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Barrett Strong, an early Motown star, has died at 81

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The vocalist on Motown's first hit song has died. Barrett Strong was 81 years old. He enchanted listeners with his hooks and went on to create one of the most memorable pop songs of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Ooh, I bet you're wondering how I knew 'bout your plans to make me blue with some other guy...

SUMMERS: NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas has this remembrance.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Barrett Strong was born in West Point, Miss., in 1941, but left with his family at age 4. They stopped first in St. Louis and then settled for good in Detroit. That wound up being a lucky match of talent and geography, along with an old piano his father bought. As a child, Barrett taught himself to play, as he told member station WDET in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARRETT STRONG: My sisters and I, we had a group, called ourselves the Strong Singers. We'd go from church to church and sing and play. And then we met Aretha Franklin and her family, and we used - they used to come to the house. We'd sit down and play. We knew Jackie Wilson, all the big stars, Sam Cooke. As they come to Detroit and do a show, they would come by, and I'd play the piano. We'd just have a jamboree there at the house.

TSIOULCAS: Jackie Wilson introduced Strong, then aged 14, to Berry Gordy, the man who went on to found Motown. In April 1959, Strong released his first song on Gordy's then-record label, Tamla. It was called "Let's Rock."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S ROCK")

STRONG: (Singing) There's a rock, come on and move your feet, my baby. Rock, rock. Rock, rock.

TSIOULCAS: A few months later, Strong wrote and performed what became Motown's first hit song, "Money (That’s What I Want)." It went to No. 2 on the R&B charts and was later covered by other artists like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY (THAT’S WHAT I WANT)")

STRONG: (Singing) The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees. I need money - that's what I want.

TSIOULCAS: After "Money" became a hit, Strong move to Chicago. There, he told WDET in 2019, he came up with his most indelible work as a songwriter, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," which is first released by Gladys Knight & the Pips, but became a soul classic when it was sung by Marvin Gaye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")

GAYE: (Singing) Don't 'cha know that I heard it through the grapevine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STRONG: I was walking down Michigan. (Inaudible) the idea came to me of a song. I hear - I would hear people always say, I heard it through the grapevine. I say, nobody ever wrote a song about that. I went back to the office and sat down and start playing the bass line. I said, I got something here. I knew this was a hit, the subject and everything. The whole thing came from the soldiers. The Black soldiers were riding one day. They were down South, and they said the Confederates are coming. They said, how do you know? The guy said, I heard it through the grapevine.

TSIOULCAS: Strong had teamed up with Motown producer Norman Whitfield. Along with "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," they went on to create such hits for The Temptations as "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST MY IMAGINATION (RUNNING AWAY WITH ME)")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) But it was just my imagination runnin' away with me.

TSIOULCAS: ...And "Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone," for which Barrett and Whitfield won a Grammy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPA WAS A ROLLIN’ STONE")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home.

TSIOULCAS: Barrett was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPA WAS A ROLLIN’ STONE")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died, all he left us was alone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.