Barrett Strong, the Motown artist known for ‘Money,’ dies at 81 : NPR

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Barrett Strong of Motown arrives at the induction ceremony for the 35th annual National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York on June 10, 2004.

Louis Lanzano/AP

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Louis Lanzano/AP

Barrett Strong of Motown arrives at the induction ceremony for the 35th annual National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York on June 10, 2004.

Louis Lanzano/AP

NEW YORK — Barrett Strong, one of Motown’s founding artists and most talented songwriters who sang lead on the company’s breakthrough single “Money (That’s What I Want)” and later collaborated with Norman Whitfield on such classics as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” he died. He was 81 years old.

His death was announced Sunday on social media by the Motown Museumwhich did not immediately provide further details.

“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,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement.

Strong was still in his early 20s when he agreed to let his friend Gordy, in the early days of building a recording empire in Detroit, manage him and release his music. Within a year, he was part of history as the piano player and vocalist for “Money,” a million-seller released in the early 1960s and Motown’s first big hit. Strong never again approached the success of “Money” on his own, and decades later he fought for the recognition that he helped write. But, with Whitfield, he formed a productive and eclectic songwriting team.

While Gordy’s “Sound of Young America” ​​was criticized for being too slick and repetitive, the Whitfield-Strong team turned out hard-hitting and topical works, along with timeless ballads like “I Wish It Would Rain ” and “Just My Imagination (Just My Imagination) Run Away With Me).” With “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” they provided an up-tempo hit, a call-and-response for Gladys Knight and the Pips and a dark, hypnotic ballad for Marvin Gaye, his 1968 version one of the best-sellers of all time of Motown.

As Motown became more politically aware late in the decade, Barrett-Whitfield turned out “Cloud Nine” and “Psychedelic Shack” for the Temptations and for Edwin Starr the protest anthem “War” and its much-quoted refrain, “War! What is this. good for? Absolutely … nothing!”

“With ‘War,’ I had a cousin who was a paratrooper who 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 who got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you’re sitting at home, and inspire you to say something about them.”

Whitfield-Strong’s other hits, mostly for the Temptations, included “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “That’s the Way Love Is” and the chart-topper winning Grammy “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (Sometimes written “Papa Kien Rolling Stone”). Artists covering their songs ranged from the Rolling Stones (“Just My Imagination”) and Aretha Franklin (“I Wish It Would Rain”) to Bruce Springsteen (“War”) and Al Green (“I Can’t Get Next to You” ).

Strong spent part of the 1960s recording for other labels, leaving Motown again in the early 1970s and making a handful of solo albums, including “Stronghold” and “Love is You”. In 2004, he was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which cited him as “a central figure in Motown’s formative years.”

Whitfield died in 2008.

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.”

Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi and moved to Detroit a few years later. He was a self-taught musician who learned the piano without the need for lessons and, with his brothers, formed a local gospel group, the Strong Singers. In his adolescence, he got to know artists like Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who was impressed by his writing and piano playing. “Money,” with its opening cry, “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and the bees,” ironically, leads to a fight — over money.

Strong was initially listed among the writers and often talked about coming up with the pounding piano riff while jamming on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in the studio. But only ten years later he would learn that Motown had since removed his name from the credits, costing him royalties for a popular standard covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many others and a memorial on the jukebox of the John Lennon’s house. Strong’s legal argument was weakened because he took so long to ask for his name to be reinstated. (Gordy is one of the credited writers of the song, and his lawyers claimed that Strong’s name appeared only because of a clerical error).

“Songs live off people,” Strong told The New York Times in 2013. “The real reason Motown worked was publishing. Records were just a vehicle to get the songs out there to the public. The real money is in publishing, and if you’ve got the publishing, then keep it. That’s all of it. If you give it, you’re giving your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.”

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