When history can be bothered to remember Undisputed Truth, it will surely recall their one big hit, “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, and little else. A minor league vocal band in Motown’s early- to mid-‘70s lineup, Undisputed Truth was the mouthpiece for Norman Whitfield, perhaps the most ambitious and adventurous person working under Berry Gordy in the heyday of his label. Towards the latter part of the ‘60s, Whitfield leveraged his previous work on hit records to virtually take over the Temptations and steer them towards the psychedelic soul of Sly & the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix that he knew was outmoding Motown at an alarming pace. This move, along with the unconvincing socially conscious lyrics the Tempts were suddenly singing, opened Motown up to charges of trend-surfing and even exploitation. Despite this, Whitfield and Gordy must have been happy. Smash hits like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Cloud Nine” kept the label afloat while formerly stalwart groups like the Miracles, the Supremes, and the Four Tops were running out of steam.
Undisputed Truth, being a late addition to Motown’s roster, had no career to ruin, so Whitfield was given a free hand to pursue his experiments. (Berry was more than a little concerned about sinking the careers of his biggest stars. “War”, originally intended for the Temptations, was given instead to a more disposable talent, Edwin Starr, for fear that it might prove so controversial as to instantly kill the future prospects of its singer.) It was an ideal situation for Whitfield, a man who always chafed at the limitations of his position behind the scenes. When he tried to assert himself in a major way on the Temptations’ Masterpiece, listeners rightfully wondered what the group was doing on a record that was a bald showcase for Whitfield’s talents. Undisputed Truth were an easier bunch to use as puppets since the pop audience had no cherished notions about their autonomy, and their solid but unexceptional talents as vocalists ensured that the focus would remain on Whitfield’s trippy arrangements and production. Looking back on a sampling of their body of work, Smiling Faces: The Best of Undisputed Truth, there is no reason to give the various singers of the group any more credit than they ever got, or to give Whitfield any less.
The sum total of that credit, however, has always been slim, and Smiling Faces makes a bold case for expanding it. To get it out of the way, yes, Undisputed Truth will never receive any awards for veiling their influences. All the songs here and most of what they ever sang owe giant debts to Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, and the 5th Dimension, and anyone inclined to equate influence with theft is advised to steer clear of the Truth. More forgiving souls with a strong funk hankering will find a handful of lost gems on Smiling Faces, ones whose position far below the radar is truly unfair. The circumstances surrounding their creation turn off a lot of listeners who prefer the ingenuousness of a George Clinton to Whitfield’s impresario act, but songs as funked up as “What It Is?”, “Higher Than High”, and “UFO’s” speak for themselves. Alternate versions of songs the Temptations turned into hits before or after Undisputed Truth such as “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Ball of Confusion” are not only valuable as historical documents but as listening experiences as well.
With few commercial concerns to hold him back, Whitfield pushes Motown about as far out as it will go with Undisputed Truth, sometimes embarrassing himself trying to mimic his role models and sometimes outdoing them. “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, as ominous and well crafted as it is, actually winds up as one of the less interesting tracks onboard. The real attraction of this CD is its neat summarization of the sense of adventure Whitfield had about the band. He let it lead him to good places and bad places, but you never get the sense that he was playing it safe, and for something coming out of Motown—or anywhere at all, for that matter—that’s an undisputed joy.
// Notes from the Road
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