The voice behind Motown’s first hit, “Money (That’s What I Want),” was Barrett Strong. Through his sister’s friend, Jackie Wilson, Barrett Strong was able to arrange a meeting with Berry Gordy. After they met and Barrett showed him some of his original songs, Berry Gordy signed him to Motown’s Tamla label in April 1959. Together, they wrote and recorded a few songs, including “Let’s Rock” and “Do The Very Best You Can,” but the tunes’ success was limited outside of Detroit.
In July of 1959, Berry Gordy was working with Motown songwriter and office administrator Janie Bradford on a new song. He explained to her the thing he wanted most at that moment was not love but money. Barrett Strong was in the studio that day and heard them working. He took over the piano playing from Berry Gordy, and together the trio created “Money (That’s What I Want).” The song took off, reaching #2 on the US R&B charts, and almost broke the top 20 on US Pop charts. It was Motown’s first major hit, and no one was prepared. Requests were coming from around the country for a copy of the iconic song and the small Tamla label struggled to keep up. They leased the song to Anna Records, the label owned by Berry Gordy’s sister Gwen, which was more established and able to manage all the requests. Under Anna Records, they sold the record across the country, aiding it in becoming the first Motown hit.
While Barrett Strong released a few follow-up songs including “Yes, No, Maybe So” (1960), he eventually left Motown in 1961. He bounced around labels before landing in Chicago, signing to Vee-Jay Records, where he would stay for the remainder of his singing career. There, he reconnected with Motown songwriter Norman Whitfield (pictured in the photograph above, standing next to Strong). Strong would not return to Motown as a performer, but he began to write for other artists, including countless songs in partnership with Whitfield. They penned the iconic “Heard It Through The Grapevine” performed by both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight and the Pips, “War” performed by Edwin Starr, and a slate of songs for the Temptations. His work helped usher in the “Psychedelic” era for the Temptations which included songs “Cloud Nine” and Grammy-winning “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.”
Barrett Strong ended his working relationship with Motown in 1971, but his contributions to the company’s success would earn him induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.
The guitar and bass players on “Money (That’s What I Want)” were two high school students who were passing Hitsville USA when they heard the music and asked to join the recording. The guitarist was later identified as Eugene Grew.