Barrett Strong, Motown Artist Famous for ‘Money’, Dies at 81
Barrett Strong, one of Motown’s founding artists and most gifted songwriter, who sang lead vocals on the company’s breakthrough single “Money (That’s What I Want)” and later collaborated with Norman Whitfield on Classics like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” have died. He was 81.
His death was announced Sunday on the Motown Museum’s social media, which did not immediately provide further details.
“Barrett is not only an amazing singer and pianist, but he and his writing partner Norman Whitfield have created an incredible piece of work,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. .
Strong was not yet 20 years old when he agreed to let his friend Gordy, in the early days of building a record empire in Detroit, manage and release his music. Within a year, he had become part of history as the pianist and vocalist for “Money,” a million-selling single released in the early 1960s and the first major hit of the band. Motown. Strong never again achieved the success of “Money” on his own, and decades later struggled to gain recognition that he helped write it. However, with Whitfield, he formed an effective and diverse group of compositions.
While Gordy’s “Sound of Young America” was criticized for being overly polished and repetitive, the Whitfield-Strong team produced topical and hard-of-hearing pieces, along with unusual ballads. such as “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Just My Imagination.” With “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” they delivered a fast-paced, call-and-response hit to Gladys Knight and the Pips and a somber, hypnotic ballad to Marvin Gaye, the 1968 version of him, one of Motown’s all-time bestsellers.
As Motown became more politically conscious towards the end of the decade, Barrett-Whitfield created “Cloud Nine” and “Psychedelic Shack” for the Temptations and gave Edwin Starr the protest anthem “War” and the widely cited chorus. Its widely, “War! What is it good for? Absolutely…nothing!”
Strong told LA Weekly in 1999: “With `War,’ I had a paratrooper cousin who was seriously injured in Vietnam. by shrapnel and was disabled for life. You talk about these things with your family when you’re sitting at home, and that prompts you to say something about it.”
Whitfield-Strong’s other hits, primarily for the Temptations, include “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “That’s the Way Love Is” and the Grammy Award-winning chart-topping song “Papa Was”. a Rollin’ Stone” (Sometimes spelled “Papa is a rolling stone”). Artists covering their songs range 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, then left Motown in the early 1970s and worked on several solo albums, including “Stronghold” and “Love is You”. In 2004, he was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which considered him “a key figure in Motown’s formative years.”
Whitfield died in 2008.
The music of Strong and other Motown writers was later featured on 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 is a self-taught musician who took piano lessons without school and together with his sisters founded a local gospel music group, Strong Singers. In his teens, he got to know artists like Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who were impressed with his ability to write and play the piano. “Money,” with the opening shout, “The best things in life are free/But you can give birds and bees,” which, ironically, will lead to a war — for money.
Strong was originally listed among writers, and he often talks about coming up with a pounding piano riff while playing Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in the studio. But it was only decades later that he learned that Motown had removed his name from the credits, prompting him to pay royalties to a popular standard covered by The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and many others. and a memento on John Lennon’s home jukebox. Strong’s legal argument was weakened because it took him so long to get his name reinstated. (Gordy is one of the song’s most trusted writers, and his lawyers argue that Strong’s name only appeared due to a clerical error.)
Strong told The New York Times in 2013: “Songs outlast people. “The real reason Motown works is publishing. Recordings are just a means of bringing songs to the masses. The real money is in publishing, and if you’re already publishing, then go ahead with it. That’s all about it. If you give, you are giving away your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.”