R&B Gold: Early Motown: Show Me the Money

March 17, 2017

Continuing our look at the early days of Tamla/Motown records, let’s examine what is widely considered to be the fledgling label’s first monster hit, “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong. Recorded in August 1959 at the brand-new “Hitsville, USA” Studio A, “Money” is one of the most important tunes in pop-music history, and not only as a launch pad for the Motown legacy; its raw sonic palette and unbridled energy (traits that were eventually refined out of the Motown sound) paved the way for burgeoning rock & rollers. Originally released on Tamla in ’59, the song achieved wider recognition from its 1960 release on Anna Records, which was owned by Tamla owner Berry Gordy’s sister, hitting #2 on the Hot R&B Sides chart and #23 on Billboard’s Top 100. The song has endured in its original form, and through myriad cover versions (most notably by the Beatles), because of its universal sentiment and its hard rocking groove. But through the years, like anything that involves big money, there has been substantial controversy surrounding its origins.

Officially, the song is credited to Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, but in a 2013 New York Times interview, Strong claims to have written the signature piano riff: “We were doing another session, and I just happened to be sitting there playing the piano,” he recalled. “I was playing ‘What’d I Say’ by Ray Charles, and the groove spun off that.” The Times continues, “As Mr. Strong was polishing the riff, the recording engineer, Robert Bateman, recalls becoming increasingly animated: “And when I get excited, the very first thing I do is call Berry.” Confirming Strong’s claim of musical authorship, Bateman states that “it all emanated from Barrett Strong.” And, in fact, the initial 1959 filing with the United States Copyright Office listed Barrett Strong as an “author of words and music” along with Berry Gordy, and Janie Bradford (who was a clerical worker for the company whose signature appears on the form). However, in 1962, Gordy’s publishing company, Jobete, filed an amended copyright removing Strong’s name as an author. Under the law, Strong had three years to contest this, but as Times author Larry Rohter points out: “The United States Copyright Office, a division of the Library of Congress, does not notify authors of changes in registrations, and until recently the only way to check on any alterations was to go to Washington and visit the archives personally.” Gordy’s lawyers have asserted that Ms. Bradford had “erroneously listed Mr. Strong as one of ’Money’s’ co-writers” in 1959, because “she was inexperienced and confused about the ‘authorship’ section’ ” of the copyright form, and that “when the mistake was discovered, it was rectified.” In the history of recorded music, there are many examples of record labels screwing over artists, writers, and performers—whether this is another one has yet to be determined.

Another element to the puzzle focuses on the lyrics. In 1960, famed Detroit-based bluesman John Lee Hooker released a song entitled “I Need Some Money” on his album That’s My Story: John Lee Hooker Sings the Blues on the Riverside label. Despite Hooker’s radically different signature approach to the song, there is no mistaking the lyrics to be the same as the Tamla recording. There have been claims that Hooker was performing this song around Detroit for years prior to this recording, and for this first release, he is listed as the author. Add to the mix that for a while, Hooker and Strong both worked on the same assembly line in Detroit, and it’s easy to imagine how the lyrics might have found their way into the Tamla studios. While I have read that Hooker took Berry to court and lost, I found no hard evidence of this online. But it’s worth noting that when Hooker recut an electrified version of the song in 1966 for the Impulse label, Berry Gordy was listed as the author.

For us bottom-dwellers, the most compelling mystery about “Money” is determining who actually played bass on the track. Many have speculated that it could be James Jamerson, as he was already active in the Tamla studios. The song was recorded on electric bass, and while I suspect it may have been too early for Jamerson’s eventual migration to the instrument, a close listen to the track leaves me with the opinion that it was not him. The tone is garbage, the line is played inconsistently, there are intonation issues, and the groove is barely present (other than that, it’s great!). Jamerson was already an accomplished musician, as witnessed by his earlier tracks at the studio, and the performance exhibits none of the traits that put him at the top of last month’s Greatest 100 Bassists of All Time. In a video interview with Tom Meros, Strong recalls the day of the session and offers an account that sounds like a Cinderella story. He says the bass and guitar parts were performed by two white kids that just got off the bus from Cass Tech High School. They supposedly walked up to the studio and asked if they could sit in. While seemingly improbable, this is Barrett’s recollection, and the bass performance certainly sounds bad enough to be the work of an unknown kid off the street.

One wrinkle to the story is the crediting of a certain Eugene Grew as the guitarist on the track. The Times article states that “the guitarist on the ‘Money’ sessions was Eugene Grew, who recalls taking musical direction from Mr. Strong. ‘We sat there, practicing, and Barrett said, “Do this,” and, “Do that,”’ Mr. Grew said in an interview here. ‘“It’s a real simple figure, over and over.” Barrett showed me what to play and then Berry came by.’” More research turned up a 2012 post on a forum called soulofdetroit.com, attributed to Eugene Grew (written in all caps), that claims: “I was that white guy playing the only guitar on ‘Money.’ I probably was 21 years old or so. I lived a couple miles from Hitsville. The trio I was with went to tryout for Gordy. He took me aside and asked if I would be interested in doing sessions. My first of many was ‘Money.’” The poster makes no mention of who the bass player was, although he offered this: “I have no recollection who else was on it. James Jamerson had an upright bass, it could have been him.” Considering the track is played on electric bass, this line of thought has little basis, but chalk it up as another unsolved piece of the “Money puzzle.” I had the good fortune to get in touch with Janie Bradford, the Tamla/Motown secretary credited as co-writer, and asked about the session personnel. Her response: “The story of the two white guys has been circulating for many years, but no one that I checked with from back in the day can confirm it, nor had anyone heard mention of their names.” The mystery continues.

While I’ve been harsh about the “Money” bass playing, its rawness contributes to the overall live and loose feel, and if you can appreciate the performance as a work of art, it’s perfect. “Money” stands out as the first major hit for the label, but it’s also unique in its almost punk-like abandon. This performance seems a more likely predecessor to Detroit-area acts like Iggy & the Stooges, or the MC5, than the slick, polished production machine that cranked out hits by the Supremes, the Miracles, or Marvin Gaye. Let’s take a look at some of the parts played by the mystery man. The song is a 12-bar blues form in F, and the piano intro riff covers the first four bars of the form. The tonal center established by the unchanging piano riff causes momentary confusion when the bass comes in on the IV chord—it sounds like a mistake, but once your ear recognizes that the bass starts at bar 5, it makes sense. He plays through the rest of the form using a classic tresillo rhythm using the triad, as shown in Ex. 1—notice the chromatic slide up to the 3rd when playing the V chord. The following verses have stops on the downbeat for the first four bars, then picking the line back up at the IV chord as shown. Example 2 shows a slight variation in bars 5 and 6. It’s not wrong to alter the line—but modern standards would demand a more consistent approach on a song like this. Example 3 is similar to one of the full choruses played without stops at the end of the song.

Unfortunately, my best efforts did not solve the mystery of the “Money” bass player, but the search for truth always has its own reward. As we look ahead at more of Tamla/Motown’s early output, we will hear more from Jamerson and examine the developments in his playing. The effect of Jamerson’s gift on Motown, and the whole of popular music, cannot be overstated. In the realm of R&B Gold, Jamerson had the Midas touch.

INFO

ED FRIEDLAND

Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee. edfriedland.com

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