Money (That’s What I Want): Barrett Strong; The Beatles; Stevie Wonder.

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Money (That’s What I Want). We will first discuss the original song which is credited to Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, and was recorded by Barrett Strong. Next we will discuss covers of this song by The Beatles and by Stevie Wonder.

Barrett Strong and Money (That’s What I Want):

Barrett Strong was born in Mississippi in 1941. He was one of the first artists signed by Berry Gordy to Gordy’s Motown Records enterprise. Below is a photo of Barrett Strong circa 1960.

Embed from Getty Images

The lyrics to Money are extremely simple and direct. The singer recounts various qualities, including those possessed by his lover, and declares that all of these are unimportant, compared with cold hard cash.

The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees

I need money
That’s what I want (3X)

Your love give me such a thrill
But your love don’t pay my bills


Money don’t get everything it’s true
What it don’t get I can’t use

Although the song Money (That’s What I Want) is credited to Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, Barrett Strong has consistently maintained that he was a co-writer on the tuneStrong was initially listed as a co-writer; however, his name was later removed from the copyright registration, leaving Gordy and Bradford as the writers of record.

Berry Gordy states that Strong was initially listed as a co-writer through a clerical error; isn’t is a coincidence how ‘errors’ at Motown consistently come out in Berry Gordy’s favor?

Right from the very start of his music enterprise, Berry Gordy produced records on several different labels. The song Money was initially released on Tamla Records (at that time, the Motown label did not yet exist); however, the song was then transferred to Anna Records, a label named after Berry Gordy’s sister Anna.

Anna Records released Money (That’s What I Want) nationally in 1959, and it became the first big hit for Berry Gordy and Motown. The song reached #2 on the Hot R&B charts, and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is the audio of Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want).

The tune Money has more of a ‘garage-band’ feel than the classic ‘Motown sound’ records that featured the backing band The Funk Brothers. The song is extremely raw and direct.

It begins with Barrett Strong on piano, next accompanied by a tambourine. Then guitar, bass and drums join in, before Strong opens with his gritty vocals. Barrett is also accompanied by a girl-group chorus, who join in the ‘that’s what I want’ refrain.

Although Money was Barrett Strong’s only hit single, it has become an iconic song that has now been covered by at least 100 groups. For example, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Buddy Guy and Led Zeppelin all covered the song.

I was unable to find Barrett Strong in a live performance of Money. Therefore, I am including a video of Strong in concert. He is performing his song Cold-Hearted Woman, from his 2008 album Stronghold II.

One of the women on the backing vocals is Eliza Neal; Strong co-wrote the songs on that album with Ms. Neals.

Although Barrett Strong was a ‘one-hit wonder’ as a solo artist, he nevertheless had a long and distinguished career at Motown Records. He teamed up with collaborator Norman Whitfield to write and produce several iconic Motown hits.

Strong and Whitfield wrote Heard It Through the Grapevine, which became a big hit for both Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye. They also wrote and produced War for Edwin Starr.

Whitfield and Strong then became the lead writers/producers for The Temptations. In that role, the pair wrote most of the Temps’ ‘psychedelic soul’ songs. In 1973, Barrett Strong won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for the Temptations’ Papa Was a Rolling Stone.

Barrett Strong left Motown in 1972, when the company moved their operations from Detroit to Los Angeles. He resumed his solo career at that time. To the best of my knowledge, Strong has currently retired from the music business, as his last release I could find was from 2010.

The Beatles and Money (That’s What I Want):

We have covered the Beatles more than any other rock artists. This is understandable, given that they are the best and most successful rock group in history.

We first discussed their song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds; next their brilliant parody Back in the USSR, followed by Please, Mr. Postman. We then reviewed With a Little Help From My Friends, followed by Twist and Shout, and I Got a Woman.

Next, we featured Here Comes The Sun, and Hey Jude, their cover of Long Tall Sally, their song Ticket To Ride, and finally Can’t Buy Me Love.

Here we will give a brief review of the career of The Beatles.

The Beatles originally formed as a skiffle band in the late 1950s. John Lennon brought in Paul McCartney, and then George Harrison to produce a guitar trio. The group subsequently added Stu Sutcliffe on bass, and went through a number of drummers before finally settling on Ringo Starr.

Below is a photo of the Beatles performing in 1963. From L: Paul McCartney, bass; Ringo Starr, drums; George Harrison, lead guitar; John Lennon, rhythm guitar.

Embed from Getty Images

The Beatles became a tight and highly skilled ensemble during a few visits to Hamburg, Germany in the early 60s. There, the group lived in abject poverty while playing in gritty venues scattered amidst the strip clubs in Hamburg’s seedy Reeperbahn district.

In the early days of the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were just beginning to write songs, so the Beatles played covers of tunes by their favorite artists. The group especially looked for songs that would show off John or Paul’s vocals, or the harmonizing and instrumental work from the entire band.

The Beatles had discovered Barrett Strong’s Money in 1963, in the record store owned by the parents of their manager Brian Epstein. This was interesting in that the song had not been a hit in Britain.

The group realized that it was a perfect fit for John’s ‘gritty’ vocals. The Beatles incorporated Money into their act, and in the early days it became one of the group’s signature songs.

On Jan. 1, 1962, the Beatles had a now-infamous audition with Decca Records. The band performed 15 songs, of which three were original Lennon/McCartney compositions and the remaining twelve were covers.

Money (That’s What I Want) was the second song performed by the band.
In what is considered one of the biggest mistakes in music industry history, Decca rejected the band, selecting instead Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.

To this day, the stupendous blunder has continued to haunt Decca Records. Company execs stated that
“guitar groups are on the way out” and “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
Wow, what incredible morons!

So here are the Beatles in Liverpool in 1963, in a live performance of Money.

This is a great glimpse of the Beatles, just as their fame was burgeoning across the U.K. By this time, Pete Best (who had been the drummer for the Beatles’ Decca audition) had been replaced by Ringo Starr.

As you can see, the song is an excellent vehicle for John, as it shows off his voice perfectly. Paul and George reprise the chorus, which was supplied by girls in the Barrett Strong original.

There is a bit of screaming by the fans at the end of this song, but nothing compared to the ‘Beatlemania’ that would sweep Britain, and next engulf the U.S. and the world.

The Beatles are not quite the smooth and polished quartet that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show a year later, but it is easy to imagine their future greatness. Here they are, poised on the cusp of world fame.

At this point, John and Paul had begun to write their own songs, that would reveal their musical genius. George’s guitar playing would continue to evolve over the next few years. And Ringo was always the steady, incredibly reliable drummer for the band.

We all know the rest of the story. For the next few years, the Beatles dominated the world of rock music. They were incredibly prolific, churning out pop hits. Their record albums became progressively more complex, as the Beatles’ music grew more sophisticated.  And then, right at the end of the 60s, the band broke up and its members went their separate ways.

It’s hard to believe that it has now been 51 years since their Sgt. Pepper album was released. And people are still arguing over which was the greatest Beatles album. Certainly the most dramatic release of that era was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

However, was Revolver actually a more brilliant and innovative album than Sgt. Pepper? Or should the ‘best album’ honor go to Rubber Soul? Or even The White Album? Or possibly the group’s last masterpiece, Abbey Road?

Well, one can debate this question ad nauseam. Suffice it to say that I still remember the thrill from the first time I heard several of the Beatles records, and their songs continue to bring great joy to me.

Stevie Wonder and Money (That’s What I Want):

We have discussed Stevie Wonder’s work in an earlier blog post on his song Superstition, and also his cover of the song Bridge Over Troubled Water. So here we will give a brief review of his life and career.

Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, is one of the premier R&B artists of all time. He was born in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Because he was born six weeks premature and left in an incubator with an oxygen-rich environment, he developed a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which resulted in his becoming blind very shortly after birth.

Stevie was a true child prodigy. His musical talent was evident extremely early, and he was signed to a Motown Records contract at the tender age of 11. However, his first two albums, released when he was 11 and 12 respectively, were not  commercially successful.

Below is a photo of Stevie Wonder at the keyboards, circa 1972.

Embed from Getty Images

Stevie’s live performance as part of the Motortown Revue was recorded and released in May, 1963 with the title Recorded Live: the 12-Year Old Genius. That particular album contained the single Fingertips, a song featuring Stevie on harmonica.  Fingertips took off like a rocket. It reached #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts, making Stevie at age 13 the youngest artist ever to have a #1 hit.

Here is Stevie Wonder with a live performance of Money (That’s What I Want).

Isn’t this great? I am not positive of the date and place of this performance, although it claims to be footage from a concert in Italy in 1970. It actually looks like he is performing in a palace or a museum.

In any case, Stevie is rather young here, and it is a joy to watch him rip through this Barrett Strong classic. In addition to some energetic work on keyboards, Stevie also produces a dynamite harmonica solo. Stevie has to be the greatest harp player I have ever experienced, and one could also make a case that his creativity on keyboards is unmatched.

Given Stevie Wonder’s illustrious career, one might have assumed that he rose to the top and remained there ever after. However, Stevie experienced a down spell after Fingertips. His voice was changing, and his next few albums bombed.

Apparently several Motown executives were in favor of dropping Stevie from their label. However, Stevie was given another chance to prove himself, and he carved out a number of hits during the mid and late 60s.

When he reached his 21st birthday, Stevie Wonder ended his contract with Motown. However, he re-signed with them in 1972 to a new contract that gave him greatly expanded autonomy, in addition to much more favorable royalties.

This began Stevie Wonder’s “classic period.” In 1972 he released the album Talking Book, which contained the single Superstition. On this album, Stevie introduced us to the Hohner Clavinet keyboard, with which he produced amazingly funky, novel sounds.

In addition to his musical renown, Stevie Wonder has been a social activist. He spent a great deal of energy pushing to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. In 1985, upon winning an Academy Award for his song “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie accepted his award in the name of Nelson Mandela, which got all of his songs banned from radio by South Africa’s apartheid government.

He has won 25 Grammy Awards, more than any other individual artist, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Stevie’s Rock and Roll Hall bio is most impressive.  He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2014.

Bonus Audio: Jerry Lee Lewis and Money:

We will end here with some “bonus audio.” Here is Jerry Lee Lewis in a live cover of Money (That’s What I Want).

We don’t have live video of this concert, which took place in 1964 at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. Here, Jerry Lee was backed by the Nashville Teens.

The concert was recorded from two sets that Jerry Lee produced on one day. The piano was miked too loud, but this only increases the immediacy of the performance. Jerry Lee pounds away on the keyboards, and really goes to town on Money.

The concert was a masterpiece.
It is regarded by many music journalists as one of the wildest and greatest rock and roll concert albums ever. The album appears in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Cover of the 1964 album, Jerry Lee Lewis: Live at the Star Club, Hamburg.

At left we show a photo of the cover for that album. Because of copyright issues, for a long time the album was available only in Europe.

This concert was recorded during a period when a scandal had derailed Jerry Lee’s career, and it was well-nigh impossible for him to release albums or appear on TV in the States.

But on this night Lewis was in top form, and at his best Jerry Lee Lewis could out-rock anybody.

Unfortunately, Lewis claims that he never received a penny of royalties from this record. However, you can appreciate Jerry Lee Lewis’ genius – enjoy!!

Source Material:

Wikipedia: Money (That’s What I Want).
Wikipedia: Barrett Strong
Wikipedia: The Beatles
Wikipedia: The Beatles’ Decca Audition
Wikipedia: Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder bio, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wikipedia: Jerry Lee Lewis
Wikipedia: Live At The Star Club, Hamburg.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Soul music, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Money (That’s What I Want): Barrett Strong; The Beatles; Stevie Wonder.

  1. AS says:

    Eliza Neals is the correct spelling…


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