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Earth to Cloud Nine 

Barrett Strong on 'Money,' Motown and the muse

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
The best things in life are free

But you can give 'em to the birds and bees


Barrett Strong sang the original 1960 hit version of "Money (That's What I Want)," which not only laid the cornerstone for Berry Gordy's future Motown Records empire, but has since been covered by everybody from the Beatles to the Flying Lizards.

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Strong wrote the pounding piano riff that propels this most Solomonic song of songs -- played it on the session, too. When asked why he's not credited as Gordy's co-writer, he dismisses his contribution as "It's just a spinoff from 'What'd I Say,' that Ray Charles thing."

When asked about John Lee Hooker's claims to have been playing the song in Detroit clubs for several years prior to Strong's hit recording, he says, "I don't know. Could've been. I don't know that much about John Lee Hooker. I used to come to his sessions when he recorded for Vee-Jay when I lived in Chicago, long after 'Money' had died down." (Hooker recorded the song as "I Need Some Money" for Riverside, prior to his stint at Vee-Jay.)

Strong can afford to be gracious. When his next four singles failed to chart, he left Motown, only to return several years later as the co-writer of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," "Just My Imagination," "War," "Cloud Nine" and at least a dozen other rock 'n' soul classics.

Today, the 57-year-old Strong rests comfortably on his royalty checks, operates Grapevine Recording Studios in Southfield, Michigan -- and gives interviews about as often as you see live dinosaurs on the 6 o'clock news. There are two good reasons for this. Either he's a model of diplomacy or he's nobody's fool. Either way, this is his story.

Born on February 5, 1941, in West Point, Mississippi, Barrett Strong moved to Detroit at age 5. He began his career playing piano and harmonizing with his elder sisters in the Strong Singers, a gospel group.

"We used to go around and sing at all the churches in town," Strong reminisces. "My sisters were very pretty girls, so when all the singers would come to town, all the guys would stop by my house. I'd play the piano and we'd have a jam session. This is how I got to know Jackie Wilson, who brought Mr. Gordy over to my house to hear me play."

That certain "Mr. Gordy" -- and Strong always refers to him as such -- is the aforementioned future Motown kingpin, then best known for co-writing a fistful of Jackie Wilson's hits.

"This had to be '57, '58, and Mr. Gordy was still trying to get everything together," Strong explains. "Then we sort of drifted apart for a while. I was doing little gigs around town at, like, the Dairy Workers Hall, playing piano with a drummer friend of mine, emulating Ray Charles. But I remember loading the recording equipment that Mr. Gordy brought from Bristoe Bryant -- who was a gospel disc jockey on WJLB -- into this Volkswagen bus, taking it over to the building on the [West Grand] Boulevard, and setting it up in there. I think 'Money' was the first song recorded there on that equipment.

"I was playing that piano lick in the studio and Mr. Gordy said, 'What's that?' I said, 'I don't know.' So they wrote the lyrics and we recorded it. And I remember the company didn't have the money to hire a drummer, so Brian Holland found a way to make the tom-tom sound by beating on the inside of the skin of a tambourine. I also remember there were two white kids who got off the bus in front of the studio. One was a guitarist and one was a bass player. They came in, sat down and played on the session. Got up, walked away, and I never saw them again.

"Mr. Gordy played a tape of the session for Larry Dixon -- he was a disc jockey who used to call himself 'The Ugly Duckling' -- and he took that 7-and-a-half-inch tape over to WCHB, played it on the air, and the telephones lit up. Two weeks later, I'm in San Francisco doing a show. I'd never been on a plane before. Suddenly, I'm touring with Sam Cooke, the Midnighters, Bo Diddley and the Drifters."

When Strong parted ways with Motown, the label promptly wiped his lead vocals off his last session, replaced them with Eddie Holland's, and scored a hit with "Jamie." Ask Strong why early pressings of "Jamie" are credited to himself alone and subsequent pressings are credited to Strong and (then Motown A&R director) Mickey Stevenson, and he says, "Well, that's the way it goes. That's the game. Everything at Motown was basically a team effort, and it worked out fine in the end, so . . ." Meanwhile, Strong migrated to Chicago, where he co-wrote "Stay in My Corner," a 1965 hit for the Dells on Vee-Jay and an even bigger hit when they re-recorded it for Cadet in 1968.

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