Barrett Strong, singer, songwriter and Motown’s first star, dies aged 81

Strong sang on the label’s first hit Money in 1960 and went on to co-write landmark songs including Heard It Through the Grapevine and War

Barrett Strong, a singer and songwriter who rose to fame as the vocalist on Motown’s first hit single Money (That’s What I Want), has died, aged 81. The news was confirmed on Monday by the Motown Museum; no cause of death was given.

It is with great sadness that we share the passing of legendary @ClassicMotown singer and songwriter Barrett Strong.

The voice behind @motown's first hit, the iconic “Money (That’s What I Want),” was born in West Point, Mississippi on February 5, 1941 and was raised in Detroit.

— Motown Museum (@Motown_Museum) January 30, 2023

Born in Mississippi in 1941 but raised in Detroit, Strong was one of the first artists to be signed by the future Motown maven Berry Gordy. He began recording for Gordy’s label, Tamla Records, in the late 1950s, and in 1960 his recording of the Gordy-penned Money (That’s What I Want) became the first hit for either artist. Peaking at No 2 on the R&B singles chart and No 23 on the Hot 100, Money came to define the early years of Motown, and was later recorded by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Although Money was a huge hit for the company and for Strong, the track’s credits were subject to great dispute throughout Strong’s whole career. Strong himself contended that he co-wrote the song with Gordy and songwriter Janie Bradford, while Gordy has consistently denied this, saying Strong was only involved in the recording. When it was initially registered for copyright, Strong was listed as one of the track’s writers; in a 2013 New York Times feature about Strong’s fight for recognition, representatives for Gordy stated that this was a clerical error, although session musicians present during the song’s recording said that Strong wrote the track’s iconic piano riff and guitar lines. “Songs outlive people,” Strong told the NYT. “The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang on to it … If you give it away, you’re giving away your life, your legacy.”

Although Money was a hit, Strong found that he wasn’t earning enough money to support his family, so in the early 60s he briefly began working on the factory floor at Chrysler. In the mid-60s, he returned to Motown as a staff songwriter, and with producer Norman Whitfield wrote many of the company’s most iconic tracks, including I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, and War. The pair’s partnership with the Temptations, in particular, yielded a string of extremely successful, beloved tracks; in 1973, he was awarded the Grammy for best R&B song for Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.

Barrett Strong in 1970.
Barrett Strong in 1970. Photograph: Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns

In the 70s, Strong left Motown and began recording for Capitol Records, although none of his solo work ever achieved the same heights as Money. In 2004, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but was largely unable to pursue music or performance for much of the later part of his life due to a stroke he suffered in 2009. In 2010, he discovered that his name had been struck from Money’s credits list, and he spent the remainder of his life attempting to claim a share in the song’s royalties, partially in order to pay for the medical treatments he needed after his stroke.

“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 Money (That’s What I Want) in 1959,” Gordy wrote in a statement issued to Variety. “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. … My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. Barrett is an original member of the Motown family and will be missed by all of us.”


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

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