Barrett Strong, Motown Records First Hitmaker and Temptations Songwriter, Dies at 81

The voice that gave Motown Records its first hit with “Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong, died on January 29 in Detroit. He was 81. His death was confirmed by Motown founder Berry Gordy. No cause of death was revealed.

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“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,” said Gordy, 93, in a statement. “Barrett was not only a great singer and piano player, but he, along with his writing partner Norman Whitefield, 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).’”

Born on February 5, 1941, in West Point, Mississippi, and raised in Detroit, Strong was one of the first artists to sign to Motown when it was initially named Tamla Records and sang the label’s first hit in 1959—the Gordy and Janie Bradford-penned “Money (That’s What I Want).” The song shot to No. 2 on the R&B chart and number 23 on the Hot 100, sold more than one million copies, and was later covered by everyone from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Led Zeppelin, and The Flying Lizards, among other acts.

In addition to giving the label its first hit, Strong was also a key songwriter for Motown from the mid-1960s through the early ’70s. Over the years, Strong co-wrote Marvin Gaye’s soulful hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home),” “Smiling Faces Sometimes” by the Undisputed Truth, and “War” by Edwin Starr.

Along with producer Norman Whitfield, Strong also co-wrote some of the biggest songs for The Temptations, including “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” their 1971 hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which earned them a Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1973.

After leaving Motown in 1972, Strong revisited his singing career and released his first album Stronghold in 1975, followed by Live & Love a year later. He continued working as a songwriter for The Dells and founded the production company Boomtown.

In 2008, Strong’s own music came full circle with the release of his fourth and final album Stronghold II.

Though Strong, a father of six and grandfather of 13, was a successful singer, he admitted that he preferred working behind the scenes in music.

“I never felt comfortable with myself as a recording artist,” said Strong in a 2016 interview. “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.”

Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns

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