Barrett Strong: Motown trailblazer and hitmaker, dies at 81

Barrett Strong: Motown trailblazer and hitmaker, dies at 81
Barrett Strong: Motown trailblazer and hitmaker, dies at 81

Africa-Press – Botswana. Barrett Strong, a pivotal figure in the history of Motown Records, has died at the age of 81.

He sang the label’s first major hit, Money (That’s What I Want), in 1959, and went on to co-write classic songs like I Heard It Through the Grapevine, War and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.

Those hits were “revolutionary in sound and captured the spirit of the times”, Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a written tribute to the musician.

No cause of death has been disclosed.

“Barrett has left his indelible stamp… on music history,” said Temptations founder Otis Williams in a statement. “Our Motown family has lost a beloved brother and extraordinary songwriter.”

Gordy added: “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.

“Barrett is an original member of the Motown Family and will be missed by all of us.”

Royalties fight

Strong was born in Mississippi and grew up in Detroit, where he sang and played piano with his four sisters in The Strong Sisters, a gospel group.

While touring local churches, they befriended soul stars such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

“My sisters were very pretty girls, so when all the singers would come to town, all the guys would stop by my house,” he later recalled. “I’d play the piano and we’d have a jam session.”

He was just 18 when he agreed to let Gordy manage him and release his music.

Within a year, he had a million-selling single, Money, which was subsequently covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the Flying Lizards.

According to Strong, the song began with its infectious piano riff, which he dreamed up during a spontaneous recording session at Motown’s Hitsville headquarters.

“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.

“Everybody said, ‘What was that?!'” he recalled. “They said, ‘Let’s write some lyrics,’ and we had a song.”

With its opening refrain, “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and bees”, Money was an instant hit, shooting to number two on the US R&B chart and number 23 on the Hot 100.

The success provided Gordy with vital capital to expand his operation, and Motown went on to transform US music, breaking down racial barriers as it went.

However, Strong spent years fighting the label for his share of the song’s royalties, after they removed his name from the credits. (Gordy claimed he had written the song, and that Barrett’s credit was a “clerical error”).

How Grapevine was buried

Money was Strong’s only hit as a vocalist, albeit one that kept him on the radio for more than 60 years.

He later said he was happy to retreat behind the scenes.

“I never felt comfortable with myself as a recording artist,” the father of six told Billboard magazine.

“I had to work to support my family. I’m not looking for the spotlight and all the glamour and stuff like that. I just like to work in my studio and see what we can come up with.”

In Motown’s back rooms, he teamed up with producer Norman Whitfield, with whom he wrote some of the label’s most cherished singles, including Ball of Confusion, Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me), I Wish It Would Rain and Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home).

Many of their songs had roots in political activism. Edwin Starr’s War, for example, was inspired by Strong’s cousin, a paratrooper who was badly injured in Vietnam.

I Heard It Through The Grapevine, meanwhile, took its title from the days of the US Civil War, when the “grapevine telegraph” was a system of communication used by slaves.

Strong heard the phrase on the streets of Chicago and took it to Whitfield. Together, they worked it into a song of epic romantic betrayal.

Smokey Robinson’s Miracles recorded it first, in 1966, but Gordy decided not to release it. A year later, Marvin Gaye cut his own version, but it was also vetoed.

It was only when Gladys Knight & The Pips sped the song up, putting a lighter spin on its aching melody, that it got the seal of approval.

Their version reached number two in the US in 1967; and Gaye’s dark, hypnotic reading of the track was buried as an album track – until E Rodney Jones, a DJ at Chicago’s WVON radio station put it on air.

After the song aired for the first time, Jones told Motown marketing man Phil Jones that “the phones lit up”. It was released 11 months after the Pips’ version and became Motown’s biggest-selling single.

“They didn’t think it was a hit record,” Strong later recalled. “You know how it goes: They say, ‘We don’t like that,’ but when it’s a hit, everybody takes credit.”

In the 1970s, Strong and Whitfield pushed Motown towards more experimental sounds, notably on the psychedelic soul classics Cloud Nine and Psychedelic Shack, both by The Temptations.

“Looking back on that whole period, I would say that the album I most felt proud of was the Temptations’ Solid Rock [1972]”, he told Blues & Soul magazine in 1975. “At the time, Norman and I were really into that sound and we were first to really capture it.

“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.”

In addition to the Grammy, Strong was also honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Songwriters in 1990 and a Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 2004.

He left Motown in the 1970s and made a handful of solo albums. In 2010, he released Stronghold II, his first album for 30 years, while his music can still be heard on London’s West End in Motown: The Musical.

After suffering a stroke in 2009, he moved to a retirement home in Detroit, where a jukebox often played his songs in the recreational area.

True to his signature song, he said life as a musician “means more than money”.

“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,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2019.

“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.”

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