The best things in life are free
But you can give 'em to the birds and bees
I NEED MUH-HUH-UH-NY!
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.
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.
By then, Strong was back at Motown. “I was listening to the radio and I heard the Temptations sing 'My Girl,' and I said, 'Man, they're doing my kind of music now. I want to go back. Now what do I have to take back?' I had this song title that had been in my mind a long time, 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine.' I said, 'Nobody's ever written a song about this.' So I sat down at the piano and came up with the bass line.
“I also had the idea for 'I Wish It Would Rain' — I sort of stole that opening piano melody from Dionne Warwick's 'Message to Michael' — so I met with Eddie Holland, who was now the A&R director, and got a contract. And Norman Whitfield, who was a producer at Motown — I'd known him for years — asked me what I had cooking. I showed him 'Grapevine,' and being a very funky guy, he could hear where I was coming from. So he went in the studio, struck up the band, and cut the track. Then we sat down and wrote the lyrics. Same thing with 'I Wish It Would Rain,' but we called Roger Penzabene in to help us with the lyrics on that.”
So you weren't just Norman Whitfield's designated lyricist? “No, I'm a keyboard player,” says Strong. “I wrote lyrics, too, but it was all pretty much a collaborative process between Norman and myself. See — and this is the thing that nobody really ever talks about — we had great musicians. You could give them just a little idea, and they could make it a big idea. Earl Van Dyke, Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Eddie 'Bongo' Brown and all those other guys. That's who they should do a movie on. Those people. If it wasn't for them, you wouldn't be talking to me.”
Strong's a generous guy. He was in the room while the basic tracks as well as the
vocal tracks were recorded, but Norman Whitfield received sole production credit for the sessions. Ask him why, and Strong simply says, “Norman was — and still is — a great producer. He knew how to get the best out of everybody.”
Ask him about Parliament-Funka-
delic leader George Clinton's claims that Whitfield used to tape P-Funk's performances at the Twenty Grand club and turn their riffs into Temptations hits, and Strong says, “Yeah, well, people say a lot of things — and I don't know anything about that — but I know whenever Norman showed up at the studio with whatever he had, it worked.”
“Grapevine” was first recorded by the Miracles, then Marvin Gaye, then the Isley Brothers, then — in its first hit incarnation — by Gladys Knight & the Pips. “The Gladys Knight version was a souped-up, totally different thing,” Strong shrugs. “That was us trying to do something like what was happening at the time. The Marvin Gaye version was the original arrangement. That's the way I sang it to Norman. But Marvin just opened up and became a totally different guy altogether when he was singing that. He put so much into it.”
Strong whistles softly. “You could just tell it was a hit record. It had such a soulful feel. Everybody on the session was moving around to the music, getting into it. Everybody — the musicians themselves, yeah — had something they wanted to try, and you can tell when they get that involved, they feel something.”
What about those groundbreaking Temptations sessions, like “I Can't Get Next to You”? “The music was changing then,” says Strong. “The times were changing. It was going into the psychedelic era. And we had a different singer [Dennis Edwards replaced David Ruffin] with a different type of voice, so we had to find something to accommodate him.”
What about Al Green's astonishing slow-drag version of the tune? “I love it,” says Strong. “It was a changeup, just like when Paul Young did [the Marvin Gaye B-side] 'Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home).' I didn't see that particular song as a sad song, but that's the way he felt it, so it worked. I was shocked, though, 'cause I never thought anybody ever heard Marvin's version.
“As far as 'Cloud Nine,' 'Psychedelic Shack,' 'Ball of Confusion' go, all that was just a sign of the times. Seems like those were the only things that were righteous enough to write about. Things like 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone.' These things happened in a lot of people's lives. Living in the ghetto, they had a father that sort of just hung out — he's home every now and then or whenever — and we could see these things happening, write about them, and people would say, 'Wow, that happened in my life.'
“With 'War,' I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam. I also knew a guy who used to sing with Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you're sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.
“When Bruce Springsteen did 'War,' it was real exciting to me, 'cause he felt what I felt. The feeling, the way he got into it, it was something different, but it was good. He's one of my favorite singers, no matter what he sings.”
What about those seriously weird chunks o' psychedelic funk you cut with the Undisputed Truth — “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” which was a huge hit, and “You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here on Earth,” which wasn't?
“Those are true songs,” Strong manages a dry chuckle. “That's what makes 'em weird.”
In 1973, Strong left Motown for good, scoring a minor hit for Epic with “Stand Up and Cheer for the Preacher” — a song that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Rose Royce smash “Car Wash,” which Norman Whitfield produced three years later. “We were together at Motown, so we think alike to some degree,” says Strong.
Strong recorded two mid-'70s albums for Capitol before resurfacing on the 1992 songwriters' compilation In Their Own Words. “I played the Bottom Line a few times with Shawn Colvin and others,” Strong recalls. “And I played for 150,000 people at the Stone Soul Picnic that they have in Washington, D.C., every year.”
Any songwriting tips? “Keep writing,” Strong says flatly. “And don't just write a pop chorus off the top of your head, write something that people can relate to. Try to stay relevant to what's going on in life, and try to see things through the eyes of someone else.”
Yeah, like “Money.” That's what I want.