Barrett Strong, Jr., the legendary composer, was born on February 5, 1941, in West Point, Mississippi, to Barrett Strong Sr. and Cloteal Gladney Strong. He grew up in Detroit, Michigan, after his parents relocated there. Vera Mar Cole, Carolyn Ward, Lessie Perry, and Ester Tyson were his siblings. Strong began studying piano as a teenager and graduated from Detroit’s Central High School in 1959.
Barrett Strong was the first singer to have a hit with Motown Records. His single “Money That’s What I Want” was released in 1960 on Tamla Records, a division of the Motown label, and reached number two on the Billboard R&B chart and number 23 on the pop chart.
It was Motown’s first million-selling single. Strong, who was 19 at the time, was listed as a co-writer on the song at first, but his name was later removed, leaving Motown executives Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford as the official writers. They claimed that his initial inclusion as the song’s composer was a clerical error.
Strong left Motown and Detroit in 1961 to work as a freelancer in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. During that year, Strong released “Seven Sins” for Atco Records. It failed to chart. The Dells’ 1965 single “Stay in My Corner” was co-produced by Strong. The song peaked at number 23 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.
By 1968, Strong had returned to Motown and co-wrote many songs for the label, including “I Wish It Would Rain” for the Temptations and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was first performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips and later by Marvin Gaye. He wrote “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” for Gaye in 1969.
Against the backdrop of protests against the ongoing Vietnam War, Strong co-wrote Motown’s most successful protest song, “War,” which Edwin Starr released in 1970. The single peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold over a million copies.
The following year (1971), he co-produced the Temptations’ single “Just My Imagination Running Away With Me” with Norman Whitfield. It peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. He also won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Composer.
Strong won Best R&B Song at the 14th Annual Grammy Awards in 1972 for his composition “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Strong left Motown once more to sign with Capitol Records.
He returned to the studio as a singer in 1975 and released the album Stronghold, which peaked at number 47 on the Billboard Black Albums chart. He continued to write songs until 1988, when he wrote “You Can Depend on Me,” which appeared on the Dells’ album The Second Time.
Barrett Strong was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. While his performing career never advanced beyond the success of his hit “Money That’s What I Want,” he became a sought-after composer and lyricist who helped Motown become the leading black-owned record label of the twentieth century.