NASHVILLE, TN — Barrett Strong, the first major hitmaker and star and the man whose ascension helped launch Motown Records, passed last week at 81.
Though known as helping make the Detroit-based label a global sensation, Strong was born in Mississippi. He began recording for Gordy’s label, Tamla Records, in the late 1950s, and in 1960 his recording of Berry Gordy’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” became the first hit for either artist. Though it wasn’t a chart topper, it peaked at number two on the R&B singles chart and No 23 on the Hot 100, It was later recorded by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Things were not always so rosy for Strong at Motown. He even left the company for a period, then returned as a staff songwriter, and with producer Norman Whitfield wrote many of the company’s most iconic tracks, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” and :War.” The pair’s partnership with the Temptations won a 1973 Grammy for “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” After leaving Motown in the mid-70s. Strong began recording for Capitol Records. He was never able to recapture that magic as a solo performer, but he’d already done more than enough to be recognized as an all-time great. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the early 2000s.
Strong endured some hard times later in life, suffering a stroke in 2009. But the amazing songs that he wrote and arrangements that he crafted will live forever, and he was remembered by Gordy last week upon news of his passing.
“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.”