Barrett Strong, ‘Money’ Singer and Motown Songwriter, Dead at 81

Barrett Strong, who scored a hit with 1959’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and went on to pen many more Motown classics for other artists, has reportedly died at the age of 81.

“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,” Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. said in part via statement. “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.”

Born Feb. 5, 1941, in West Point, Miss., Strong’s family relocated to Detroit when he was just a child. He grew up in the Motor City, singing in his church’s gospel group and eventually becoming friends with such future stars as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

It was Wilson who introduced Gordy to Strong in 1957, and the two men soon began working together.

Two years later, they’d record the first hit for Motown. “Money (That’s What I Want)” came about unexpectedly, as Strong and Gordy were improvising song ideas. Strong, riffing off of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?,” came up with the song’s distinctive piano part.

“I was playing, and then that little thing came up and everybody said, ‘What was that?!’” he recalled decades later to Morning Sun. “They said, ‘Let’s write some lyrics,’ and we had a song.”

Originally released in August 1959, “Money (That’s What I Want)” reached No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would go on to be covered by a slew of artists, including the Beatles, the Kingsmen, the Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Led Zeppelin. The song would prove to be the only hit of Strong’s recording career as a lead artist, however he helped craft many more successful tunes for other acts.

Listen to Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’

Working as a songwriter for Motown, often alongside producer Norman Whitfield, Strong helped craft such timeless tunes as “War” by Edwin Starr, the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was recorded by both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Strong was also behind a handful of hits by the Temptations, including “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Just My Imagination,” “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the latter of which earned Strong a Grammy Award.

In 1972, Strong left Motown. He’d sign with Epic records and later Capitol, but his material with both of those companies paled to his previous label’s success.

In 2004, Strong was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Later in life, he’d look back on his Motown years with fondness.

“It was a great time,” he recalled in 2016. “We were just kids, and we did it for the fun, not the money. We enjoyed being at the studio all day, working. Nowadays people want the money first, which I can understand. But we used to put the product first and figured if we worked hard we would get paid. It was just an era.”

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