Barrett Strong, Motowns First Hitmaker and ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ Songwriter, Dies at 81

Barrett Strong, one of Motown Records’ original hitmakers and the songwriter for “Money (That’s What I Want),” and many other soul classics, has died. He was 81. Strong is perhaps best known for his collaborations with fellow Motown hitmaker Norman Whitfield, which include Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” along with several songs performed by the Temptations like “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Cloud Nine,” among many others.

News of Strong’s death was confirmed early Sunday afternoon by the Motown Museum on Twitter. They wrote: “It is with great sadness that we share the passing of legendary singer and songwriter Barrett Strong. The voice behind [Motown’s] first hit, the iconic ‘Money (That’s What I Want),’ was born in West Point, Mississippi on February 5, 1941 and was raised in Detroit.”

Strong was a pivotal figure in music during the late ’60s and early ’70s, both as a singer and a composer who contributed massive hits throughout Motown’s formative years. He was among Gordy’s first signings to the label, and performed their first hit, 1959’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” The track, which was originally released on Tamla, Gordy’s first label, was written by the Motown founder and his then-secretary, Janie Bradford.

“Money” went on to be covered by several popular bands such as the Beatles (1963), the Flying Lizards (1979) and the Rolling Stones (1964), to name a few.

The same year he released “Money,” Strong appeared on the little-distributed “Let’s Rock,” under Tamla. From that point forward, he went on to become one of Motown’s most successful songwriters in partnership with Norman Whitfield.

The duo was critical to the label’s switch from orchestral soul to a blend of rhythmic funk and rock. Strong received a Grammy for best rhythm and blues song in 1973 for the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”

By 1972, Strong had left Motown after the label had moved to the West Coast. Instead, he pursued a solo career which kicked off with a pair of albums on both Capitol Records and Epic Records. Under Capitol, he released the 1975 LP, “Stronghold,” which achieved some success with standout single “Is It True.”

Strong had sporadic releases throughout the beginning of the 80s and beyond, though he continued to write for other artists like the Dells. In 2004, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2008, he recorded a sequel to his “Stronghold” album, aptly titled “Stronghold II.”

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