Norman Whitfield died a few days ago. He was co-composer and producer of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Ain't To Proud To Beg," "(I Know) I'm Losing You," "I Wish It Would Rain," "Cloud Nine," and "War." That isn't just the resume of a talented composer; it's a significant chunk of the cornerstone of late-20th century Western musical culture. He didn't just follow Sam Cooke's method of listening to how people speak to create his songs; he was listening to people struggling and fighting, and brought some of that fight to (among other pieces) "War," easily the most brazenly antiwar record to hit #1 (for that matter, I'm wondering if there were any other antiwar #1s, brazen or otherwise).
But the news coverage surrounding Whitfield's death has been relatively minimal. It took two days for the New York Times to post a proper obituary on their site, and none of the three major networks featured it in their nightly newscasts. Contrast this to the coverage given Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright's passing: a lengthy obit appeared on the Times website the same day, written by their lead music writer Jon Pareles. The Wright obit appeared as a feature story in the Arts section in addition to the obituaries section; Whitfield's only appeared in obituaries. I don't want to diminish Wright's work; he was a genuinely interesting player, and effectively recontextualized some of Sun Ra's innovations, among other things. But the news of his death was given much wider coverage than Whitfield's, with scant evidence that that discrepancy was merited.
I don't mean this to be an argument over who was more accomplished between Wright and Whitfield (although for me, as much as I like some of Wright's work with Pink Floyd, Whitfield runs away with it); it's about how album-rock sensibilities seem to hold sway over singles-oriented sensibilities among most of the entertainment press. To put it one way, a filler-laden album like Dark Side Of The Moon is generally regarded as artistically weightier and more "significant" in part because of its length and subject matter (and, implicitly, its filler) than a single like "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." Dave Marsh's The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Of All Time, which put "Grapevine" at #1, was meant to serve as a kind of corrective to this way of thinking, the idea that the album was inherently a more effective means of disseminating the music than the single. But not just more effective, but more culturally and artistically significant. Ironically, it was the plethora of weak tracks on early-60s Motown albums that inspired artists like James Brown, Otis Redding, and many of the British bands in the Beatles' wake to create albums that were, as the saying goes, all killer and no filler. But part of Whitfield's genius was how much depth and gravity he was able to compress into a 3-minute record; you could almost convince me that Dark Side Of The Moon carries as much cultural cachet as "Grapevine"; I could never be convinced that it has half as much to say.
As Marsh points out in The Heart Of Rock & Soul, try to imagine any vaunted "classic" album from the 60s or 70s without its hit singles (or those songs that, even if not released as 45rpm records, were treated as singles by radio and the audience) -- Tommy without "Pinball Wizard," Layla without, well, "Layla"...or Dark Side Of The Moon without "Money." Now try to imagine those records without their filler (Tommy without "Welcome," Layla without "Key To The Highway," Dark Side Of The Moon without "Any Colour You Like"); the singles define those albums, while the filler emphasizes what's great about the singles. (Significantly, Pete Townshend's original conception for Tommy was to tell a story with songs that could also stand on their own as singles -- needless to say, it didn't work out that way).
So basically, if it weren't for the (ultimately profit-driven, no matter how album-rock purists try to spin it) bias towards albums, Norman Whitfield's obituaries would be as prominent and as glowing about his work as Wright's were about his. As a commentary on "the pressures of modern life," Dark Side Of The Moon is the impeccably-researched PhD thesis; "Grapevine" is the deeply cautionary tale, the living, harrowing experience.