Barrett Strong, Motown artist known for `Money´, dies at 81

Motown king Barrett Strong, who co-wrote classics including ‘I heard it through the Grapevine’, dies aged 81

  • Barrett Strong, co-writer behind ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ has died aged 81 
  • The artist was central to the early success of Motown Records in the 1960s

American singer-songwriter Barrett Strong has died aged 81.

Strong’s 1960 single ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ was the first hit record for African-American owned label Motown Records, which became an import part of the racial integration of popular music in American culture.

His death was announced on Twitter on Sunday by the Motown Museum, which did not immediately give a cause of death.

Singer-songwriter Barrett Strong died aged 81 according to label affiliate Motown Museum

Barrett Strong worked closely with producer Norman Whitfield to steer the Motown sound 

Motown founder Berry Gordy confirmed the death of Strong in a statement shared with Billboard.

He said: ‘I am saddened to hear of the passing of Barrett Strong, one of my earliest artists, and the man who sang my first big hit.

‘Barrett was not only a great singer and piano player, but he, along with his writing partner Norman Whitefield, created an incredible body of work, primarily with the Temptations. 

‘Their hit songs were revolutionary in sound and captured the spirit of the times like ‘Cloud Nine’ and the still relevant, ‘Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today).’

Strong’s collaborations with producer Norman Whitfield, regarded as one of the creators of the ‘Motown Sound’, included Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ and ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’.

The songwriting duo had their biggest hits with American vocal group The Temptations, who started their career with Top 10 hit single ‘Cloud Nine’ in 1968.

The Motown group peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971.

Barrett Strong played a key role in the shaping and success of the Motown Sound in the 1960s

Barrett Strong, born in 1941, was not yet 20 when his hit single ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ pushed the fledgling Motown Records into the public consciousness in 1960.

The record was later covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

The track, recorded in August 1959 and set against B-side ‘Oh I Apologize’ made it to No. 2 in the Hot R&B Sides chart and No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

Strong never again approached the success of ‘Money’ on his own, and decades later fought for acknowledgement that he helped write it.

For much of his career, Strong played a key role in shaping the development of Soul music in the United States, working closely with songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield on a number of top-selling tracks for the label.

‘I Wish It Would Rain’ and ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)’ were met with critical and popular acclaim, while ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ became an all-time top seller for Motown, later recorded by ‘The Prince of Motown’, Marvin Gaye.

Barrett Strong (R) in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2013, attends the HSN Live Michael Bolton concert

Motown Records was instrumental in the integration of African American music in wider popular music in the United States. 

The Black-owned corporation employed multi-racial staff to work in its label teams, taking steps to help heal a divided America in the 1960s.

While segregation was outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act 1964, the Voting Rights Act 1965 and the Fair Housing Act 1968, it nonetheless continued in housing, schooling and work in practice.

Founder Gordy told The Telegraph in 2016: ‘I wanted songs for the whites, black, the Jews, Gentiles […] I wanted everybody to enjoy my music.’

Barrett Strong played a key role in the production of more politically conscious tracks late in the decade, such as ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘Psychedelic Shack’ for The Temptations, and protest anthem ‘War’ for Edwin Starr.  

Strong told LA Weekly in 1999: ‘I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam.

‘I also knew a guy who used to sing with [Motown songwriter] Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you’re sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.’

Strong helped write some of Motown’s more political songs as the label grew in the late 1960s

Whitfield-Strong´s other hits, mostly for the Temptations, included ‘I Can´t Get Next to You,’ ‘That´s the Way Love Is’ and the Grammy-winning chart-topper ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ (Sometimes spelled ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’). Artists covering their songs ranged from the Rolling Stones (‘Just My Imagination’) and Aretha Franklin (‘I Wish It Would Rain’) to Bruce Springsteen (‘War’) and Al Green (‘I Can´t Get Next to You’).

Strong spent part of the 1960s recording for other labels, left Motown again in the early 1970s and made a handful of solo albums, including ‘Stronghold’ and ‘Love is You.’ In 2004, he was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which cited him as ‘a pivotal figure in Motown´s formative years.’

Whitfield died in 2008.

The music of Strong and other Motown writers was later featured in the Broadway hit ‘Ain´t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.’

Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi and moved to Detroit a few years later. He was a self-taught musician who learned piano without needing lessons and, with his sisters, formed a local gospel group, the Strong Singers. In his teens, he got to know such artists as Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who was impressed with his writing and piano playing. ‘Money,’ with its opening shout, ‘The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and bees,’ would, ironically, lead to a fight – over money.

Strong was initially listed among the writers and he often spoke of coming up with the pounding piano riff while jamming on Ray Charles´ ‘What´d I Say’ in the studio. But only decades later would he learn that Motown had since removed his name from the credits, costing him royalties for a popular standard covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many others and a keepsake on John Lennon´s home jukebox. Strong´s legal argument was weakened because he had taken so long to ask for his name to be reinstated. (Gordy is one of the song’s credited writers, and his lawyers contended Strong’s name only appeared because of a clerical error).

‘Songs outlive people,’ Strong told The New York Times in 2013. ‘The real reason Motown worked was the publishing. The records were just a vehicle to get the songs out there to the public. The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang on to it. That´s what it´s all about. If you give it away, you´re giving away your life, your legacy. Once you´re gone, those songs will still be playing.’

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