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I Heard It Through The Grapevine writer and Motown’s first star dies aged 81

Founding Motown artist Barrett Strong, who collaborated on classic songs such as I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, has died at the age of 81.

Strong’s death was confirmed by the Motown Museum in a series of tweets paying tribute to his prolific career.

“Barrett was not only a great singer and piano player, but he, along with his writing partner Norman Whitfield, created an incredible body of work,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. No further details have been released.

Strong was the pianist and lead singer on Motown Records’ breakthrough hit Money (That’s What I Want), released early in 1960 and later covered by artists including The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

It came less than a year after he agreed to let his friend Gordy – then in the early days of building his recording empire in Detroit – manage him and release his music.

While he never again approached the success of Money on his own – and the song ironically led to arguments over money as he fought for acknowledgement as a co-writer – with Whitfield he formed a productive and eclectic songwriting team.

Amy Winehouse to Bruce Springsteen – the artists who covered Strong’s work

I Heard It Through The Grapevine was first recorded by Gladys Knight And The Pips in 1966, and Marvin Gaye’s release two years later became one of the label’s biggest sellers of all time. The track has been covered numerous times, by everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Amy Winehouse, and also charted again in the 1980s thanks to being featured in the famous Levi’s Launderette advert.

The Barrett-Whitfield partnership also wrote Cloud Nine and Psychedelic Shack for The Temptations, as well as the protest anthem War – with its famous refrain: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely… nothing!” – for Edwin Starr.

“With War, I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam,” Strong told LA Weekly in 1999. “I also knew a guy who used to sing with (Motown songwriter) Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you’re sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.”

His other hits with Whitfield, who died in 2008, included I Can’t Get Next To You, That’s The Way Love Is, and the Grammy-winning chart-topper Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.

Artists who covered their songs ranged from The Rolling Stones (Just My Imagination) and Aretha Franklin (I Wish It Would Rain) to Bruce Springsteen (War) and Al Green (I Can’t Get Next to You).

Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi, and moved to Detroit a few years later.

He was a self-taught musician who learned piano without needing lessons and, with his sisters, formed a local gospel group called the Strong Singers.

In his teens, he got to know such artists as Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who was impressed with his writing and piano playing.

‘Songs outlive people’

Strong spent part of the 1960s recording for other labels, and left Motown again in the early 1970s and made a handful of solo albums, including Stronghold and Love Is You. In 2004, he was voted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, which cited him as “a pivotal figure in Motown’s formative years”.

The music of Strong and other Motown writers was later featured in the Broadway hit Ain’t Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations.

According to BMI (Broadcast Music Inc), there are more than 240 songs in his back-catalogue.

“Songs outlive people,” Strong told The New York Times in 2013. “The real reason Motown worked was the publishing. The records were just a vehicle to get the songs out there to the public.

“The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang on to it. That’s what it’s all about. If you give it away, you’re giving away your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.”

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