Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 19: Barrett Strong, "Money (That's What I Want)"

Artist: Barrett Strong
Song: "Money (That's What I Want)"
Album: "Money (That's What I Want)" (single)
Year: 1959

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While it may seem at first glance as if there have been a handful of spontaneous musical revolutions across the course of music history, the fact of the matter is, if one looks closer, there is some sort of catalyst for every event.  However, in most of these situations, the songs or bands that came later were so famous that they completely overshadow the true originators, and cause this false sense of "coming out of nowhere" with their particular sound.  Though this has occurred a number of times over the decades, it is perhaps no more obvious then when one considers the seemingly meteoric rise of Motown Records, and yet even in that case, there was a "first."  While anyone can name off a number of the labels most famous artists, there are very few who can name the true first star of Motown, and it was in fact the one and only Barrett Strong.  It was late in 1959 when he released his first single, and it would be the success of this song that would provide the great Berry Gordy with the money he would need to turn the label into the iconic hit producer that it is known as today.  Furthermore, it is on this early single that one can hear the transition of the rhythm and blues sound into the "Motown sound," and there is perhaps no more clear a sign of things to come than one finds in Barrett Strong's aptly titled hit single, "Money (That's What I Want)."

From the moment that "Money (That's What I Want)" begins, it is clear that this song is a transitional tune, as one can easily hear both the old and new sounds.  There is no question that the song is rooted in the rhythm and blues sound, and one can hear the influence of the Sun Records sound in the opening piano progression.  However, as soon as the rest of the band drops in, "Money (That's What I Want)" takes on its own personality, and the way in which all the other instruments blend together is truly where the "Motown sound" began.  Whether it is the tambourine, which is almost oddly forward in the mix, or funky, somewhat surf-rock sound of the guitar, there is so much going on musically on the track that it is almost impossible to catch it all within a single listening.  However, even on this early single, the key to the "Motown sound" can be heard, as the bass progression has a deep groove and provides far more movement on the track than almost anything else heard previously.  The way in which the drums move back and forth on the track also gives an amazing amount of depth to "Money (That's What I Want)," and this is especially clear on the verses, as they seem to echo and bounce behind the vocals.  The fact that so much is going on musically, yet it does not seem overwhelming in many ways defines what Motown Records would become famous for, and in many ways, it rarely sounded better than it does on "Money (That's What I Want)."

Providing the ideal vocals for the funky, yet upbeat music behind him, Barrett Strong in many ways sets the standard for Motown singing on "Money (That's What I Want)."  Clearly able to work the entire vocal spectrum, one can sense that he was truly letting the song dictate where his vocals went, and this feeling provides an authenticity and honesty in his vocals that set them far apart from a majority of his peers.  Fusing together the sounds of soul, blues, and the emerging rock and roll style, as is the case with a majority of Motown singing, there is also an ever-present feeling that he is enjoying the singing that remains one of the signature sounds of the era.  Also on "Money (That's What I Want)," the way in which the backing vocals blend into the piece, as well as the sound itself would become a standard, and one can easily hear how these backing vocals would become the blueprint for the "girl group" sound that would explode over the following years.  Yet it is also the words to "Money (That's What I Want)" that remain iconic, and they are just as relevant today as they were more than fifty years ago.  There are few songs with more memorable an opening line, and the almost sarcastic, frustrated thought of, "...the best things in life are free, but you can keep 'em for the birds and bees..." is perhaps the ultimate "working man's" anthem.  In both what he is saying as well as the way in which it was delivered, the vocals of Barrett Strong on "Money (That's What I Want)" clearly stand as the blueprint for the next generation of pop music.

However, as fantastic as "Money (That's What I Want)" is, one cannot overlook the fact that the source of the lyrics and idea are perhaps the longest standing musical dispute in history.  While the Barrett Strong recording was made in August of 1959, for years preceding it, the great John Lee Hooker had been performing his song, titled "I Need Some Money."  The lyrics are almost an exact copy, and Hooker's trademark sound can be heard as a slightly slower, stripped-down version of the Barrett Strong single.  Though it never went to court, the similarity between the two songs is undeniable, and yet they both manage to retain their own personality.  The way in which Barrett Strong and the Motown team took the overall theme of Hooker's song and spun it into something completely new can be seen as "the" revolutionary moment that spawned the "Motown sound," and the fact of the matter is, it was this song that provided the financial means for Berry Gordy to get his label off the ground.  It is in this fact that one can find the amazing irony of the song, as it was perhaps the most truthful song ever recorded.  Furthermore, few songs have persevered as well as "Money (That's What I Want)" has over the decades, and everyone from The Stooges to Etta James to Smashing Pumpkins have recorded their own version of the song.  Though it is often overlooked for its massive historical significance, there is simply no arguing that the revolution that was the "Motown sound" began with Barrett Strong and his monumental 1959 single, "Money (That's What I Want)."

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