Thomas Anthony Whitfield (April 30, 1954 – June 20, 1992) was an American gospel singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, choir director and producer best known for helping to shape the fabric of contemporary gospel music with his elaborate choral arrangements and the merging of musical styles ranging from jazz to classical into traditional gospel foundations. This style earned him the respectable title of “Maestro” by many of his colleagues and supporters. He was best known for organizing one of the popular contemporary gospel choirs of all time, the Thomas Whitfield Company, and for producing best-selling records for Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Shirley Caesar, Yolanda Adams, Douglas Miller, Keith Pringle, Paul Morton and for Aretha Franklin.
Early years and career
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 Rev. James 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”.
The big break: Hallelujah Anyhow