TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Entered the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending Friday, February 5, 1960.
SONGWRITERS: Berry Gordy Jr., Janie Bradford.
PRODUCER: Berry Gordy Jr.
BACKSTORY: If anyone needs convincing that the Beatles knew a good song when they heard one, consider this: the band began featuring “Money (That’s What I Want)” in their live act in Germany as early as August 1960. This was only a few months after the release of Barrett Strong’s original in the U.S., where it became a Top 30 pop success, and after its availability in the U.K., where it was not a hit. The Liverpool quartet recorded the song in 1963, and its inclusion in their second album, With The Beatles, brought “Money” to a larger audience than ever before.
Barrett Strong’s signature tune is thought to have been among the first tracks recorded at Motown’s studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, in the summer of 1959. The opening piano motif – perhaps as recognisable as the song itself – was first played by Berry Gordy, who “had this riff going,” according to co-writer Janie Bradford, quoted in The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 1: 1959-1961. “We stood there and just kept writing and throwing out lyrics and improving on the melody, and the whole thing came together.” Even so, it’s possible that pounding the keys on the final, recorded version was Strong. “We were doing another session,” he told the New York Times, “and I just happened to be sitting there playing the piano. I was playing ‘What’d I Say,’ by Ray Charles, and the groove spun off of that.” Other players at the session included Benny Benjamin on drums, Eugene Grew on guitar, and Brian Holland on tambourine.
“Money (That’s What I Want)” was released as a Tamla single in August of ’59. The local reaction was so strong that Gordy opted to lease the track to his sister Gwen’s label, Anna, because it had national distribution via Chess Records. That additional reach helped the 45 become a smash on the R&B charts early in 1960, and it also crossed to the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100. The record was issued in the U.K. in March, and that’s when the 19-year-old John Lennon likely first heard the song (it’s he who sings lead on the Beatles’ version).
Barrett, unable to gain another major hit at Motown, left in 1961. He recorded several sides for other labels, but returned to Hitsville after a couple of years and began a highly successful career as an in-house songwriter. In partnership with Norman Whitfield, Strong authored some of the company’s biggest hits, including “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Cloud Nine,” “War” and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” When Whitfield died in 2008, Strong said, “His last words to me were ‘Keep the legacy alive.’ ” Their work together, as well as “Money (That’s What I Want),” has fulfilled that promise.
REMAKES: An extraordinarily diverse crowd has recorded “Money (That’s What I Want)” during the past six decades. Among them: Etta James, the Doors, Waylon Jennings, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Levon Helm, Freddie & the Dreamers, Cheap Trick, Boyz II Men, Ronnie Milsap, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Roy Orbison, and Pearl Jam. In the U.S., the highest-charting version was cut by the Kingsmen; this Portland, Oregon band took the song into the Top 20 in 1964. Fifteen years later in the U.K., new-wave combo the Flying Lizards flew into the Top 5 with a quirky remake. At Motown, there were interpretations by Jr. Walker & the All Stars in 1966 and Blinky in 1972. And “Money” remains the only song recorded – to this date, anyway – by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
FOOTNOTE: Barrett Strong re-recorded and self-produced “Money (That’s What I Want)” – with no audible piano – for Capitol Records, on an album entitled Live & Love. This 1974 release was cut in Mississippi, the state of Strong’s birth, at the Malaco studios in Jackson. The musicians included Carson Whitsett (keyboards) and James Stroud (drums), both fixtures of the Malaco sound. Another drummer is listed on the Live & Love musician credits, too: Uriel Jones, formerly of the Motown studio band, the Funk Brothers. Maybe he needed the money.