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Barrett Strong, songwriting giant of Motown, dies at 81

The legendary figure won a Grammy for 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone'

By Joe Goggins

Barrett Strong (Picture: Press)

Barrett Strong, one of Motown Records’ founding artists, has died at the age of 81.

A towering figure in the history of Motown, Strong was with the label from its inception, and wrote and performed the legendary Detroit imprint’s breakthrough single, ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, in 1959. He would go on to form a formidable songwriting partnership with Norman Whitfield, penning hits like ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ for Gladys Knight and the Pips, ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’, best known for its rendition by The Temptations, and ‘War’, the iconic countercultural protest song.

No cause of death was announced when the Motown Museum broke the news of Strong’s passing on its social media channels on Sunday (January 29). Tributes from his collaborators have poured in, with Motown founder Berry Gordy, who managed Strong in his early career, calling his songs “revolutionary in sound [and] captured the spirit of the times”.

“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,” Gordy went on. “Barrett is an original member of the Motown Family and will be missed by all of us.” Meanwhile, Temptations founder Otis Williams added: “Barrett has left his indelible stamp… on music history. Our Motown family has lost a beloved brother and extraordinary songwriter.”

The breadth of artists to have covered Strong’s co-writes with Whitfield speaks to his enduring influence on popular music; they range from The Rolling Stones (‘Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me’) to Aretha Franklin (‘I Wish It Would Rain’), and Bruce Springsteen (‘War’) to Al Green (‘I Can’t Get Next to You’).

Strong and Whitfield branched off into more experimental territory in the 1970s, as evidenced by Temptations tracks like ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘Psychedelic Shack’. He left the label later in that decade, going on to release a slew of solo albums, the last of which, Stronghold II, arrived in 2010. He was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Songwriters in 1990, and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.