Barrett Strong, the Motown artist who sang the label’s first major hit “Money (That’s What I Want)” and wrote songs for the Temptations and others, has died. He was 81.
“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,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “Their hit songs were revolutionary in sound and captured the spirit of the times like ‘Cloud Nine’ and the still relevant, ‘Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today).’”
Born in Mississippi on Feb. 5 1941 and raised in Detroit, Strong was one of Gordy’s earliest signees. He sang 1959’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” for Motown’s Tamla label, and it shot to Number Two on the U.S. R&B chart in 1960, going on to sell more than one million copies. The song has been covered by scores of artists, most famously the Beatles — who released it in 1963 as the final track on With the Beatles — but the list includes covers from the Flying Lizards, the Kingsmen, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Guy.
By the mid-Sixties, Strong joined forces with producer Norman Whitfield at Motown, where the pair helped put the label on the map with some of its most cherished singles, including the classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” performed by both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips and Edwin Starr’s “War.” But their partnership flourished with their writing for the Temptations, which included “Cloud Nine,” Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” “I Can’t Get Next to You” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” The latter song earned Strong a Grammy for Best R&B song in 1973. The songwriting duo also penned the Number One 1971 charter “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”
“Looking back on that whole period, I would say that the album I most felt proud of was the Temptations’ Solid Rock . At the time, Norman and I were really into that sound and we were first to really capture it,” Strong told John Abbey in Blues & Soul in 1975, per udiscovermusic. “To me, that was Norman’s very best work. Of the songs I’ve written, I’d say that ‘Grapevine’ and ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ are my personal pride. ‘Papa’ earned us a Grammy so we were especially proud of it at the time.”
After Strong left Motown in 1972, he resumed singing and signed to Epic and later to Capitol, where he released 1975’s Stronghold (its Stronghold II sequel arrived more than three decades later in 2008) and 1976’s Live & Love.
Strong continued to release music into the 1980s, including recording “Rock It Easy” and writing “You Can Depend on Me,” which was included on the Dells’ 1988 album, The Second Time. Strong was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.
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