Thomas Anthony Whitfield was born on April 30, 1954, in Detroit Michigan. Thomas Whitfield, the eldest of five boys, was born in Detroit, Michigan to Thomas and Jacqueline Whitfield. He took to music at a very early age and was inspired by his great-grandmother to take piano lessons at the age of five and would advance to playing the organ by the age of ten. His influences remained some of Detroit’s greatest musicians including renowned organist Herbert Pickard and Timothy Beard. After graduating from Detroit’s Central High School, he attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music and ended up sharing his expertise and knowledge as a music instructor at Finney High School. While teaching, Whitfield continued to gain recognition in the area for his unique style of musicianship and would eventually work with the Beverly Glenn Chorale, the Craig Brothers and Rev. James Cleveland.
In 1977, Whitfield, along with his good friend Tyrone Hemphill, felt led in establishing The Thomas Whitfield Company (The Whitfield Company for short); a local music ministry featuring some of Detroit’s finest singers and musicians. This remarkable institution remained the apparent incubator for most of Whitfield’s most popular creations and would forever be attached to his musical legacy and recording career. Amazingly, it didn’t take long for Whitfield to get the attention and overdue recognition he deserved. Sound of Gospel, a local Detroit gospel music subsidiary of Westbound Records operated by music guru Armen Boladian, took notice in Whitfield’s fresh sound and approach to gospel music and signed him and the group thereafter; resulting in the debut release of “Brand New” in 1978. Detroit’s sophisticated brand of traditional gospel crafted by artists such as Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, Donald Vails, Rev. Charles Nicks and Cleveland remained the prominent and popular style from the area and was usually the formula the majority of the country expected from the region. Whitfield, on the other hand, merged traditional gospel with stylish piano performances, riveting rhythmic sections, melodic choral harmonies and musical arrangements. This style is heard on “Repeat The Sounding Joy”, a funk-disco melding which ended up being one of his early hits, and other works including “The Lord Is Blessing Me”, “I’m His Today” and “That’s How The Lord Works”.
After getting local attention with the releases of “Brand New” and “Things That We Believe, Vol. I” and “Things That We Believe, Vol. II” during the years of 1978–1980, Whitfield recorded his first live recording session (a popular trend in modern gospel music) with the Company at the St. Paul Church of God In Christ in Detroit. The album was finally released in 1983. At the same time, Whitfield began his association with Onyx International Records (a black gospel subsidiary of Benson Records) and also released “Hold Me”; a solo project that seemed to be threatening towards SOG’s current contract with the Whitfield Company. While “Hold Me” was released on a more recognized label and was by far one of Whitfield’s state-of-the-art productions to date, it also help increased the popularity and exposure of “Hallelujah Anyhow” and kept the album on Billboard‘s Gospel Music charts for over a year.
The understanding of the agreement with both music labels was that Whitfield recorded “Hold Me” as a solo entry while SOG was mainly interested in Whitfield being attached to the choir; feeling that his choir was the “selling card”. SOG continued to record them as: Min. Thomas Whitfield & the Thomas Whitfield Company. Whitfield wrote most of the songs (except for “Soon As I Get Home” and “There’s Not A Friend” – written by Roscoe Corner) and produced both projects. Songs like “God Wants Our Praises”, “There’s Not A Friend”, “Walk In The Light”, the infectious arrangement of “Oh, How I Love Jesus” and the brilliant ballad “Hallelujah Anyhow” were standouts.
Whitfield began a line of notable achievements in producing for both established and fresh talent. In 1984, Whitfield produced the historic debut project Peace Be Still, for a virtual unknown singer at the time by the name of Vanessa Bell Armstrong; earning him his first of three GRAMMY nominations. That year, he also wrote “Time To Come Back Home” for Shirley Caesar‘s GRAMMY and Dove Award winning “Sailin” album. Whitfield’s popularity and demand continued to escalate – possibly pointing that he may have reached the beginning of his recording zenith. Production on projects from the Soul Children of New Orleans, Keith Pringle, Douglas Miller, the Winans, the Michael Fletcher Chorale and Paul S. Morton followed. In 1986, “I’m Encouraged” was released; a live recording session held at the Civic Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio. The project climbed to the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top Gospel Album charts.
During Whitfield’s final years with Sound of Gospel, Whitfield discovered Texas native Yolanda Adams and produced her first project Just As I Am for the Detroit label in 1988 which skyrocketed up Billboard‘s Gospel charts.
An opportunity of a lifetime was awarded to Whitfield when the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin confronted him with the task to head the musical direction for her upcoming live recording – a project that the media labeled the sequel to her best-selling and award-winning “Amazing Grace” LP. In 1989, Aretha Franklin took home a GRAMMY Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance, Female for “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” and a Dove Award for Traditional Gospel Album of the Year – an album that featured musical and choral arrangements from Thomas A. Whitfield. Some of the album’s serious highlights include the moving opener of “Walk In The Light” and Aretha Franklin being serenaded by Whitfield’s entrancing piano accompaniment on “Ave Maria“.
In 1989, Teresa Hairston (head of Benson Music Group’s black gospel department) contacted Whitfield and expressed interest in signing him, along with the Whitfield Company to her label. SOG released two successful projects (“The Annual Christmas Services”, “…And They Sang A Hymn”) in 1990, while Whitfield went into the studio to record “My Faith” for Benson. The project contained the Edwin Hawkins‘ composition “Glorify The Lord” and featured musical appearances from Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Karen Clark-Sheard (from the renowned Clark Sisters). In 1992, Benson released what would be Whitfield’s last recording, “Alive And Satisfied”. The album, to so many gospel music historians, felt like a prophecy and a “love letter” to Whitfield’s presence in the gospel music industry. The album featured the moving praise-and-worship ballad “Precious Jesus”, “Let Everything Praise Him” (which features the popular sampled vamp used in a few recent gospel selections) and the reflective “We Remember (Medley)”. The medley featured some of Whitfield’s most treasured classics strung together in one song. By this time, Whitfield had already been contacted by Paramount Pictures to appear in the motion picture Leap of Faith, starring Steve Martin. He eventually turned down the offer; feeling that even though the visibility was good, yet he felt it might diminish the dignity of his ministry. He also began work with music mogul Quincy Jones‘ “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration” – a powerful display of modern musical arrangements mostly handled by Mervyn Warren.
On June 20, 1992, after a lengthy choir rehearsal, Whitfield went with four of the choir members to Elias Brother’s Big Boy, a popular local restaurant on Telegraph Road. At the table, he started to clutch his chest and began to gasp for air. After being administered CPR by his dinner companions and arriving at Garden City Hospital, Whitfield died on June 21, 1992, from a heart attack.
Whitfield’s musical brilliance and influence has left a tremendous impact on today’s leading contemporary gospel artists. Musicians such as protégé’ Rudolph Stanfield, Donald Lawrence, Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, Byron Cage, Ricky Dillard, J.J. Hairston & Youthful Praise, Walter Hawkins, Richard Smallwood, Big Jim Wright, Edward Dawson and many others. He is still highly regarded for his numerous innovations during the eighties and early nineties and being one of the pioneers to master the usage of the MIDI-sequencing and synthesizers in gospel music; all helping to earn him his own style: the “Whitfield” sound.
In 1993, Benson Records released a tribute album dedicated to the memory and musical excellence of Thomas Whitfield. It featured new arrangements from Whitfield hits and featured a list of musical guests and musicians including Donald Lawrence, the Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond, Kevin Bond, Larry & David Whitfield and the Whitfield Company.
Thomas Whitfield was honored posthumously with the 1999 James Cleveland Award at the 14th Annual Stellar Music Awards held in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Thomas Whitfield Company has continued to perform and record since their founder passed and are ensuring to keep Whitfield’s legacy alive. They have recorded “Still”, a Top Ten gospel album, and featured new and rare selections from Whitfield, along with music from former Whitfield musician Rudolph Stanfield. The song, “Don’t Give Up On Jesus”, sung by Daryl Coley and Vanessa Bell Armstrong also appeared on the best-selling WOW Gospel 1999 compilation.
Larry and David Whitfield, brothers of the “Maestro”, decided to organize the Whitfield Group (not to be confused with the Whitfield Company) in January 1994. Since their inception, the music troupe has recorded one project and have opened for artists including Yolanda Adams, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Men of Standard and Kim Burrell.
There have been several artists that have sung Whitfield’s praises and have re-recorded his music. Some of the most memorable tributes include:
- Shirley Murdock“We Need A Word From The Lord” (“Home”)
- Vickie Winans“We Need A Word From The Lord” (“Bringing It All Together”)
- Edwin HawkinsMusic and Arts Seminar Mass Choir “Precious Jesus” (“Dallas”)
- Bishop Paul S. Morton “Down At The Cross” and “Nothing But The Blood”(“Still Standing”)
- Tarralyn Ramsey “Saved” (“Tarralyn Ramsey”)
- Donald Lawrence/Tri-City Singers “The Little Drummer Boy” (“Hello Christmas”)
- Byron Cage“Still Say Yes” (“Prince Of Praise”)
- Byron Cage“In Case You’ve Forgotten” (“An Invitation To Worship”)
- The Clark Sisters“You Can’t Take My Faith Away” (“A Tribute To The Maestro”)
- Earnest Pugh “Wrapped Up, Tied Up, Tangled Up” (“A Worshipper’s Perspective”)
- Donald Vails featuringYvette Flunder and Shirley Miller “Just Knowing Jesus” (“My Soul Love Jesus”)
- Rodney Posey “Dear Jesus” (“Live In Praise & Worship with the Whitfield Company”)
- Mark S. Hubbard & the Voices “Lift Those Hands And Bless Him” (featuring Ted & Sheri) (“Blessin’ Waitin’ On Me)
- Ed Montgomery/ALC “With My Whole Heart” (Total Live Experience”)
Benson Records released a rare VHS “Alive And Satisfied” video of Thomas Whitfield and the Whitfield Company. The video also features an award presentation to Whitfield for his record going gold and an emotional tribute from Fred Hammond. BMG Heritage Records has also re-released a double-CD of Aretha Franklin’s “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” (1987) in 2003. The album featured four new bonus cuts including a previously unreleased version of Walter Hawkins‘ classic “Be Grateful”.
- Brand New (1978)
- Things That We Believe, Vol. I (1979)
- Things That We Believe, Vol. II (1980)
- Hold Me (1983)
- Hallelujah Anyhow (1984) #15
- I’m Encouraged (1986) #1
- The Annual Christmas Services (1988)
- …And They Sang A Hymn (1989) #2
- My Faith (1990) #30
- Alive And Satisfied (1992) #2
- Hold On (2000) #8
- The Unforgettable Years, Vol. One (1992)
- The Unforgettable Years, Vol. Two (1992)
- The Best Of Thomas Whitfield (1999)