Barrett Strong, Motown artist best known for ‘Money’, dies at 81: NPR

Barrett Strong of Motown arrives at the 35th National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York on June 10, 2004.

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Barrett Strong, Motown artist best known for 'Money', dies at 81: NPR

Barrett Strong of Motown arrives at the 35th National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York on June 10, 2004.

Louis Lanzano/AP

NEW YORK — Barrett Strong, one of Motown’s founding artists and most gifted songwriters who sang the company’s breakthrough single “Money (That’s What I Want)” and later collaborated with Norman Whitfield on such classics as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” is dead. He was 81 years old.

His death was announced Sunday on social media by the Motown Museumwho did not immediately provide further details.

“Barrett was not only a great singer and pianist, but he, along with his writing partner Norman Whitfield, created an incredible body of work,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement.

Strong was not yet 20 when he agreed to let his friend Gordy, in the early stages of building a recording empire in Detroit, manage it and release his music. Within a year, he was making history as the pianist and singer of “Money,” a million seller released in early 1960 and Motown’s first major hit. Strong never again approached the success of “Money” on his own, and decades later he fought for recognition that he helped write it. But, with Whitfield, he formed a productive and eclectic team of songwriters.

While Gordy’s “Sound of Young America” ​​was criticized for being too slick and repetitive, Whitfield-Strong’s team produced hard-hitting and topical works, as well as timeless ballads such as “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Just My Imagination (Run with Me).” With “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, they provided a fast, fast hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips and a dark, hypnotic ballad for Marvin Gaye, his 1968 version one of Motown’s all-time bestsellers.

As Motown grew more politically aware at the end of the decade, Barrett-Whitfield produced “Cloud Nine” and “Psychedelic Shack” for the Temptations and for Edwin Starr the protest anthem “War” and its widely quoted refrain, ” War! good for? Absolutely…nothing!”

“With ‘War,’ I had a cousin who was a paratrooper who got hurt in Vietnam,” Strong told LA Weekly in 1999. “I also knew a guy who used to sing with (the Motown songwriter) Lamont Dozier who was hit by shrapnel and crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you sit at home, and that makes you talk about them.

Whitfield-Strong’s other hits, mostly for the Temptations, included “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “That’s the Way Love Is”, and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (sometimes spelled “Papa Was a Rolling Stone Artists covering their songs ranged from the Rolling Stones (“Just My Imagination”) and Aretha Franklin (“I Wish It Would Rain”) to Bruce Springsteen (“War”) and Al Green (“I Can’t Get Next to You”).

Strong spent part of the 1960s recording for other labels, leaving Motown again in the early 1970s and releasing a handful of solo albums, including “Stronghold” and “Love is You”. In 2004, he was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which cited him as “a pivotal figure in Motown’s formative years”.

Whitfield died in 2008.

Music by Strong and other Motown writers was later featured in the Broadway hit “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”

Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi and moved to Detroit a few years later. He was a self-taught musician who learned the piano without the need for lessons and together with his sisters formed a local gospel group, the Strong Singers. As a teenager, he met artists such as Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who was impressed with his songwriting and piano playing. “Money”, with its opening cry, “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and the bees”, ironically would lead to a fight – for the money.

Strong was initially listed among the writers and he would often talk about coming up with the pounding piano riff while playing Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in the studio. But it wouldn’t be until decades later that he would learn that Motown had since dropped his name from the credits, costing him royalties for a popular standard covered by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and many others and a memento on the John Lennon’s home jukebox. Strong’s legal case was weakened because he had taken so long to ask for his name to be reinstated. (Gordy is one of the song’s credited writers, and his lawyers argued that Strong’s name only appeared because of a clerical error).

“Songs outlast people,” Strong told The New York Times in 2013. “The real reason Motown worked was publishing. Records were just a way to get songs out to the public. The real money is in publishing, and If you publish, then hang in there. That’s what it’s all about. If you give it, you give your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will continue to play.


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