Barrett Strong, whose 'Money' helped launch Motown, dies at 81

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Barrett Strong, whose 'Money' helped launch Motown, dies at 81
As a singer he was a one-hit wonder. But teaming with Norman Whitfield, he wrote a string of hits for others, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Barrett Strong, whose 1959 hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” gave a fledgling music entrepreneur named Berry Gordy Jr. the jump-start his business — soon to be known as Motown Records — needed, and who later teamed with Norman Whitfield to write hits for others, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ball of Confusion,” has died. He was 81.

The Motown Museum announced his death on social media Sunday. It gave no further details.

Strong, a pianist, was being managed by Gordy when, in a recording studio in Detroit, he began fiddling with a riff that was an imitation of one of his favorite artists.

“We were doing another session, and I just happened to be sitting there playing the piano,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “I was playing ‘What’d I Say,’ by Ray Charles, and the groove spun off of that.”

The recording engineer, Robert Bateman, was tantalized by what he was hearing, alerted Gordy, and soon the song, with its famous opening — “The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees” — was born. The record, with an energetic vocal performance by Strong, was released on the Tamla label and later on Anna, both precursors of Motown.

It began climbing the charts in early 1960 and was distinctly more earthy than the songs it shared the bestseller lists with — “Theme From a Summer Place” by Percy Faith, “This Magic Moment” by the Drifters, “Puppy Love” by Paul Anka, “Let It Be Me” by the Everly Brothers. It rose to No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, its success giving Gordy money and credibility that helped him take Motown national.

The record even got some international play. “It has a good beaty backing,” The Lincolnshire Echo of Britain wrote in April 1960. The beaty backing may have been what caught the attention of a just-formed group called the Beatles; they covered the tune on their second album, “With the Beatles,” released in Britain in 1963, and it has been recorded by many others since.

Authorship of the song has remained in question. On the initial record, it was credited to Gordy and Janie Bradford, who had written other songs with Gordy. But, the Times reported in 2013, the copyright registration also credited Strong. That copyright was amended in 1962 to remove Strong’s name, but when the copyright was renewed in 1987 his name was restored, only to be removed again the next year — “his name literally crossed out,” the Times said.

In any case, there is no dispute about the impact of the song, and of the later songs Strong wrote with Whitfield, who died in 2008. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967, Marvin Gaye in 1968 and Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970.

“Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations made the Top 10 in 1970, and over the next two years the Strong-Whitfield team brought that group two more hits, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” (1971) and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (1972).

“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,” Gordy said in a statement.

“Their hit songs,” he added, “were revolutionary in sound and captured the spirit of the times.”

Strong could be self-deprecating about his accomplishments, as he was in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1990, when he and Whitfield received lifetime achievement awards from the National Academy of Songwriters.

“We wrote maybe 300 songs, and we had 12 good ones,” he said. “So 288 were bad ones.”

Journalist Gerald Posner encountered that side of Strong while researching his authoritative account of the record company, “Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power” (2002).

“Barrett’s low-key and retiring manner was unusual for an artist and songwriter of his success,” Posner said by email. “It never went to his head, which was rare in the industry. In the interviews I did in the 1990s with Motown artists and executives, he seemed to be on everyone’s shortlist for ‘most liked.’

“He did not want to interview with me,” Posner continued, “because he did not want to talk about others he had worked with, afraid it might end up disturbing their friendships. He said he would ‘let his music’ be his contribution to the story.”

Strong was born Feb. 5, 1941, in West Point, Mississippi. By the time he was 5, the family had moved to Detroit.

He first became fascinated by the piano as a young child. His father had brought an old piano home and would sit him on his knee while he fiddled on it.

“He couldn’t play,” Strong told the Detroit radio station WDET in 2016, “but I knew then I wanted to.”

When Strong was young he played with his sisters’ gospel group, the Strong Sisters.

“My sisters were very pretty girls,” he told Los Angeles Weekly in 1999, “so when all the singers would come to town, all the guys would stop by my house. I’d play the piano and we’d have a jam session. This is how I got to know Jackie Wilson.”

Wilson was an up-and-coming rhythm-and-blues singer, and Gordy had written a few songs for him. Strong said he was 14 when he met Gordy, who invited him to come to his house and play a few songs.

“I was imitating Ray Charles,” he said. “I was singing and playing like Ray Charles, bobbing my head and stomping my feet the way he would do.”

For Gordy, he played Charles’ version of “Drown in My Own Tears.” Gordy was still in the early stages of getting his record business going, but within a few years Strong was in his newly set-up studio, and “Money” was one of the first songs recorded there.

A local disc jockey came by the studio and, when Gordy played the tape for him, wanted to put it on the air.

“Berry said no, but he took it anyway, went to the studio and played it on the radio,” Strong told WDET. “The phones lit up.”

Strong left Gordy not long after to sign a contract with a Chicago label, but not much came of it, and later in the 1960s he returned to Detroit and, with Motown now a major force in the industry, began writing with Whitfield. By then, with the Vietnam War and social unrest in the headlines, music had become more politicized; most Motown offerings steered clear of topicality, but Strong and Whitfield songs such as “Ball of Confusion” and “War,” a 1970 hit for Edwin Starr, tackled it head-on.

“He and Norman Whitfield were the only songwriters who successfully produced political/social protest songs against Gordy’s standing order not to do so,” Posner said.

When Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972, Strong stayed in Detroit. “It’s funky here,” he told The Detroit Free Press in 2001. “It’s not so funky out there.”

In the mid-1970s he recorded two albums, “Stronghold” and “Live & Love.” In 2001 he released “Stronghold II” on Blarritt Records, a label that he had founded in the mid-1990s but that didn’t last. Strong and Whitfield were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.

Information on Strong’s survivors was not immediately available.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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