Barrett Strong: the Motown hitmaker was modest almost to a fault

Though he was quick to credit others’ contributions, Strong’s songwriting was absolutely critical to the label that remade American pop music

In 1961, after several dud singles in a row, Barrett Strong turned his back on Motown Records. He swapped one factory for another to work on the production line at Chrysler: “I had to take care of my kids,” he reflected later. It was a bitter twist of fate for a singer whose 1959 single Money (That’s What I Want) – Motown’s debut release, later covered by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – had sold almost 1m copies.

Born in West Point, Mississippi in 1941, Strong moved with his family to Detroit after the end of the war and played piano in his sisters’ gospel group, the Strong Singers. “My sisters were very pretty girls,” he would reminisce – pretty enough that smitten musicians would often hang at the Strong house, where Barrett led impromptu jam sessions. “That’s how I got to know Jackie Wilson, who brought Mr Gordy over to hear me play,” he said. Mr Gordy was Berry Gordy, a songwriter who would go on to become perhaps the greatest mogul in pop history, founding Motown in 1958. Gordy signed Strong to the nascent label while also serving as his manager, a conflict of interest that was as flagrant as it was commonplace back then.

Barrett Strong: Money (That’s What I Want) – video

In his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved, Gordy remembered writing Money at his piano when Strong “ran into the studio and started jamming with us. He slid next to me on the piano bench, playing away and joining me singing the chorus – uninvited. This was uncharacteristic of Barrett, who always seemed quiet, shy and a little in awe of me. But not this day. His voice was soulful and passionate. I didn’t have to think twice about who I could get to sing my song.” But Barrett remembered the story differently, locating the song’s origin in a vamp on Ray Charles’ What’d I Say? that he was idly tooling around with while Gordy was assembling Motown’s recording studio, Hitsville USA. “I was playing that piano lick when Mr Gordy said, ‘What’s that?’,” Strong told journalist Don Waller in 1999. “I said, ‘I don’t know’. So they wrote the lyrics and we recorded it.” This “confusion” over the true provenance of the song would later come to haunt Strong.

A shoestring operation, the budget of the embryonic Motown didn’t stretch to a drummer for Money, so Brian Holland (later to become, with brother Eddie and friend Lamont Dozier, one-third of the label’s legendary in-house songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland) faked the sound of a tom-tom by beating the skin of the tambourine. Gordy took the recording to DJ Larry Dixon, who played it on air. “The telephones lit up,” Strong recalled. “Two weeks later, I’m in San Francisco doing a show. I’d never been in a plane before.” The song reached No 2 on Billboard’s rhythm and blues charts and No 23 on the pop charts.

But if stardom came quickly for Strong, it slipped from his fingers just as fast. As he exited Motown, the label wiped his vocals from Jamie, the next single he was slated to release, and had Eddie Holland rerecord them, scoring a hit.

A few years later, he heard the Temptations’ 1964 smash My Girl on the radio. “I said, ‘Man, they’re doing my kind of music now. I want to go back’,” he recalled. He took the scraps of a frustrated idea, composed a killer bassline at his piano, and played it to Eddie Holland, now Motown’s A&R man. The song was I Heard It Through the Grapevine. “Being a very funky guy, [Holland] could hear where I was coming from,” Strong remembered. The label teamed him with producer Norman Whitfield, who helped Strong finish the song. First recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966, Gladys Knight and the Pips topped the Billboard R&B chart with it in 1967, but it was the sinister rattlesnake crawl of Marvin Gaye’s 1968 version that best realised its potent sexual paranoia. It was later memorably covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Slits.

Marvin Gaye: Heard It Through the Grapevine – video

Strong and Whitfield became Motown’s killer new songwriter/producer team, working with the label’s star act, the Temptations. Gordy later wrote that “their collaborations yielded almost five years of continuous hits as they led the Temptations in a whole new direction toward up-tempo rhythms with lyrics that reflected a growing social consciousness”. Strong described the many timely, political hits the band enjoyed with the duo – pioneering soul-funk jams like Ball of Confusion, Cloud Nine, War and Psychedelic Shack – as “a sign of the times”. War was inspired by friends and relatives who’d returned from the ongoing Vietnam conflict maimed or in bodybags. “You talk about these things with your families, so that inspires you to say something about it.”

A modest soul, he was quick to deflect credit to his colleagues and collaborators: of Whitfield he said, “Whenever Norman showed up at the studio, it worked”, while he described the Funk Brothers, Motown’s in-house band, as “great musicians – if it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be talking to me”. Strong exited Motown for the last time in 1973, recording four solo albums for other labels before retreating from the spotlight and living off the royalties from the hits he had written with Whitfield.

But he wouldn’t see any cash from that first Motown hit – he learned in 2010 that Motown had scrubbed his name from the songwriting credits for Money three years after the song was written, claiming that he had only been credited due to a “clerical error”. “For 50 years I had no idea about any of this,” he told the New York Times in 2013. His belated attempts to rectify this situation were stymied by his delayed response, but for Robert Bateman, engineer at the session where Money was written, Motown’s first star had more than a valid case. “It all emanated from Barrett Strong,” he said.


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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