Barrett Strong, Motown trailblazer with the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, dies at 81
Barrett Strong, an artist and songwriter who was present for the birth of Motown and had a key role in classic hits for the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Edwin Starr and others, has died. He was 81.
Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a Sunday statement: “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 like “Cloud Nine” and the still relevant “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today).”
“My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. Barrett is an original member of the Motown family and will be missed by all of us.”
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Temptations founder Otis Williams paid tribute to Strong, citing a 60-plus-year relationship going back to their days on Detroit’s north end, where they lived across the street from one another.
“Barrett has left his indelible stamp not only on Motown and the Temptations, but on music history in general,” Williams said in a statement. “His distinguished legacy of chart hits epitomizes the golden age of Motown. Our Motown family has lost a beloved brother and extraordinary songwriter. My thoughts and prayers go out to Barrett’s son and loved ones.”
Strong was tinkering with a Ray Charles song on piano in 1959 when he stumbled onto the lick that would blossom into Motown’s first big hit. “Money (That’s What I Want),” with Strong on strapping, raspy lead vocals, went on to sell a million copies and helped ignite the company’s fortunes.
Strong eventually went behind the scenes as a songwriter, teaming with producer Norman Whitfield in the mid-1960s to cowrite smashes for Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips (“I Heard it Through the Grapevine”), Edwin Starr (“War”) and the Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”).
But it was with the Temptations that Strong and Whitfield had their most prolific success, scoring a run of hits in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with musically adventurous, topically relevant songs such as “Cloud Nine,” “I Wish it Would Rain,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
A serious soul with a poetic, contemplative side, Strong remained proud of his work. In 2019, he resided in an upscale assisted-living facility in the L.A. area, where the amenities included a jukebox for residents. Strong, getting around the facility in a wheelchair, would often hear his own music resonating across the recreational area.
Sitting with the Detroit Free Press (part of the USA TODAY network) at the home that year, he reflected on his legacy.
“I feel good about it,” he said. “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.”
“Money,” which went on to be covered by the Beatles and others, was the first song recorded at Gordy’s just-purchased home studio on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard — before the company had a name or the house had its iconic “Hitsville, U.S.A.” sign out front.
Tracked live on a primitive tape machine, the song “took a hundred takes” to perfect, Strong later said.
A Mississippi native who moved to Detroit at age 4, Strong was a self-taught musician who played by ear on his father’s old upright piano. He attended Hutchins Middle School, with classmates including Aretha Franklin and future Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, when he wowed kids at a school talent show and saw his future.
“I thought I was really a star then,” he told the Free Press in 2019.
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Strong cut his teeth at amateur shows around the city, performing alongside acts such as the Falcons and the group that became the Four Tops. He was still in his teens when he met songwriter and fledgling entrepreneur Gordy.
Despite the success of “Money,” life as a front man and traveling artist didn’t suit Strong, he told the Detroit Free Press in 2019.
“I didn’t like the touring. I got so skinny, my mother said, ‘You look terrible!’” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to do this anymore.”
Strong briefly took a job with Chrysler to take care of his young family. But he retained the music itch and soon returned to the record business to work with companies outside Motown, helping cut singles by the Reflections, Chubby Checker, Mary Wells and others.
He was back in the Motown fold in 1966, teaming up with his childhood friend Whitfield. Strong and Whitfield were inspired by the 1967 success of “Respect” by Strong’s former schoolmate Aretha Franklin — grittier and more soul-steeped than much of Motown’s output at the time — along with the rising psychedelic movement in rock and R&B.
The Whitfield-Strong working process was versatile, but Strong typically conceived lyrics along with the basslines that were then interpreted by Motown studio bassist James Jamerson.
Decades later, he recounted the origin of one game-changing 1968 hit.
“I started playing some grooves on the piano. Norman said, ‘Man, that’s funky. Let’s do it.’ We called it ‘Cloud Nine,’” Strong recalled. “Berry thought we were talking about drugs. But we were just talking about feeling fine, doing good.”
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That single, recorded with the Temptations, went on to earn Motown its first Grammy Award. Strong, Whitfield and the Tempts would land another win in 1973 with “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
Strong tapped many sources for his musical ideas: The Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” was inspired by the basement of his home on Detroit’s Monte Vista Street, which was adorned with groovy paintings and blacklights. He said “Just My Imagination” emerged after an early listen to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” an ad jingle cowritten by onetime Gordy associate Billy Davis.
Strong remained in Detroit when Motown packed up for the West Coast in the early ‘70s (“it’s not so funky out there,” he’d later say of Los Angeles), continuing to write and record, including a pair of albums for Capitol Records, where he hoped to become the label’s Barry White.
“It just wasn’t the right time,” he said. “Music was going in another direction.”
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Strong was cynical about the music industry in general, and said he wished he had been more savvy as a teenager venturing into the business. His bones of contention included his first hit: Strong was initially listed on the songwriting credits for “Money” alongside Gordy and Janie Bradford, but his name was removed several years later. Gordy’s attorneys would later say its original inclusion had been a paperwork error.
Despite the title of that first hit — an irony he recognized — Strong said he he had never been financially driven.
“I never liked the business side,” he said in 2019. “I loved the art. But I didn’t know anything back then.”
Carving out a life as a creator “means more than money,” Strong said. “Money has its place. But you’ve got to do more than just have money. When you go to bed at night, you’ve got to live with yourself.”
Strong was still teeming with artistic energy when he launched a Detroit-area recording studio in 2001 at age 60, working with young artists such as Eliza Neals.
"I love music, the creative process," he said at the time. "I dreamed of building a studio and making it work. But you can't sit at home and dream about it — you've got to get in the trenches."
Strong eventually gave in to L.A., moving to the area in the mid-2010s to be close to family members amid failing health. He remained interested in current music, even hoping in recent years to oversee a project blending hip-hop with classical music.
Strong was eager to keep making a mark. He said in 2019: “I still say to this day: I haven’t written my best song yet.”
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