For each empire that has risen up in the history of the world there is a starting point, a moment when it became apparent that something exceptional was afoot. The Motown empire is no exception. On January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. opened Tamla Records, using an $800 loan from his family to start the company. It was a beginning, but that’s all. There was certainly no guarantee of success.
Tamla’s first release was Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” but it’s first hit was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” The song was written by Gordy, along with Janie Bradford (Barrett claimed that he should have had a writing credit, but he never got one), and Tamla released it in August, 1959. Unable to meet demand for the single, Gordy licensed the record to Anna Records, a label owned by his sisters Anna and Gwen, and Billy Davis. Anna had national distribution through Chicago’s Chess Records, and that enabled “Money” to rise up to #2 on the R&B chart, and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Barrett Strong was 18 years-old when his record hit. “Money” was famously covered by the Beatles in 1963, and has had many other cover versions.
Although “Money” was a big hit, and showed the way forward for Gordy’s burgeoning empire, by the mid-’60s Barrett was working primarily as a Motown songwriter, teaming up with producer Norman Whitfield. Among the smash hits they penned were “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” a hit for both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, Edwin Starr’s “War,” and “Smiling Faces Sometime” by the Undisputed Truth.
And then there were the line of Whitfield-produced hits for the Temptations including “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and the non-psychedelic hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”
Motown left its Detroit home for Los Angeles in 1972. Strong didn’t follow. He left the label and resumed the singing career that had had such a promising start some years earlier. Strong signed with Epic Records that year, and then moved on to Capitol Records, where he recorded two albums in the 1970’s. He had one more hit as a writer, penning the 1988 Dells classic “Stay in My Corner.”
Barrett Strong was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.