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Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Suzanne de Passe and Norman Whitfield

by Cass Teague
Suzanne de Passe and Norman Whitfield

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation announced several 2024 Inductees for music’s highest honor in different categories. Among those to be inducted are two very special people who made music history, mostly while at Motown. An Ahmet Ertegun Award will be presented to Suzanne de Passe and a Musical Excellence Award will be presented to Norman Whitfield.

The 2024 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction will be live on Saturday, October 19th at the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, Ohio. The 2024 ceremony will once again stream live on Disney+ with a special airing on ABC at a later date and available on Hulu the next day.

The Ahmet Ertegun Award is for non-performing industry professionals who have had a major influence on the creative development and growth of rock & roll and music that has impacted youth culture. The Musical Excellence Award is given to artists, musicians, songwriters and producers whose originality and influence creating music have had a dramatic impact on music.

SUZANNE DE PASSE

Suzanne de Passe paved the way for women in the music business as one of the first leading female executives, with nearly six decades in the entertainment field. From de Passe’s extraordinary 20 years with Motown to her successful tenure heading de Passe Entertainment, she has used her passion, persistence, and vision to triumph in a male-dominated industry.

Born in Harlem, New York, Suzanne de Passe began her career as the talent coordinator at NYC nightspot the Cheetah Club. Her friendship with Supremes member Cindy Birdsong led to a job as creative assistant to Motown founder Berry Gordy. De Passe’s first coup came in 1968, when she helped sign the Jackson 5 to the label.

“I didn’t have any practical skills,” de Passe said, “but I had a big mouth, a lot of input, and a lot of opinions. If I have any claim to fame in terms of the Jackson story, it was that I didn’t take no for an answer. I persisted. [Berry] finally saw them, and the rest is history.”

While leading Motown’s records division, De Passe went on to sign The Commodores, Rick James, Teena Marie, and DeBarge to the label. De Passe co-wrote the screenplay for the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross. Her work was nominated for an Academy Award, and to date de Passe is the only woman of color to receive the Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay.

Rising through the ranks to become president of Motown in 1981, de Passe was key in taking the company to television. She produced and co-wrote the landmark Emmy Award-winning anniversary special “Motown: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” which featured a Supremes reunion and introduced Michael Jackson’s moonwalk to the world.

After leaving Motown in 1992, Suzanne de Passe developed her own production company and produced successful series like “Sister, Sister” and “Showtime at the Apollo,” and miniseries including “The Temptations” and “The Jacksons: An American Dream.” With her incredible career, and mentorship of young artists and executives, Suzanne de Passe has changed the music industry for the better.

NORMAN WHITFIELD

Norman Whitfield helped define the Motown sound in the 1960s and 1970s. A prolific songwriter and producer, Whitfield’s “Psychedelic Soul” fused soul, rock and funk with complex arrangements, socially conscious lyrics, and iconic anthems.

As a teenager, Whitfield began his career in Motown’s quality control department, but his keen ear soon earned him a slot on the label’s roster of songwriters. In 1963, he scored his first Top 10 hit with Marvin Gaye’s “Pride & Joy.” More hits would soon follow with the Marvelettes (“Too Many Fish in the Sea”) and the Velvelettes (“Needle in a Haystack”), but Whitfield’s biggest break came in 1966 when he became the Temptations main producer – a spot he would hold for nearly a decade.

His early collaborations with the Temptations yielded some of the group’s most recognizable hits, including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “Just My Imagination.” As the 1960s marched on, Whitfield’s songwriting and production expanded into psychedelic palettes wrapped in social justice – songs like “Ball of Confusion,” “Cloud Nine,” and Edwin Starr’s “War” simultaneously reflected and affected society’s constant changes.

Whitfield had a front row seat to Motown’s transition from early 1960s pop hit-makers to reflecting the tumultuous cultural and political climate of the late-60s/early-70s. Whitfield’s songs paved the way for Motown’s era of significant social commentary – many of these songs remain as relevant today as they were a half-century ago.

Whitfield’s was known for using innovative, extended instrumental arrangements – most notably heard on the Temptations “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. By breaking down antiquated expectations of the three-minute pop song, Whitfield single-handedly expanded the Motown sound, inspiring countless future generations of musicians and producers.

In the 1970s, Whitfield formed his own record label – Whitfield Records – where he would work with artists such as the Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”) and Rose Royce (“Car Wash” and “Wishing on a Star”). Whitfield passed away in 2008. In recent years, Whitfield has been honored by the GRAMMYs and the Songwriters Hall of Fame for his significant contributions to rock and roll music.

A Selected Discography of Norman Whitfeld includes The Marvelettes, “Too Many Fish in the Sea” (1964); The Velvelettes, “Needle in a Haystack” (1964); The Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You” (1966); Gladys Knight & the Pips, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1967); The Temptations, “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion” (1970); Edwin Starr, “War” (1970); The Undisputed Truth, “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (1971); The Temptations, “Just My Imagination,” “Papa Was a Rolling’ Stone” (1971-72); and Rose Royce, “Car Wash,” “I Wanna Get Next To You” (1976).

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