The Many Great Songs of Barrett Strong
The composer who recently died wrote "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and so much more.
In the New York Times obituary for Barrett Strong, he says he and his co-writer, Norman Whitfield, wrote 300 songs, but only 12 of them were good. That may be taking self-effacement a little too far. I’m sure some of their songs were merely good, but I would guess more were great and some belong in a category I’d label as ”none better.”
Lists of the “best” songs are annoying and usually compiled by the worst writers. Barrett Strong knew about the only measure of success the music business knows, sales. He was a regular denizen of the Top Ten. But while his songs were intended to be hits, they never pander and always delivered the goods. When Strong died late last month at age 82, he left behind a truly mind-blowing collection of unforgettable songs.
It all starts with “Money,” a song so badass and funny everyone wanted to play it. Of course The Beatles covered it, they knew from good songs. Early on, they made a habit of sending the music of Black America back home with a slight British accent. That got America listening, but it wasn’t necessary with “Money.” That song, in an unbeatable performance by Mr. Strong, was an instant smash, and went straight into every rock band’s set list. It was so big and successful his manager Berry Gordy used his share of the profits from it to launch Motown.
That was just the beginning. Barrett found he liked being a writer more than a performer and when he teamed up with Whitfield they stepped up to the plate and knocked quite a few out of the park. Rolling Stone (a magazine that doesn’t mind assigning numbers to songs), gave the duo’s creation “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” as performed by Marvin Gaye, the first spot on its list of 500 greatest songs. We all know there was another great version by Gladys Knight And The Pips, that came out before Gaye’s masterful interpretation. The same song on the charts twice (thrice if you count Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swampy take), that’s quite an accomplishment. If I’d been a Rolling Stone staffer, I would’ve lobbied hard to have Gladys share the honors.
In the pursuit of the unforgettable, songwriters use every trick in the book to create songs you recognize instantly and become a permanent part of your life. Think of it as benign manipulation, a massage of the brain cells. The Whitfield/Strong team must have written the book on how to do just that. They did some of their best work with The Temptations, supplying them showstoppers like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Ball Of Confusion,” two massive hits that were as inventive as they were popular. The cherry on that musical sundae has to be the heavenly “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me”) My God, what can you say about that one? Everytime I hear it I’m struck by how absolutely perfect it is. They were lucky to have Eddie Kendrick’s shimmering falsetto delivering it, of course, but the beauty had been gently folded into it before it was recorded by one of Motown’s primo bands in their prime. It glides past like a fluffy cloud on a summer day.
Much of their material gives virility a good name, no mean feat nowadays. “Can’t Get Next To You,” “War,” and one I’m surprised to find out wasn’t by the O’Jays, “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” It was performed by a group called The Undisputed Truth. Strong’s songs were as close to the Philly sound as Motown ever got. They were the cut from the same cloth, tough as nails, and not shy about proclaiming it, custom made for the stable of alpha dogs at Motown. “War” was a paradox, an anti-war song that sounds like precise and martial, like a military drill at boot camp — Sergeant Edwin Starr, the drillmaster for peace. Yessir!
Few of their songs were done by women. They did provide Gladys Knight with “The Nitty Gritty,” which she performed with the emphasis on the gritty part. Being a part of the Motown system, where certain writers were teamed up specific groups, I imagine Berry Gordy wasn’t looking fix something that wasn’t broken and that might account for the dearth of ladies singing their songs. No problem, really when you have Smokey Robison and Holland, Dozier and Holland, sharing the writers room.
There is a thread that runs through all of Strong’s work with Whitfield, but it’s kind of tricky to put your finger on it. They were so dependably great that when I hear anything by them, I just feel lucky to be alive. Tell me you don’t when you hear The Temptations‘ David Ruffin take possession of another one of those “none better” creations, “I Wish It Would Rain.” If that doesn’t warm you up on a cold winter day, it might be time to up your meds.
Thank you Barrett Strong; it’s hard to imagine a world without your songs — so I won’t. Rest in peace.
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2 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Many Great Songs of Barrett Strong”
Thanks for the walk down a lane of superb music and wonderful memories.
Thanks so much for writing this. Those songs DO live in our heads! Also can’t wait to hear YOU again!!