Born in West Point Mississippi in 1941, Strong moved to Detroit at an early age and with his sisters formed the gospel group The Strong Singers. Self-taught on piano, Strong befriended Berry Gordy, who agreed to manage him.
Strong was only 19 when they cut “Money,” released in 1960. It was Motown’s first hit, covered by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and many others. But as the late Dobie Gray (“The In Crowd,” “Drift Away”) put it, the original is still the greatest. Back in the day, according to Strong, the tune did not exactly reflect the ethos of the business.
“Nowadays people want the money first, which I can understand,” Strong once explained. “But we used to put the product first and figured if we worked hard we would get paid. It was just an era.”
Strong and writing partner Norman Whitfield went on to write “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips and Marvin Gaye. Al Green and others covered their composition “I Can’t Get Next to You,” first performed by the Temptations. The duo’s other hits included “Just My Imagination,” “I Wish it Would Rain,” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” for which Strong shared a Grammy Award.
Barrett Strong is the cousin of Nolan Strong, performer of “Mind Over Matter,” for Detroit’s Fortune Records in 1962. The local hit did not go national, but Nolan Strong was to influence other recording artists.
Smokey Robinson liked Nolan’s high vocal style, and that comes through on Smokey’s many hits. One of his compositions was “Who’s Loving You,” later covered by The Jackson Five and performed in 1969 on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with Michael Jackson on the lead vocal.
In 2016, the Library of Congress honored Smokey Robinson with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. At a packed out Constitution Hall, with Smokey and Berry Gordy looking on, singer JoJo performed “Who’s Loving You.” As they say, she blew the roof off the place.
Smokey Robinson is hanging in there at 82. Nolan Strong passed away in 1977, now joined by cousin Barrett. The “Money” man is on record that “songs outlive people,” and that will surely prove true in his case. He said it was “just an era,” but what an era it was.
Some friends in Detroit got together and recorded simple, soulful tunes, with no studio tricks or enhancements. That music spread around the world, and that deserves to continue for all time. As Barrett Strong put it, that’s what I want.