Songwriters Hall of Famer Barrett Strong died in Detroit this week. He was 81. Strong co-wrote many of Motown’s most enduring hits, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” He also sang “Money (That’s What I Want),” which has become a shorthand for materialism in film and TV — both in Barrett’s original and cover versions. News of Strong’s death was confirmed by Berry Gordy Jr. to Billboard. Strong wrote many hits for Gordy but left Motown in the ’70s. “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 wrote. “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, primarily with the Temptations. Their hit songs were revolutionary in sound and captured the spirit of the times … Barrett is an original member of the Motown Family and will be missed by all of us.”
Strong grew up in Detroit, singing in a gospel group with his sisters. Jackie Wilson introduced him to Gordy, who assigned him some singles to perform. One of the first was “Money,” which was a top 50 hit and went to No. 2 on the R&B charts. “Money” was covered by the Beatles, the Flying Lizards, and Cheryl K. The Flying Lizards version of the song was used in such films as Empire Records and Charlie’s Angels, and the Cheryl K cover was used for the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack.
Strong transitioned to writing songs for Motown, a change he welcomed. “I never felt comfortable with myself as a recording artist,” Strong said. “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.” Strong came up with a lot: He co-wrote enough songs to earn a Grammy (for “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”) and to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.