In 1959 Motown released its first hit song, “Money (That’s What I Want),” which also put Berry Gordy’s small Detroit-based R&B label on the music map. Theoretically, it should have done the same for Barrett Strong, who was 19 at the time that he wrote the song and recorded the original version.
But in a Sunday New York Times article about Strong, he reveals that he has not seen a dime of profits from a song that has generated a small fortune.
Over the years, “Money” has generated millions of dollars in publishing royalties. It was recorded by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, has been widely used in films and advertisements and is now featured in “Motown: The Musical” on Broadway. But the pianist and singer Barrett Strong, who first recorded “Money” and, according to records at the United States Copyright Office in Washington, was originally listed as a writer of the song, says that he has never seen a penny of those profits.
Unbeknown to Mr. Strong, who also helped write many other Motown hits, his name was removed from the copyright registration for “Money” three years after the song was written, restored in 1987 when the copyright was renewed, then removed again the next year — his name literally crossed out.
Documents at the copyright office show that all of these moves came at the direction of Motown executives, who dispute Mr. Strong’s claim of authorship. Berry Gordy Jr., Motown’s founder, declined requests for an interview, but his lawyers contend that the original registration resulted from a clerical error, and that Mr. Strong passed up numerous opportunities to assert his claim.
Strong left the label after he couldn’t create as big a hit as “Money (That’s What I Want),” but he was convinced to return later and was able to write more hit records, for which he has been compensated.
In the mid-1960s, Mr. Strong returned to Motown as a staff songwriter at the urging of his friend, the record producer Norman Whitfield; he rushed over to the studio every afternoon when his shift at the auto plant was over. Together, Mr. Strong and Mr. Whitfield wrote a string of hits that led to them being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” among them.
Mr. Strong’s coauthorship of those hits has never been altered at the copyright office, and he said he had received some royalties for them. A few years ago, he said, he relinquished future royalties from his later songs to a third party for a $2 million payment in what he thought was a fixed-term licensing agreement but which turned out to be an outright sale; he invested that money in a recording studio project that has since failed.
Strong currently lives in a retirement home in Detroit.