Barrett Strong, Motown Songwriter And “Money (That’s What I Want)” Singer, Dead At 81
Barrett Strong, the singer and songwriter who helped create many of the most iconic hits in the history of the Motown label, has died. As the Associated Press reports, the Motown Museum revealed the news of Strong’s death yesterday. In a statement, Motown founder Berry Gordy said, “Barrett was not only a great singer and piano player, but he, along with his writing partner Norman Whitfield, 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).'” No cause of death has been revealed. Strong was 81.
Barrett Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi, and he grew up mostly in Detroit. In 1958, Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records, the label that would become Motown, and a teenage Barrett Strong, a self-taught singer and piano player, was one of his first signings. Strong released his first single “Let’s Rock” on Tamla in 1959, but it was his second single, released later that same year, that arguably became Motown’s first true hit. Gordy and Janie Bradford wrote “Money (That’s What I Want),” and Gordy produced Strong’s recording of the song, which became a #2 hit and which crossed over to the Hot 100, peaking at #23.
The Beatles famously covered “Money (That’s What I Want)” on their 1963 album With The Beatles. The Rolling Stones also covered the song on their 1964 debut EP, and the Flying Lizards had a hit with a disaffected synthpop version of the track in 1979. Barrett Strong later claimed that he had actually co-written “Money,” and his name does appear on the song’s copyright registration, but Berry Gordy claims that it was only there because of a clerical error.
Barrett Strong’s singles after “Money (That’s What I Want)” failed to hit, but Strong reinvented himself as a songwriter. He teamed up with Norman Whitfield, the producer who basically invented the sound that would be known as psychedelic soul. Strong had the idea for “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” in 1966, and he brought it to Whitfield. The song ended up being a massive hit for two different Motown artists. First, Gladys Knight & The Pips took an uptempo version of “Grapevine” to #2 in 1967. The next year, even more famously, the song became Marvin Gaye’s first #1 hit. It’s quite simply one of the greatest pop songs of all time.
Over the next few years, Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield wrote a number of classic hits together. They wrote Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” but they’re best known for the run of groundbreaking Temptations hits that stretched from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. Strong and Whitfield wrote “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today),” “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” — all full-on pop-masterpiece classics that adapted the Motown assembly-line style to the changing pop landscape.
Barrett Strong parted ways with Motown in 1972, and he went back to his singing career, recording a couple of albums for Capitol, starting with 1975’s Stronghold. Strong didn’t score any more hits, and his career became more intermittent, but he never stopped working. Strong released his final album Stronghold II in 2008.
Below, check out some of Barrett Strong’s work.