Whitfield was a native of Harlem, New York, and spent much of his teen years in local pool halls. In his late teens, he and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, so that his father could join his sister and work in her husband’s chain of drug stores, Barthwell Drugs. He attended Northwestern High School.
At 19, Whitfield began frequenting Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. offices for a chance to work for the growing label. Founder
Berry Gordy Jr. recognized Whitfield’s persistence and hired him for the quality control department, which determined which songs would or would not be released. Whitfield eventually joined Motown’s in-house songwriting staff.
Whitfield had a few early successes, including co-writing the Marvin Gaye hit “Pride & Joy”, The Marvelettes’s “Too Many Fish in the Sea” and The Velvelettes’s “Needle in a Haystack”, but he found his place at Motown when he began producing.
His big break came when he took over Smokey Robinson’s role as the main producer for The Temptations in 1966, after his “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” performed better than Robinson’s “Get Ready” on the pop charts
Whitfield ultimately fell off the map as both a songwriter and producer. He re-emerged in 2005 after pleading guilty to tax evasion of over $4 million worth of income. After a long battle with diabetes and other health issues, Whitfield died on September 16, 2008.