The working relationship between the Temptations and Norman Whitfield was an incredibly fruitful one. Between 1966 and 1974, he produced 25 top ten R&B hits for the group, no fewer than ten of them No. 1s, and co-wrote many of them, with Barrett Strong. Whitfield then left Motown, and one of the label’s most productive partnerships came to an end.
But 40 years ago today, the group proved that there was life after Whitfield. On the Billboard R&B singles chart for February 8, 1975, they climbed to No. 1 with ‘Happy People,’ written by a trio that included a future superstar. The composers were Jeffrey Bowen (who co-produced the track with Berry Gordy), multi-instrumentalist Donald Baldwin and one Lionel Richie.
Bowen had Motown pedigree himself, as a former assistant to the company’s A&R head in the 1960s, Mickey Stevenson. Bowen’s friendship with the Temptations went back to those days: he was co-producer of their 1967 album ‘In A Mellow Mood,’ and after a spell at Holland-Dozier-Holland’s post-Motown labels, Invictus and Hot Wax, he returned to Hitsville and picked up Whitfield’s production baton.
Bowen became the producer of the Temps’ ‘A Song For You’ album, with arranger James Carmichael also on the creative team. The pair knew Richie as they were also producing the Commodores, and that led to the up-and-coming frontman co-writing the track that would become the 14th of the Temptations’ 15 R&B No. 1s. In turn, ‘Happy People’ helped power the parent album to the top of the R&B list.
‘Happy People’ took over at the top of the soul chart from the Ohio Players’ ‘Fire,’ which meanwhile was hitting the top of the pop survey that week. The Temps’ single had reached a No. 40 peak on the Hot 100 the week before, but was also a winner on the emerging disco scene. The track was listed in Billboard’s Disco Action column that week as No. 11 in audience response, as the long-running group proved, for now at least, that they could move with the times without losing their audience.