Barrett Strong, the vocalist known for giving Motown Records its first hit with “Money (That’s What I Want),” and for the songs he wrote for the Temptations, has died, Billboard and Rolling Stone report. His death was confirmed by Motown founder Berry Gordy, who, in a statement shared with Billboard, called his songs “revolutionary.” No cause of death was given. Strong was 81.
“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,” Gordy’s statement said. “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).’”
Barrett Strong was born on February 5, 1941 in West Point, Mississippi. The son of a factory worker and housewife, Strong was raised in Detroit, where he was one of the first musicians to sign to Gordy’s label, then called Tamla Records. Strong released his biggest hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” in 1959. It sold more than one million copies, and was later covered by acts including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.
Strong would become a major songwriting force for Motown in the 1960s, working with producer Norman Whitfield on hits including Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home).” The duo would score their biggest collaborative hits with the Temptations, for whom they wrote “Psychedelic Shack,” “Cloud Nine,” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” Their Temptations song “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” would peak at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971, and the duo would earn the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song in 1973 for “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
By the late 1960s, Motown was in the midst of a gradual relocation to Los Angeles. Strong left the label in 1972 to reconnect with his singing career in Detroit, and later signed with Epic and Capitol. The latter label released his 1975 album Stronghold, as well as 1976’s Live & Love. He would also work as a songwriter with the Dells, and run a production company called Boomtown.
While “Money (That’s What I Want)” launched both Strong’s career and Motown itself on the national stage, the musician allegedly never received the correct royalty payments for his contributions as a songwriter. “Songs outlive people,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang on to it. That’s what it’s all about. If you give it away, you’re giving away your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.”