Barrett Strong, The ‘Money’ Singer And Motown Songwriter, Died At The Age Of 81


Barrett Strong, as a performer, announced “Money (That’s What I Want)” for the first hit track from the Motown empire more than 73 years ago.

What he actually received was musical immortality. As a composer.

Strong, who died on Sunday, Jan. 29, at the age of 81, co-wrote some of Motown’s most memorable tunes with a range of colleagues, most notably the late Norman Whitfield. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, “War” for Edwin Starr, “Smiling Faces Sometimes” for the Undisputed Truth, and “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Just My Imagination,” “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” for which Strong shared a Grammy Award.

The move from singer to songwriter worked nicely for him. “As a recording artist, I never felt comfortable with myself,” Strong told Billboard in 2016. “I had to work to support my family,” said the father of six and grandfather of thirteen. I’m not searching for the limelight and all the glitz and shine. “All I want to do is work in my studio and see what we can come up with.”

Motown creator Berry Gordy Jr. issued a statement on Sunday, saying, “I am devastated to hear of the demise of Barrett Strong, one of my early singers, and the man who sang my first big song… Barrett was not only a fantastic vocalist and pianist, but he and his writing partner Norman Whitfield also developed an extraordinary body of work, primarily with the Temptations. Their successful songs sounded revolutionary and captured the spirit of the times… Barrett is a founding member of the Motown Family and will be missed by all.”Barrett Strong dead: Motown trailblazer and 'Money' singer dies at 81

In addition to the Grammy, Strong received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Songwriters in 1990 and entry into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2016, BMI held a special ceremony to honour his legacy.

Strong grew born on Detroit’s west side, the son of a Uniroyal plant worker and a housewife, and sang in a gospel ensemble with his four sisters. They performed at local churches and met celebrities such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. “They’d stop by the house and visit with us when they came to town,” Strong recalled. “We’d all sit around the piano and sing and play.”

In 1957, Wilson introduced Gordy to the Strongs. Gordy struck up a friendship with the ambitious Strong, who frequently walked to Gordy’s east side home to swap song ideas. “I like what you can do,” Gordy told Strong one day. “I’m going to do something to you.”

The first was a single titled “Let’s Rock”/”Do the Very Best You Can,” which gained some local broadcast but failed to make a national impression. “Money,” on the other hand, was a Top 50 smash on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the R&B charts, later covered by the Beatles and the avant-garde group the Flying Lizards in the 1980s. The song was written by Gordy and Janie Bradford, but there are three different versions of how it came to be.

Berry claims in his memoir To Be Loved that the “shy” Strong, who plays piano and vocals on the tune, came to the session “uninvited.” Meanwhile, Bradford recalls Gordy summoning Strong into the room and telling him to “give me something,” which became the song’s opening piano theme. Strong? HE recalls playing the piano and riffing on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” “I was playing, and then that small thing appeared, and everyone said, ‘What was that?!'” he explains. “They suggested, ‘Let’s create some lyrics,’ and before we knew it, we had a song.”

The remainder of Strong’s stay at Motown was equally notable. He recounts that Motown first refused to release “Grapevine,” which he started writing while working for Vee Jay Records in Chicago. “They didn’t believe it was a smash record,” Strong explained, laughing, “but you know how it goes: they say, ‘We don’t like it,’ but when it’s a hit, everybody takes credit.” The Miracles were the first to record the song in 1966, followed by Gaye the following year. But it was Knight’s rowdy version that was released first, in September 1967, followed 11 months later by Gaye’s slowed-down groove; Knight’s hit No. 2 on the Hot 100, while Gaye’s topped the list. On their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory, Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded an 11-minute version of “Grapevine,” while the California Raisins covered it for a TV ad in 1986, launching a “career” for the cartoon group.

Meanwhile, “Just My Imagination” was a last-ditch effort for Strong and Whitfield after a handful of previous songs they recorded for the Temptations failed miserably. “We had to reclaim our band,” Strong explained. “They’d have someone else write for ’em if we didn’t come up with something.” Aside from the stress, Strong remembered his songwriting days fondly. “It was a wonderful moment,” he added. “We were just kids doing it for fun, not for money. We had a good time working at the studio all day.”

“These days, people want money first, which I understand,” he remarked. “But we used to put the product first and assumed if we worked hard we would get paid. It was only a time.”

Strong left Motown in the early 1970s to pursue a solo career, recording for the Epic and Capitol labels. He also collaborated on singles for the Dells. Strong ran a production company in Detroit called Boomtown for a time, training and collaborating with younger musicians, and in 2010 he released Stronghold II, his first album in 30 years.

“You don’t give up. “You simply slow down,” Strong explained in 2016. “You are taking your time more. But you must also keep up with the times and relate to the younger generation. “I don’t want to fall behind.”


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