The musician at the heart of Motown signatures “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
- First hit: “Money (That’s What I Want)”
- Biggest hit: “Money (That’s What I Want)”
- Top Song: Co-writer of Motown’s first Grammy® winner, “Cloud Nine”
- Career Highlight: Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004
- Born February 5, 1941 in West Point, Mississippi, Barrett is raised in Detroit and gravitates towards music, learning to sing and play piano. Talent runs in the family: he is cousin to Nolan Strong of the Diablos, whose ethereal vocal style (recorded by Detroit’s own Fortune Records) is revered by Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks, among others. Barrett emulates his own hero, Ray Charles, with a band at the city’s Dairy Workers Hall, and performs with his siblings in The Strong Sisters. Superstar Jackie Wilson hears Barrett, and introduces him to Berry Gordy. In April 1959, “Let’s Rock” is Strong’s first release on still-new Tamla Records, followed in August by “Money.” This hits the charts when leased to the Anna label, nationally distributed by bigtime Chess Records.
- In 1966, Barrett returns to Motown as a songwriter, and a prolific partnership with producer Norman Whitfield yields some of the company’s most popular copyrights. They include “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” a success first for Gladys Knight & The Pips in ’67, then – with seven weeks at No. 1 – for Marvin Gaye in 1968-69. “We mostly came up with the music,” Barrett once recalled about his work with Whitfield. “The melody first…then we’d sit down with the track. Because I play keyboards, I sort of had the bassline and [for “Grapevine”] the title. We just went from there.”
- Another Strong/Whitfield collaboration in 1968 captures Motown’s first Grammy® award, for “Cloud Nine” by The Temptations. The group becomes the perfect vehicle for the songwriters’ output, including “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today),” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” The last of these takes three 1972 Grammy® statuettes, including Best R&B Song.
- In 1973, Barrett again leaves Motown, and returns to singing. He records for several companies over the next dozen years, even recutting “Money” for the Capitol label, then rekindles his relationship with the Dells. But songs are his primary asset, including new interpretations of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” such as Roger Troutman’s 1981 R&B No. 1 and the California Raisins’ inescapable 1987 TV commercial. During the ’90s, Barrett performs his work at songwriter showcases in New York. In the new century, he mentors Detroit blues singer Eliza Neals, for whom he also composes fresh material. The “Money” man never stops.