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Barrett Strong, famed singer and songwriter who rose to fame as the vocalist on Motown’s first hit single Money (That’s What I Want), has passed at 81.
The news was confirmed on Monday by the Motown Museum; no cause of death has been provided.
The story of Motown isn’t told without Barrett Strong
Born in West Point, Mississippi, in 1941 but raised in Detroit, Barrett Strong was one of the first artists to be signed by the future Motown maven Berry Gordy.
He would move to Detroit a few years later. As a self-taught musician who learned piano without needing lessons Strong, with his sisters, formed a local gospel group, the Strong Singers.
In his teens, he got to know such artists as Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who was impressed with his writing and piano playing.
Strong 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.
Barrett Strong’s contractual disputes mirrors many artists today
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.
According to The Guardian, 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.
In financial straits, 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.
While Gordy’s “Sound of Young America” was criticized for being too slick and repetitive, the Whitfield-Strong team turned out hard-hitting and topical works, along with such timeless ballads as “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).”
With “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” they provided an up-tempo, call-and-response hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips and a dark, hypnotic ballad for Marvin Gaye. His 1968 version was one of Motown’s all-time sellers.
In 1973, Strong was awarded the Grammy for best R&B song for “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
“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.”
The music of Strong and other Motown writers was later featured in the Broadway hit “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”
“Songs outlive people,” Strong told The New York Times in 2013. “The real reason Motown worked was the publishing. The records were just a vehicle to get the songs out there to the public. The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang 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.”