Benjamin Whitfield, Jr., a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, and co-owner of Detroit-based Crystal Rose Records, passed away on May 18th at his home in Detroit. Over the course of his fifty-plus career, Whitfield successfully balanced his call to service in government and jurisprudence while also steering the ship of one of the most successful independent gospel music recording labels of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Benjamin Whitfield, Jr. was born on March 6, 1946, in Detroit, Michigan – the eldest of five children. An enterprising youth, he landed his first job at the age of twelve when he became a hat blocker at Meeks Dry Cleaners where he worked until the age of sixteen. The owner, John O. Meeks, a successful African American businessman, was an inspiration to him. “ Mr. Meeks told Ben that if he kept his grades up, that he’d pay his tuition to college, and he kept his word. He paid the tuition for Ben to attend Wayne State University,” his sister Mae Collins explains.
After graduating from Eastern High School, Whitfield attended Wayne State University, but finished his bachelor’s degree at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Later, he earned his juris doctorate from Texas Southern University Law School and was admitted to the Michigan Bar in 1973. From 1974 to 1979, he served as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan where he served under State Attorney General, Frank J. Kelley. In 1981, he was admitted to and qualified as an Attorney and Counselor of the United States Court of Claims. In private practice, he formed Benjamin Whitfield , Jr. & Associates where he specialized in probate, divorce, civil and criminal cases. “If you ever witnessed Ben in the courtroom, it was a sight to behold,” laughs his business partner, Brian Spears. “Ben was so stubborn that he was going to press whatever the issue was until his client won. He was relentless and refused to give-up.”
When Whitfield’s Central State University dormmate, Barry Hankerson, had become a power-broker music manager for the likes of Gladys Knight, R. Kelly, and Aaliyah; he often called on Whitfield to handle various legal matters. For years, he represented the legendary gospel group, The Clark Sisters, and managed the enterprises of their mother, Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, who was the longest-serving International Minister of Music for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).
In 1993, Whitfield had the idea to launch a record label. He formed Detroit-based Crystal Rose Records with his nephew Michael J. Powell (who produced Anita Baker’s breakthrough album, Rapture), Brian Spears (a veteran music industry executive), and singer/producer, Donald Lawrence. “He was a dad, a big brother, a mentor, a biz partner, a protector,” the GRAMMY® Award winning and gold-selling Lawrence, says of Whitfield whom he first met in the late 1980s. “He did my very first contract with Irving Azoff and Cassandra Mills at Giant Records. He partnered with me on A Songwriter’s Point of View – The Tri-City Singers’ first album, which was licensed to GospoCentric Records. He also partnered on the stage play I wrote, `A Woman Like That,’ which starred Peabo Bryson. He taught me everything about the record biz…”
Aside from Donald Lawrence & The Tri-City Singers, Crystal Rose boasted a roster that also featured Ricky Dillard & New G., Earnest Pugh, Rodney Posey, Brenda Waters, Michael Mindingall, and The Whitfield Company, among others. In 2002, Billboard Magazine cited Crystal Rose as one of the Top Ten independent gospel labels in the business.“Benny kept his professional life separate from his family life,” Mae recalls. “It wasn’t until this week that I realized how prominent my brother was because he never talked about his career. He didn’t brag on himself. I’m so proud of him and I hate that I can’t tell him how proud I am. He was quiet about his accomplishments. He was focused on his work and there’s nothing he would not do for you.”
Whitfield, who was divorced, is survived by his sister Mae Collins, and a host of nieces, nephews, and extended family. Aside from his parents, he was preceded in death by his siblings Pauline Alfred, Bernard Whitfield, and Melvin Whitfield; and three stepsisters Reola Powell, Jesse B. Whitfield, and Emmylou Morris.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1 AT CANTRELL FUNERAL HOME @4-7 PM
22121 Kelly Road, Eastpointe, MI
THURSDAY, JUNE 2 AT LITTLE ROCK BAPTIST CHURCH @10 AM-12 PM
9000 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI
10:00 AM Viewing
11:00 AM Funeral Service