Singer/songwriter/pianist Barrett Strong, whose 1959 hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” gave a fledgling music entrepreneur named Berry Gordy Jr. the jump start his business (soon to be known as Motown Records) needed, and who later teamed with Norman Whitfield to write hits for others, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ball of Confusion,” died at age 81 at his home in the La Jolla district of San Diego, California on January 28, 2023. The Motown Museum announced his death on social media on Sunday, January 29th. It gave no further details.
Temptations founder Otis Williams paid tribute to Strong, citing a 60-plus-year relationship going back to their days on Detroit’s north end, where they lived across the street from one another.
“Barrett has left his indelible stamp not only on Motown and the Temptations, but on music history in general,” Williams said in a statement. “His distinguished legacy of chart hits epitomizes the golden age of Motown. Our Motown family has lost a beloved brother and extraordinary songwriter. My thoughts and prayers go out to Barrett’s son and loved ones.”
Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a Sunday statement: “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. 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).’ 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 on February 5, 1941 in West Point, Mississippi, by the time Strong was 5, the family had moved to Detroit. He first became fascinated by the piano as a young child. His father had brought an old upright piano home and would sit him on his knee while he fiddled on it.
“He couldn’t play,” Strong told the Detroit radio station WDET in 2016, “but I knew then I wanted to.”
Strong attended Hutchins Middle School, with classmates including Aretha Franklin and future Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, when he wowed kids at a school talent show and saw his future. “I thought I was really a star then,” he told the Free Press in 2019.
Strong cut his teeth at amateur shows around the city, performing alongside acts such as the Falcons and the group that became the Four Tops. Young Barrett played with his sisters’ gospel group, the Strong Sisters.
“My sisters were very pretty girls,” he told Los Angeles Weekly in 1999, “so when all the singers would come to town, all the guys would stop by my house. I’d play the piano and we’d have a jam session. This is how I got to know Jackie Wilson.”
Wilson was an up-and-coming rhythm-and-blues singer, and Berry Gordy had written a few songs for him. Strong said he was 14 when he met Gordy, who invited him to come to his house and play a few songs. Soon, Strong was being managed by Gordy when, in a recording studio in Detroit, he began tinkering with a Ray Charles song on piano in 1959 when he stumbled onto the lick that would blossom into Motown’s first big hit. “Money (That’s What I Want),” with Strong on strapping lead vocals, went on to sell a million copies and helped ignite the company’s fortunes.
“I was imitating Ray Charles,” he said. “I was singing and playing like Ray Charles, bobbing my head and stomping my feet the way he would do.”
For Gordy, he played Charles’s version of “Drown in My Own Tears.” Gordy was still in the early stages of getting his record business going, but within a few years Strong was in his newly set-up studio.
A local disc jockey came by the studio and, when Gordy played the tape for him, wanted to put it on the air. “Berry said no, but he took it anyway, went to the studio and played it on the radio,” Strong told WDET. “The phones lit up. Two weeks later, I’m in San Francisco doing a show. I’d never been in a plane before.”
The record, with an energetic vocal performance by Strong, was released on the Tamla label and later on Anna, both precursors of Motown. It began climbing the charts in early 1960 and was distinctly more earthy than the songs it shared the best-seller lists with (“Theme From a Summer Place” by Percy Faith, “This Magic Moment” by the Drifters, “Puppy Love” by Paul Anka, “Let It Be Me” by the Everly Brothers). It rose to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100, went on to sell a million copies and helped ignite the company’s fortunes, giving Gordy money and credibility that helped him take Motown national.
“Money” was the first song recorded at Gordy’s just-purchased home studio on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, before the company had a name or the house had its iconic “Hitsville, U.S.A.” sign out front. Tracked live on a primitive tape machine, the song “took a hundred takes” to perfect, Strong later said.“We were doing another session, and I just happened to be sitting there playing the piano,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “I was playing ‘What’d I Say,’ by Ray Charles, and the groove spun off of that.”
The recording engineer, Robert Bateman, was tantalized by what he was hearing, alerted Gordy, and soon the song, with its famous opening (“The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees”) was born.
In his 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved, Gordy” remembered it differently, claiming that he was writing “Money” at his piano when Strong “ran into the studio and started jamming with us. He slid next to me on the piano bench, playing away and joining me singing the chorus – uninvited. This was uncharacteristic of Barrett, who always seemed quiet, shy and a little in awe of me. But not this day. His voice was soulful and passionate. I didn’t have to think twice about who I could get to sing my song.”
The record even got some international play. “It has a good beaty backing,” The Lincolnshire Echo of Britain wrote in April 1960. The beaty backing may have been what caught the attention of a just-formed group called the Beatles; they covered the tune on their second album, “With the Beatles,” released in Britain in 1963, and it has been recorded by many others since.
But if stardom came quickly for Strong, it slipped from his fingers just as fast. As he exited Motown, the label wiped his vocals from “Jamie”, the next single he was slated to release, and had Eddie Holland rerecord them, scoring a hit. Strong was cynical about the music industry in general, and said he wished he had been more savvy as a teenager venturing into the business. His bones of contention included his first hit: Strong was initially listed on the songwriting credits for “Money” alongside Gordy and Janie Bradford, but his name was removed several years later. Gordy’s attorneys would later say its original inclusion had been a paperwork error. The record was credited to Gordy and Janie Bradford, who had written other songs with Gordy. But, The New York Times reported in 2013, the copyright registration also credited Strong. That copyright was amended in 1962 to remove Strong’s name, but when the copyright was renewed in 1987 his name was restored, only to be removed again the next year with “his name literally crossed out,” The Times said.
In any case, there is no dispute about the impact of the song, and of the later songs Strong wrote with Whitfield, who died in 2008. Despite the success of “Money,” life as a front man and traveling artist didn’t suit Strong, he told the Detroit Free Press in 2019.
“I didn’t like the touring. I got so skinny, my mother said, ‘You look terrible!’” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to do this anymore.”
Strong briefly took a job with Chrysler to take care of his young family. But he retained the music itch and soon returned to the record business to work with companies outside Motown, helping cut singles by the Reflections, Chubby Checker, Mary Wells and others.
Strong was back in the Motown fold in 1966, teaming up with his childhood friend and producer Norman Whitfield. With Motown now a major force in the industry, during the mid-1960s, the pair cowrote smashes for Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips (“I Heard it Through the Grapevine”), Edwin Starr (“War”) and the Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”). By then, with the Vietnam War and social unrest in the headlines, music had become more politicized; most Motown offerings steered clear of topicality, but Strong and Whitfield songs like “Ball of Confusion” and “War,” a 1970 hit for Edwin Starr, tackled it head-on.
With ‘War,’ I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam,” Strong told LA Weekly in 1999. “I also knew a guy who used to sing with (Motown songwriter) Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you’re sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.”
“He and Norman Whitfield were the only songwriters who successfully produced political/social protest songs against Gordy’s standing order not to do so,” 
Posner said.
Strong and Whitfield were also inspired by the 1967 success of “Respect” by Strong’s former schoolmate Aretha Franklin (grittier and more soul-steeped than much of Motown’s output at the time) along with the rising psychedelic movement in rock and R&B.
The Whitfield-Strong working process was versatile, but Strong typically conceived the lyrics along with the basslines, which were then interpreted by Motown studio bassists such as James Jamerson.
But it was with the Temptations that Strong and Whitfield had their most prolific success, scoring a run of hits in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with musically adventurous, topically relevant songs such as “Cloud Nine,” “I Wish it Would Rain,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
Decades later, Strong recounted the origin of one game-changing 1968 hit. “I started playing some grooves on the piano. Norman said, ‘Man, that’s funky. Let’s do it.’ We called it ‘Cloud Nine,’” Strong recalled. “Berry thought we were talking about drugs. But we were just talking about feeling fine, doing good.”
That single, recorded with the Temptations, went on to earn Motown its first Grammy Award. Strong, Whitfield and the Tempts would land another win in 1973 with “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
It was with the Temptations that Strong and Whitfield had their most prolific success, scoring a run of hits in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with musically adventurous, topically relevant songs such as “Cloud Nine,” “I Wish it Would Rain,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
Strong tapped many sources for his musical ideas: The Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” was inspired by the basement of his home on Detroit’s Monte Vista Street, which was adorned with groovy paintings and blacklights. He said “Just My Imagination” emerged after an early listen to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” an ad jingle cowritten by onetime Gordy associate Billy Davis.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967, Marvin Gaye in 1968 and Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970.
“Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations made the Top 10 in 1970, and over the next two years the Strong-Whitfield team brought that group two more hits, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” (1971) and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (1972).
Strong remained in Detroit when Motown packed up for the West Coast in the early ‘70s (“it’s not so funky out there,” he’d later say of Los Angeles). He continued to write and record, including a pair of albums for Capitol Records (“Stronghold” and “Live & Love”), where he hoped to become the label’s Barry White. “It just wasn’t the right time,” he said. “Music was going in another direction.”
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,” Gordy said in a statement. “Their hit songs,” he added, “were revolutionary in sound and captured the spirit of the times.”
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 could be self-deprecating about his accomplishments, as he was in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1990, when he and Whitfield received lifetime achievement awards from the National Academy of Songwriters.
“We wrote maybe 300 songs, and we had 12 good ones,” he said. “So 288 were bad ones.” The journalist Gerald Posner encountered that side of Strong while researching his authoritative account of the record company, “Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power” (2002).
“Barrett’s low-key and retiring manner was unusual for an artist and songwriter of his success,” Posner said by email. “It never went to his head, which was rare in the industry. In the interviews I did in the 1990s with Motown artists and executives, he seemed to be on everyone’s short list for ‘most liked.’”
“He did not want to interview with me,” 
Posner continued, “because he did not want to talk about others he had worked with, afraid it might end up disturbing their friendships. He said he would ‘let his music’ be his contribution to the story.”
Strong was still teeming with artistic energy when he launched a Detroit-area recording studio in 2001 at age 60, working with young artists such as Eliza Neals. Strong released “Stronghold II” on Blarritt Records, a label that he had founded in the mid-1990s but that didn’t last.
“I love music, the creative process,” he said at the time. “I dreamed of building a studio and making it work. But you can’t sit at home and dream about it, you’ve got to get in the trenches.”
In 2004, Strong and Whitfield were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which cited Strong as “a pivotal figure in Motown’s formative years.”
A modest soul, Strong was quick to deflect credit to his colleagues and collaborators: of Whitfield he said, “Whenever Norman showed up at the studio, it worked”, while he described the Funk Brothers, Motown’s in-house band, as “great musicians – if it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be talking to me.”
For a time Strong operated a production company called Boomtown in Detroit, mentoring and partnering with younger artists, and in 2010 he released “Stronghold II,” his first album in 30 years, which he wrote and composed in collaboration with Eliza Neals in 2008, in digital format only.
In 2010, Strong appeared in “Misery”, his first music video in his fifty years of recording music, co-produced by Eliza Neals and Martin “Tino” Gross with Strong at the helm.
“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.”
Despite the title of his very first hit (an irony he recognized) Strong said he he had never been financially driven. “I never liked the business side,” he said in 2019. “I loved the art. But I didn’t know anything back then.”
“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.”
Carving out a life as a creator “means more than money,” Strong said. “Money has its place. But you’ve got to do more than just have money. When you go to bed at night, you’ve got to live with yourself.”
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.”
A serious soul with a poetic, contemplative side, Strong remained proud of his work. In 2019, he resided in an upscale assisted-living facility in the L.A. area, where the amenities included a jukebox for residents. Strong, getting around the home in a wheelchair, would often hear his own music resonating across the recreational area.
Sitting with the Detroit Free Press at at the facility for an interview that year, he reflected on his legacy.
“I feel good about it,” Strong said. “I did something. I did my part, what I was put on this earth to do. I made people smile. I made people have babies. I made people do a lot of things. So I contributed something to my being here.”
Strong remained interested in current music, even hoping in recent years to oversee a project blending hip-hop with classical music. Strong was eager to keep making a mark, he said in 2019: “I still say to this day: I haven’t written my best song yet.”

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