Motown’s first hitmaker, Barrett Strong, dies at 81

Photo credit: By John Mathew Smith & -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

(January 29, 2023) He was quietly a pioneer on the label that became synonymous with 60s soul music: both the organization’s first hitmaker and one of its key songwriters for a decade. Today we are sad to report the passing of Motown star Barrett Strong at age 81.

The Mississippi-born Strong was one of the first artists to sign to the fledgling Motown label in 1960, and it was later that same year that the 19 year old delivered the first major hit for Berry Gordy’s company, shooting all the way to #2 on the charts with “Money (That’s What I Want),” a chugging number that announced the arrival of the Detroit label to the world.

“Money” went on to be recorded countless times over the years by various artists, but Strong didn’t use it as a springboard for a long recording career of his own. Instead, he teamed with music wunderkind Norman Whitfield to create one of the most successful songwriting teams in popular music. The two penned the guts of Motown’s biggest hits in the late 60s and early 70s by such artists as The Temptations (“Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “Just My Imagination,” “Cloud Nine” and many more), Marvin Gaye (“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”), and Edwin Starr (“War”). Strong and Whitfield’s ability to move the label’s sweet, orchestral soul into a hot, grittier blend that incorporated rock and the funk sounds pioneered by Sly & The Family Stone and James Brown, gave Motown its second life as America’s #1 record label.

In the early 70s, Motown relocated to the West Coast and Whitfield left the fold to form his own label. This became the opportunity for Strong to resurrect his solo career, and he released albums on both Capitol Records and Epic Records, achieving some success with the single “Is It True” and the 1975 album Stronghold. While his production slowed down beginning in the 80s and beyond, Strong continued to write for other artists, and returned in 2008 to record a sequel to his Stronghold album, Stronghold II. Strong was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.

Motown Records provided to us the following statement from Berry Gordy, Jr.

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 “Money (That’s What I Want)” in 1959. 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.    

Berry Gordy Motown Founder

He was not a household name, but it is difficult to overstate the role that Barrett Strong played in establishing the greatest Black record label ever, and then moving popular R&B music to the funk-driven soul that would define it from the late 60s into the mid 70s. He will be greatly missed, even as we celebrate his tremendous contribution.

By Chris Rizik

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Thanks to SoulTracker David for letting us know

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