More than 73 years ago, Barrett Strong, as a singer, declared “Money (That’s What I Want)” — for the first hit single from the Motown empire.
What he actually wound up getting was musical immortality. As a songwriter.
Strong — who passed away Sunday, Jan. 29, at the age of 81 in Detroit — co-wrote some of Motown’s most enduring hits, with a variety of collaborators but primarily the late Norman Whitfield. Those included “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, “War” for Edwin Starr, the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and a wealth of material form the Temptations — “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 transition from performer to songwriter suited him well. “I never felt comfortable with myself as a recording artist,” Strong told Billboard in 2016. The father of six and grandfather of 13 noted, “I had to work to support my family. I’m not looking for the spotlight and all the glamour and stuff like that. I just like to work in my studio and see what we can come up with.”
In a statement issued Sunday, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. — who described Strong as “shy” in his memoir, To Be Loved, said that, “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 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 … Barrett is an original member of the Motown Family and will be missed by all of us.”
In addition to the Grammy, Strong was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Songwriters in 1990 and a Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 2004. BMI celebrated his legacy during a special event in 2016.
The son of a Uniroyal plant worker and a housewife, Strong grew up on Detroit’s west side and sang in a gospel group with his four sisters. They toured the local church circuit and befriended stars such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. “When they’d come to town they’d stop by the house and visit with us,” Strong recalled. “We would all sit around the piano and play and sing.”
It was Wilson who introduced Gordy to the Strongs in 1957. Gordy hit it off with the ambitious Strong, who often walked to Gordy’s east side home to exchange song ideas. One day Gordy told Strong, “I like what you can do. I’m gonna do something with you.”
The first thing was a single called “Let’s Rock”/”Do the Very Best You Can,” which received some local airplay but didn’t make a national impact. “Money,” however, was a Top 50 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the R&B charts, later covered by the Beatles and during the ’80s by the avant-garde group the Flying Lizards. Gordy and Janie Bradford wrote the song, but there are three different stories about how it came to be.
In his memoir To Be Loved, Berry claims the “shy” Strong, who plays piano as well as sings on the track, joined the session “uninvited.” Bradford, meanwhile, recalls Gordy inviting Strong into the room and asking him to “give me something,” which became the opening piano riff for the song. Strong? HE remembers jamming on the piano, riffing off of Ray Charles‘ “What’d I Say?” “I was playing, and then that little thing came up and everybody said, ‘What was that?!’” he says. “They said, ‘Let’s write some lyrics,’ and we had a song.”
The rest of Strong’s time at Motown was just as memorable. He recalls that Motown initially didn’t want to release “Grapevine,” which he began writing during a brief tenure working for Vee Jay Records in Chicago. “They didn’t think it was a hit record,” said Strong, adding with a chuckle, “You know how it goes: They say, ‘We don’t like that,’ but when it’s a hit, everybody takes credit.” The Miracles were actually the first to record the song, in 1966, and Gaye recorded it the following year. But it was Knight’s raucous version that came out first, during September of 1967, followed by Gaye’s slowed-down groove 11 months later; Knight’s reached No. 2 on the Hot 100, while Gaye’s topped the chart. Creedence Clearwater Revival turned in an 11-minute version of “Grapevine” on its 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory, while the California Raisins covered it for a TV commercial in 1986, which launched a “career” for the cartoon group.
“Just My Imagination,” meanwhile, was something of a desperation project for Strong and Whitfield after a couple of other songs they wrote for the Temptations didn’t do well. “We had to get our band back,” Strong said. “If we didn’t come up with something they’d have someone else writing for ’em.” Stress aside, Strong had little but positive memories of his songwriting heyday. “It was a great time,” he said. “We were just kids, and we did it for the fun, not the money. We enjoyed being at the studio all day, working.”
“Nowadays people want the money first, which I can understand,” he said. “But we used to put the product first and figured if we worked hard we would get paid. It was just an era.”
Strong left Motown during the early ’70s and resumed his performing career, recording for the Epic and Capitol labels. He also co-wrote singles for the Dells. For a time Strong operated a production company called Boomtown in Detroit, mentoring and partnering with younger artists, and in 2010 he released Stronghold II, his first album in 30 years.
“You don’t quit. You just slow down,” Strong said in 2016. “You take your time more. But you have to keep up, too, and relate to the younger people now. I don’t want to be left behind.”
No cause of death has been revealed for Strong. Funeral details are pending.
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