Barrett Strong Didn’t Capture All His Money. He Sure Captured Our Imagination.
When music fans and historians talk about the great songwriters of Motown in the 1960s, they will usually reel off Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson and then take a break — not because there were no others, but because that group casts such a long shadow over everyone else.
“Everyone else” needs to prominently include Barrett Strong, who died Sunday at the age of 81.
To the extent Strong is known at all in modern pop music history, it’s usually for “Money,” a №2 R&B hit in early 1960 that is widely considered the first big chart breakthrough for the Motown family of labels.
“Money” was a modest mainstream hit for Strong and then circulated more widely when it was recorded by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones a couple of years later.
The Beatles, unfortunately, never took the opportunity to perform a medley of Strong’s “Money” (“Money can’t buy everything, it’s true / But what it don’t buy, I can’t use”) and their own quasi-answer record, “Can’t Buy Me Love” (“I don’t care too much for money / Money can’t buy me love”).
For Strong, unfortunately, “Money” turned out to be uncomfortably autobiographical.
He maintained he co-wrote the song with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., describing how they put it together at an impromptu session in the Motown studios after Strong, who was 18 and newly hired, was noodling with a riff from Ray Charles’s current hit “What’d I Say.”
When the song was copyrighted, Strong was listed as a cowriter with Gordy and Motown’s Janie Bradford, though he was not credited on the record label. Three years later, Gordy had Strong’s name removed from the copyright and thus from the royalty stream, telling the copyright office there had been a “clerical error.” There were further dramas over the years, but Strong told the New York Times in 2013 that he had never seen any royalties. He had suffered a stroke in 2009 and was living in a retirement home, where he said money from “Money” would have been a big help.
Writing credits on popular songs could be squirrely in the ’50s and ’60s. Sometimes producers, label owners, music publishers and the other executives who filed the copyright papers simply saw no reason to credit an artist who often was more focused on making a record. At the same time, writing credits were often handed out to others who had nothing to do with the writing, like a business partner or a disc jockey who in return would promote the record on the air.
Strong was one of many artists who paid little attention to the nuances of copyright credits, particularly since he had been told his name was on the original filing. It was only years later, he told the Times, that he realized he had been removed, and by then the statute of limitations had run out on challenging it.
So Strong was a lousy businessman. On the flip side, he turned into a terrific songwriter.
In the late 1960s the Temptations recorded a string of driving songs with a strong undertone of social commentary. These included “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Cloud Nine,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Psychedelic Shack” and “Runaway Child Running Wild” — all of which Barrett Strong cowrote with Whitfield. Specifically, Strong often wrote the lyrics.
He won a Grammy in 1973 for “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
He also cowrote Edwin Starr’s “War” — another song that, like the Temptations records, echoed the urgency Barrett had delivered a decade earlier with “Money.”
He also cowrote “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” one of the defining songs of Motown and of the era, recorded first by Gladys Knight and the Pips and then reworked into the haunting version by Marvin Gaye.
Nor did Strong only have one trick as a writer. He cowrote the eerie and fascinating “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” a hit for Undisputed Truth, and the mid-1970s comeback hit for the Dells, “Stay In My Corner.”
He also cowrote more traditional lost-love songs for the Temptations, including “I Wish It Would Rain,” “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),” and one of the most exquisite ballads recorded by anyone, “Just My Imagination.”
“Just My Imagination” also has a personal connection to Barrett Strong. Lead singer Eddie Kendricks, like Smokey Robinson before him, delivers a pristine, almost ethereal vocal that channels one of the great Detroit lead singers of the 1950s, Nolan Strong of the Diablos, who was Barrett’s cousin.
Barrett Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi, becoming part of the great migration of Southern blacks to northern factory towns like Detroit. Strong headed for Motown instead of the assembly line, though he did do a brief run at Chrysler when he couldn’t find a follow-up hit to “Money.”
By the mid-1960s he had returned to Motown and he spent most of the rest of his life in the music business with companies that included Capitol. He restarted his own singing career in the 1970s and eventually had four albums released.
They were not hits. His writing, however, was. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.
“Songs outlive people,” he told the Times in 2013. “Once you’re gone, the songs will still be playing.”