The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barrett Strong, Motown stalwart who sang ‘Money,' dies at 81

He co-wrote some of Motown’s most enduring songs, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

Barrett Strong in 1970. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
5 min

Barrett Strong, an important figure in the early days of Motown Records who sang on the studio’s first hit single — “Money (That’s What I Want)” — and later co-wrote some of its most enduring songs, including “War,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” died Jan. 28 at his home in San Diego, Calif. He was 81.

His son Chelson Strong confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.

Opening with an ebullient piano riff and the indelible lyrics “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and bees,” the 1960 release of “Money” was a breakthrough moment for Berry Gordy Jr.’s nascent recording company, which was headquartered in a Detroit house emblazoned with the sign “Hitsville U.S.A.”

Later covered by the Beatles, the Doors and the Rolling Stones, among other bands and performers, “Money” quickly shot to No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. That spring, David A. Carson, in “Grit, Noise, & Revolution,” wrote: “It seemed like everyone was turning up the radio to hear the pounding piano riffs that kicked off” the song.

Mr. Strong was a teenager when he met Gordy, a friend of his sister. On a visit to the Strong house, Gordy heard Mr. Strong playing Ray Charles songs on the piano and invited him to the studio to record.

There are competing versions of the origin of “Money.”

“Gordy was working with Motown songwriter and office administrator Janie Bradford on a new song,” according to the Motown Museum. “He explained to her the thing he wanted most at that moment was not love but money. Barrett Strong was in the studio that day and heard them working.”

Mr. Strong ran in.

“He slid next to me on the piano bench, playing away and joining me singing the chorus,” Berry wrote in “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.” "His voice was soulful and passionate. I didn’t have to think twice about who I could get to sing my song. Barrett was it.”

Mr. Strong explained it a different way, telling the New York Times in 2013, in an account backed up a recording engineer, that the song emerged from him riffing on a Charles song. Gordy heard the instrumentals, Mr. Strong said, and then he, Gordy and Bradford wrote the lyrics.

The matter was never quite settled. Gordy and Mr. Strong squabbled over royalties and credit for “Money,” with Mr. Strong accusing Motown of removing him from copyright documents. Either way, whatever fame Mr. Strong earned on radios across America didn’t quite last. His follow-up songs, including “Yes, No, Maybe So” in 1960, weren’t hits.

In 1961, he left Motown for other studios but was lured back a few years later by an opportunity to write songs. With producer Norman Whitfield, he co-wrote “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” performed by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips; “War” for Edwin Starr; and several songs for the Temptations, including “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”

In the case of “War,” Mr. Strong was inspired by current events.

“I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam,” Mr. Strong told L.A. Weekly. “I also knew a guy who used to sing with 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.”

The song opens:

War, huh, yeah

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing, uhh

War, huh, yeah

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing

Say it again, y'all

War, huh (good God)

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing, listen to me, oh

Barrett Strong Jr. was born Feb. 5, 1941, in West Point, Miss., the only son of six children. He was 4 when the family moved to Detroit, and his father, a minister, soon bought him a piano. He began singing in middle school, which he attended with Aretha Franklin and Dozier, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“I thought I was really a star then,” he told the paper.

Before connecting with Gordy, he performed at local music joints around Detroit.

Mr. Strong drifted in and out of music, working at Chrysler on the production line and at an automat restaurant, among other blue-collar jobs that supported his family. When Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, Mr. Strong didn’t immediately want to move his family. He stayed in Detroit and signed with Epic Records, releasing two albums — “Stronghold” (1975) and “Live & Love” (1976), and only later moved to California.

His wife of 35 years, the former Sandy White, died in 2002. Survivors include seven children and 10 grandchildren.

Mr. Strong never achieved the fame that Gordy did, in part because he was naive about the business of music.

“I never liked the business side,” he told the Free Press. “I loved the art. But I didn’t know anything back then.”

Still, he said he was satisfied with his career.

“I feel good about it,” Mr. Strong told the paper. “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.”