Barrett Strong in 1996 (John Mathew Smith & (, „Barrett Strong“,

Whether or not Barrett Strong co-wrote “Money (That’s What I Want),” he was the vocalist and pianist on the track that became a million-seller and Motown’s first major recording. Strong, one of the company’s most prolific composers and lyricists, died on January 29 in Detroit, according to a statement from the Motown Museum. He was 81; no details were provided for the cause of death.

It’s impossible to hum or sing a Motown song that did not include Strong’s gifts, including such tunes as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which earned him a Grammy award in 1973. He received three other Grammy nominations in his long and productive career, often in collaboration with producer Norman Whitfield.

Born in West Point, Mississippi, on February 5, 1941, Strong moved to Detroit with his family when he was still a child. He taught himself to play piano and as a teenager, formed a group with his sisters called the Strong Singers. As an aspiring musician in Detroit, he was soon associated with a number of other hopefuls such as Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and singers who would become part of the Temptations.

When his talent was recognized by Berry Gordy, he was signed and became one of the first songwriters at Motown records. The breakthrough single “Money” in 1960 was the source of much controversy about who had the rights to it, eventually embroiling him and Gordy in a long dispute. Even so, Gordy said that “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.” 

Many of their songs accompanied various political developments and helped to give them resonance and a musical context. Edwin Starr’s recording of “War” was appropriated by activists in their anti-war demonstrations. The bulk of their endless line of hits were recorded by the Temptations, and Strong learned too late in life that the real earnings from songwriting were with the publishers. “The real money is in publishing,” he told a reporter at the New York Times, “and if you have publishing hand on to it. That’s what it’s all about. If you give it away, you’re giving away your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.”

In all of this, Strong was prophetic, and nowhere have his creations more visible than in movies and on Broadway with such fantastically successful productions as “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” which features several of his songs.

Whitfield and Strong were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2004. Five years later, Strong was incapacitated by a stroke. Whitfield died in 2008.

“It was the third of September, a day I will always remember,” he wrote in the opening lines of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” While he may not have cashed in on his talents, Barrett Strong’s genius is just as much a part of the American song books as that of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *