BARRETT STRONG

Money (That's What I Want)

In the summer of 1959, Janie Bradford was working as a receptionist for Berry Gordy, who had just moved his Tamla Records operation from a crowded Detroit apartment on Gladstone Street to the house on West Grand Boulevard that later became famous as "Hitsville U.S.A." Janie had ambitions beyond answering phones and often followed Gordy around, which paid off one day while he was working on a new song. He had come up with 'The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees...' and the line that became the song's hook: 'I want money...that's what I want!' Then Janie added her own line, 'Your love gives me such a thrill, but your love don't pay my bills...' They were having fun. It was the creation of a classic.

Mississippi-born Barrett Strong happened to be in the building, heard what was going on, and joined in. Gordy had already put out a record by Strong, "Let's Rock," the third release on his Tamla label (the first, Marv Johnson's "Come To Me," had been a hit for the company earlier that year, a bullseye on the first try...except demand had been so great that Gordy was forced to cut a deal with United Artists, giving up most of his rights to the song as well as Johnson's future productions). Now with his own studio, Gordy was able to spend as much time as he liked without running up costs; Barrett played piano on the record, having come up with the opening riff himself. Drummer Benny Benjamin supplied an unusual "tom-tom" beat. In August, "Money (That's What I Want)" and its flip side, "Oh I Apologize," became the eighth Tamla single.

Berry and Barrett had known each other since 1957. Seems several years earlier Barrett's older sister had gone to school with Jackie Wilson; she introduced him to her then-16-year-old brother, whose mature-sounding singing voice impressed the R&B star, who in turn introduced him to Gordy. When the "Money" session went down a couple of years later it was the young singer's best shot at having a hit. But, as with Johnson's record, there were complications. The single broke in Detroit and a few other markets late in the year and demand once again outstripped Gordy's ability to keep up. His sister, Anna Gordy, who'd started her own Anna label several months earlier, had a distribution deal with Chess Records in Chicago; Berry agreed to transfer the record to the Anna label, which solved the problem but made him a lot less money (by the time The Miracles' "Shop Around" came around in early 1961, the various ingredients needed for success were in place and his independent company was on its way).

The materialistic message of "Money (That's What I Want)" wasn't new by any means (Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, for example, had broached the subject in 1953 with "Money Honey"), but its presentation was fresh, forceful and destined for longevity. It debuted on the national rhythm and blues survey in January 1960 and sat at number two for several weeks while Brook Benton and Dinah Washington's "Baby (You've Got What it Takes)" held a lock on the top spot; a pop hit as well, it spent most of March and April in the top 30. Janie Bradford hadn't expected songwriting credit for her contribution, so she was elated when Gordy shared the credit, and royalties, equally. Encouraged, she kept writing, collaborating with Smokey Robinson (on Mary Wells' hit "Your Old Stand By" and Carolyn Crawford's "My Smile is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)") and Jr. Walker (on his hit "Hip City - Part 2") among others.

Barrett Strong

One other single on Anna, "Yes, No, Maybe So," struggled at the outset. Three more Tamla releases also fell flat, though songs songs like "I'm Gonna Cry (If You Quit Me)" and "Misery" had a certain flair that should have brought the singer more attention; "Money and Me," on the other hand, came across as a desperate attempt to squeak out another hit, which didn't happen. Barrett stopped making records in 1961, admitting he wasn't that comfortable as a performer. He began writing songs (most often as a lyricist); he and William "Mickey" Stevenson scored in the spring of '62 with the Eddie Holland hit "Jamie." Over the next few years he penned songs recorded by Motown acts and others outside the Hitsville universe, including Mary Wells (her post-Motown hit "Use Your Head," a collaboration with Chuck Barksdale and Wade Flemons), Dee Dee Sharp, some of Gladys Knight and the Pips' early Soul label material (working with Roger Penzabene and Cornelius Grant) and, with Flemons, The Dells' classic ballad "Stay in My Corner."

When he joined forces with Norman Whitfield later in the decade, Barrett's career caught fire. Besides songs recorded by The Isley Brothers (reuniting with Bradford, who helped them with "That's the Way Love Is," later a major hit for Marvin Gaye) and Jimmy Ruffin, the pair (plus Penzabene) hit big in '68 with "I Wish it Would Rain" by The Temptations. Then as a permanent two-man team, they created the monsterific multi-million-selling smash "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" (a huge hit for Gladys and the Pips and, soon after, Gaye, whose recording was the best selling Motown hit to date).

Incredibly, Whitfield and Strong topped that seemingly insurmountable feat with a string of "psychedelic soul" hits they composed for the Tempts ("Cloud Nine," "I Can't Get Next to You," "Psychedelic Shack," "Ball of Confusion," others in between) as well as a retro-ballad (the 1971 chart-topper "Just My Imagination"). Along the way, Edwin Starr (with "War") and The Undisputed Truth (with "Smiling Faces Sometimes") took advantage of their finely-honed songwriting skills perfectly in tune with what the record buying public wanted. The roller coaster ride reached its climax with the Temptations' number one hit "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," a multiple Grammy Winner in 1973; one of the awards went to Whitfield and Strong for Best Rhythm and Blues Song.

Not long before that high-water moment, Berry Gordy had moved the Motown operation to Los Angeles. Barrett Strong made the difficult decision to stay behind, giving his singing career another shot despite having kept his distance from microphones for more than a decade. He recorded for Epic (hitting the R&B charts in 1973 with "Stand Up and Cheer for the Preacher"), later moving to Capitol (charting again with "Is it True" in '75).

"Money (That's What I Want)" has become a standard familiar to most everyone. Jennell Hawkins belted out a hit R&B version, with added lyrics, in 1962. The Beatles injected the song with a wickedly raspy vocal by John Lennon in 1963. The Rolling Stones waxed their own raw rendition for an early EP. The Kingsmen rocked it live and went top 20 in '64. Jr. Walker and the All Stars brought it back home and onto the charts in '66. The song's legend grew with the strangest version of all; British band The Flying Lizards skirted the outer limits with their 1979 new wave version, a top ten hit in the U.K. and top 50 charter in America. When I hear Lizards lead singer Deborah Evans-Stickland's monotone 'That's what I want...' with her freaky Flyin' background singers and ear-splitting sound effects, it sends chills down my spine while convincing me, once and for all, 'Money can't get everything it's true...but what it can't get I can't use!!!' Berry and Janie had stumbled onto the truth back in the summer of '59.

- Michael Jack Kirby





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Money (That's What I Want)