Motown Records started out in Detroit under the name Tamla Records in 1959. Founder Berry Gordy rechristened the label a year later and Motown proceeded to dominate radio, sales, and popular culture, especially in the 1960’s, but well into the ensuing decades, too.
How many other record labels have their own sound named after them? None. That’s how many. Nobody says, “Play a song that sounds like Warner Brothers!” Or Elektra. Or Sub Pop. (Wait, maybe Sun Records. But nobody else!)
The sweet and slick soul sounds of Motown, however, became instantly identifiable, although not in the beginning. Motown’s first hit single was recorded under the Tamla name, and it was a raw, distorted, guitar-riffing slab of proto-punk soul about gettin’ them stacks of cash. Love is great and all, but it’s about the dolla dolla bill, y’all.
Barrett Strong was one of the first artists signed to the newly-minted Tamla label and immediately struck gold with “Money (That’s What I Want),” a song given to him by Berry Gordy, who co-wrote the music and lyrics with Janie Bradford. It climbed to #2 on the R&B chart in the summer of 1960 and just missed the Top 20 on the pop chart. It would be Strong’s only hit single as a performer, but he later co-wrote massive and memorable hits such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “War” (what is it good for?), and multiple #1 songs for The Temptations.
The actual money generated by the record sales of “Money” allowed Gordy to expand his operation and laid the foundation for the Motown empire, an empire that would rarely rock so hard again.
As long as we’re here, let’s visit a couple more versions.
Even though it was never officially released in the UK, The Beatles heard “Money (That’s What I Want)” and immediately loved it, recording it at their first audition for a record label on New Year’s Day of 1962, performing it frequently for radio and live appearances, and choosing it as the final track for their second album. Unfortunately, their hard-driving cover is unavailable for your listening pleasure through YouTube.
In 1979, The Flying Lizards, a post-punk, art-pop band of deconstructionists, decided to put their own unique spin on the 20-year old song. With its deadpan vocal, off the wall instrumentation, and unique sense of musicianship, “Money” proved to be a surprise Top 10 hit in the UK. Weird, warped, and wonderful.