When producer-songwriter Norman Whitfield departed Motown Records in 1975 to form his own Whitfield label at Warner Bros., he had already left his mark on Hitsville, USA with such immortal songs as “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).” Whitfield had been instrumental in bringing “psychedelic soul” to Motown, incorporating rock and funk into his spacey yet socially-conscious soul jams. In 1971, Whitfield assembled The Undisputed Truth, a.k.a. Joe Harris, Billy Rae Calvin and Brenda Joyce Evans. He quickly scored a hit on his new act with the hauntingly ominous “Smiling Faces Sometimes” which rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and The Undisputed Truth went on to record six LPs in all for Motown’s Gordy imprint. (They had some misfortune along the way, such as introducing “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” to little success before Whitfield reinvented it just months later for The Temptations and in the process created an all-time classic.) In 1976, the group – with a drastically different line-up – moved with Whitfield to his new label. Late in 2015, Cherry Red’s Robinsongs label reissued both of the Truth’s post-Motown LPs for Whitfield Records, Method to the Madness and Smokin’, on one new 2-CD set.
By the time of Method to the Madness, only one original member remained with the group, lead vocalist Joe Harris. The first seismic line-up shift occurred for the 1974 Down to Earth LP which found Calvin and Evans out, and Virginia McDonald, Tyrone Douglas, Tyrone Berkeley and Calvin Stephenson in. The quintet roster edged the Truth in a P-Funk direction; this influence would be key in their tenure at Whitfield Records. For Method, the group was reborn as a quartet with returning members Harris, Barkley and Stephenson joined by Taka Boom, a.k.a. Chaka Khan’s younger sister and an accomplished vocalist in her own right. A concept album of a kind with every track written or co-written by Whitfield, Method opened with a spoken-word dialogue between The Undisputed Truth and visiting aliens! The group is given the chance to perform for a “space god,” which frames the album proper.
The Truth had always been a vehicle for Whitfield’s sonic experiments; Method was no different, and much of the album resembles the sound he had been refining with his label’s marquee act, Rose Royce. Yet Method takes in scorching funk, disco and balladry, with some fine string arrangements from Motown veteran Paul Riser adding to the luster. The epic “You + Me = Love” (roughly eleven minutes in its LP version) made the U.S. R&B Top 40 and peaked at No. 48 and No. 43 on the U.S. and U.K. pop charts, respectively. The funk workout “Let’s Go Down to the Disco” also earned the Truth a place on the U.S. R&B survey, at No. 68. Likely on the strength of its singles, the album fared well with a Top 20 R&B Albums berth.
Surprisingly, a follow-up didn’t arrive until 1979. Smokin’ featured yet another – the final – Undisputed Truth line-up, this time consisting of the stalwart Harris joined by Lloyd Williams, Marcy Thomas and Melvin Stewart. This time, Whitfield penned just four of the eight tracks, with Miles Gregory (author of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Is It Love You’re After”) offering the mellow “Sandman” and other songs coming from Isadora Martin, LaMorris Payne and Robert Justice, and Marcy Thomas. (Note, too, that among the musicians is the legendary Funk Brother Jack Ashford on percussion.) Smokin’, like its predecessor, blended ballads with hard funk and floor-fillers, but only yielded one minor hit single in “Show Time,” its opening track which reached No. 55 R&B. The Undisputed Truth dissolved shortly after, and by 1982, Whitfield Records was through, as well.
Though both of these albums have been available on CD, past editions have recently been fetching hefty sums, making Robinsongs’ reissue particularly welcome. Charles Waring provides a new essay to this edition which has been remastered by Alan Wilson. Method to the Madness/Smokin’ is available now at the links below!
CD 1: Method to the Madness (Whitfield WH 2967, 1976)
- Cosmic Contact
- Method to the Madness
- You + Me = Love
- Hole in the Wall
- Life Ain’t So Easy
- Take a Vacation from Life (And Visit Your Dreams)
- Let’s Go Down to the Disco
CD 2: Smokin’ (Whitfield WH 3202, 1979)
- Show Time
- Talkin’ to the Wind
- Atomic Funk
- I Can’t Get Enough of Your Love
- Space Machine
- Tazmainian Monster