely dominated the airwaves and every act made their de rigueur disco track, there was an interesting transitional period, which includes the proto-disco of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records (exemplified by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ 1974 “The Love I Lost”), Kool and the Gang’s synth-topped bliss-out “Summer Madness,” and Norman Whitfield’s soundtrack for the hit comedy Car Wash.

Publicist-turned-producer Gary Stromberg, whose idea for a Black-centric comedy about a day in the life of a Los Angeles car wash was originally dreamed up as a Broadway musical, approached African American director Michael Schultz, who was fresh off the success of the coming-of-age story Cooley High (1975), with the project, and Schultz in turn contacted Whitfield about composing the soundtrack. The film’s screenplay, ostensibly written by that unlikeliest of future auteurs Joel Schumacher — who would also write the script for the big-screen adaptation of the African American Oz revamp The Wiz — was substantially rewritten by Schultz, resulting in a film that resonated hugely with Black audiences.

Rose Royce, an octet comprised of Henry Garner (drums), Terral “Terry” Santiel (congas), Lequeint “Duke” Jobe (bass), Michael Moore (saxophone), Kenny Copeland (trumpet, lead vocals), Kenji Brown (guitar, lead vocals), Freddie Dunn (trumpet), and Victor Nix (keyboards), had originally been known as Total Concept Unlimited (T.C.U.) before having their name changed to Magic Wand when they became one of Whitfield’s new label signees. Singer Gwen Dickey was added to the group after being discovered in Miami by Joe Harris, the leader of The Undisputed Truth; renamed Rose Norwalt, she had to adapt quickly to her new role as frontwoman of the now re-renamed band.

When contacted by Schultz, Whitfield quickly shelved the debut album he was working on with Rose Royce (it was eventually released in 1977 as Rose Royce II: In Full Bloom) to start work on the Car Wash soundtrack. Much of it was completed at the same time the movie was being shot, an unusual exception to the normal procedure of adding music cues to the finished film. The double LP soundtrack was also strategically released (on RCA Records) before the movie, ensuring that by the time the film hit theatres, the theme song would already be familiar to the public.

The album begins with the title track, and one of the best ear-fooling beat-emphasis switches ever made: the opening handclaps that the listener assumes to be on the one and three beats (the on-beats) are actually on the two and four (the off-beats), as revealed when the other instruments come in at 0:47.

The Car Wash soundtrack generated two other top-40 hits for Rose Royce, the slow burners “I Wanna Get Next to You” and “I’m Going Down” (which was covered by Mary J. Blige in 1994).

As a listening experience, the album proceeds through its four sides with nary a dull track (save a longish section of dialogue towards the end of Side 2), making it one of the best double albums in the entire R&B canon (a list that includes Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear). Highlights include the Side 2 opener “You’re On My Mind,” which showcases the work of Whitfield’s frequent orchestral arranger Paul Riser; the ten-minute instrumental epic “Sunrise” (continuing Whitfield’s fascination with longer song forms, beginning with one instrument and building outward); and the dramatic Side 4 closer “Keep On Keepin’ On.”

Interestingly, the album proved its resilience 13 years later when the Beastie Boys used three different Car Wash samples in the same song: the thunderous “Shake Your Rump” from their groundbreaking, Dust Brothers-produced sophomore record Paul’s Boutique, whose sample-happy soundscape — seemingly inspired in part by Whitfield’s use of noise and sound effects in his Temptations productions — was an extended love letter to ’70s R&B. (“Shake Your Rump”’s moog-infused instrumental chorus is provided by the track “6 O’Clock DJ (Let’s Rock)”, the frenetic bass solo that opens “Yo Yo” appears at 0:40 and becomes integral to the song, and “Born to Love You”’s searing guitar riff appears at 2:26.)

Although the song is dominated by a prominent Sly and the Family Stone sample, the 1977 Rose Royce track “Do Your Dance” (another Whitfield production) actually forms the basis of another one of the signature tracks from Paul’s Boutique, “Shadrach.”

Promoted as a Richard Pryor vehicle (though Pryor’s role was in fact limited to one short scene), Car Wash was so successful (along with its soundtrack, which won Whitfield another Grammy) that the following year Schultz, Whitfield and Pryor reunited for another comedy, Which Way Is Up?, whose indelible theme song was performed by Whitfield protégés Stargard.

Rose Royce continued to have hits through the late ’70s, with the smooth ballads “Wishing on a Star,” “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Angel in the Sky” (all Whitfield productions) becoming certified classics — especially in the UK, where the group’s status was more solidly cemented than in the US. Whitfield had reinvented himself again for the latter part of the decade, and continued to make albums for The Undisputed Truth, Stargard, and his other discoveries Masterpiece, Nytro, and Dream Machine. While none of this would match the success of Car Wash, Whitfield maintained his staying power through the disco and post-disco eras.

In a 2009 interview, British DJ Greg Davis summed up Whitfield’s contribution to the sound that would dominate the end of the ’70s:

When it comes to disco, Norman Whitfield has to be viewed as one of the founding fathers, both for his own work and his undoubted influence on others….in a sense, disco was the party that followed the gains of the ’60s. Major ground had been made in civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, and by the mid-’70s Nixon had resigned and the Vietnam War had ended. Disco celebrated a new culture and hard-[won] freedoms, things that most people wouldn’t have thought possible a decade earlier. It was a very hedonistic era, but its very existence, with Blacks, whites and gays now exploring common ground, was a powerful statement in itself. It would eventually take a racist/homophobic backlash, culminating in the record-burning frenzy at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979, to curb disco’s expansion into the very core of mainstream popular culture.

In 1983, Whitfield came back to Motown to produce a new Temptations record, Back to Basics, which included the spacious and slow-burning “Sail Away.” Two years later, he produced the soundtrack to Berry Gordy’s final film production The Last Dragon, which was directed by Car Wash’s Michael Schultz.

Following this, Whitfield retired from music and lived on the royalties from his ’60s and ’70s hits right up until his untimely death from diabetic complications in 2008. Famously reticent through his later years, Whitfield was a rare interview subject (a Youtube search for “Norman Whitfield interview” yields absolutely nothing). Apart from being inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame along with co-writer Barrett Strong in 2004, he appears to have more or less vanished from the public eye. Perhaps he felt he’d said all he needed to say in his music. And perhaps we should take the time to listen to all 13 minutes and 34 seconds of “Masterpiece,” his personal favourite among all his productions.