Of all the dozens of worldwide hits released by the Motown family of labels, few had a more profound impact than Money (That’s What I Want), sung by the 19-year-old Barrett Strong and released in 1959. “The best things in life are free,” Strong sang, over a pounding piano, “but you can give them to the birds and bees – I need money.” In the background, a female chorus responded with matching fervour: “That’s what I want.”
In the US, the record sold a million copies, helped establish what became the Motown empire, and briefly made Strong, who has died aged 81, a star. Although in Britain it failed to match that chart performance, the song quickly became a part of the repertoire of the young beat groups for whom the raw sound of Black music was inspiring their efforts to demolish the genteel conventions of Tin Pan Alley.
Among those groups were the Beatles, who found that Money, with its hammering 4/4 rhythm, straightforward 12-bar blues structure and direct lyric, was particularly effective in rousing audiences at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and the Star Club in Hamburg, with John Lennon shouting himself hoarse as he took the lead vocal. They recorded it for their second album, With the Beatles, released in time for Christmas 1963, when their early popularity was at its height, meaning that the song was being heard in virtually every home in the land.
A few weeks later their new rivals, the Rolling Stones, released their own version – slightly less raucous and featuring Mick Jagger’s harmonica – on a four-track EP disc alongside songs by Chuck Berry, the Coasters and Arthur Alexander. It went to No 1 in the EP charts, spreading the song’s popularity still further.
For Strong, Money (That’s What I Want) represented a brief moment in the spotlight. He disliked touring and would have no more hits as a singer, but as the 1960s progressed he came into his own as a songwriter, collaborating with the producer Norman Whitfield on a string of hits, including Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Edwin Starr’s War and the Temptations’ Cloud Nine, Ball of Confusion and Papa Was a Rolling Stone, in which the Motown sound was updated for the era of psychedelia and political protest.
Born in West Point, Mississippi, where his father worked on a farm, Strong arrived in Detroit at the age of six, his family becoming part of the great migration of African Americans from the rural south to the industrial cities of the north. When his father bought an old piano, he taught himself to play it. A cousin of Nolan Strong, lead singer with the Diablos, a prominent local doo-wop group, Barrett joined the Strong Singers, a gospel group, and began writing songs at the age of 14, while studying at Central high school in Detroit. After being turned down by Fortune Records, the Diablos’ label, he became one of the earliest employees hired by Berry Gordy Jr, the founder of the Tamla and Motown labels.
Money (That’s What I Want) was created during a recording session by Gordy, Strong and Janie Bradford, the company’s 16-year-old receptionist. Strong or Gordy played the piano and Benny Benjamin, the label’s regular drummer, also took part. According to legend the session also featured two white boys who, walking home from school, came in off the street, asked to be allowed to play the guitar and bass parts, and were never seen again.
On its initial release, on the fledgling Tamla label, the composer credits were awarded to Gordy and Bradford. When the song showed signs of being a hit, Gordy quickly transferred it to the Anna label, run by one of his sisters, which had a deal for national distribution. Later Strong’s name was added as co-composer, before being removed again as part of a continuing dispute, Gordy claiming that the inclusion had been a clerical error. Strong always maintained that the basic idea and the hook phrase had been his.
He spent time in New York and Chicago in the early 60s, writing hits for non-Motown artists, including Stay in My Corner for the Dells, before returning to Detroit. His partnership with Whitfield began with I Heard It Through the Grapevine, first recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967 but a much bigger success when given a different arrangement for Gaye a year later.
Strong and Whitfield, who had known each other since 1957, reached a creative pinnacle with their work for the Temptations between 1967 and 1972. As well as dreamy ballads such as I Wish It Would Rain and Just My Imagination, they reacted to the influence of rock music by devising the formula for what became known as “psychedelic soul”. Stretching the structure of their songs, adding electronic textures and devising lyrics that reflected social realities rather than romantic fantasies, they reached a peak in 1972 with Papa Was a Rolling Stone, a 12-minute soul symphony edited down to seven minutes and cut into two parts for release as what became a Grammy-winning No 1 single.
When Gordy moved Motown’s headquarters to Los Angeles, Strong was one of those who stayed behind. Resuming his singing career, he recorded for the Epic and Capitol labels and opened his own studio in Detroit, where he worked with young local artists, before moving to Los Angeles, where he spent his final years in a retirement home.
• Barrett Strong, singer and songwriter, born 5 February 1941; died 29 January 2023