LARRY ROHTER NY Times 08/31/13
DETROIT — On the lawn outside Motown Records’ former headquarters here, a historical marker honors the pivotal role that the song “Money (That’s What I Want)” played in building the Motown empire. With its hypnotic piano riff and unabashedly materialistic refrain, “Money,” recorded in 1959, was the first national success for the label that came to be known as “Hitsville U.S.A.,” giving the fledgling company credibility and a vital infusion of cash.
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.
Mr. Strong said he learned of the alterations only late in 2010 and has been struggling ever since to have his authorship officially reinstated. At stake: his ability to share in the lucrative royalties from the song’s use. But his efforts have been blocked by a provision of copyright law that says he relinquished his rights by failing to act in a timely fashion to contest Motown’s action.
Mr. Strong’s predicament illustrates a little-known oddity in the American copyright system, one that record and music publishing companies have not hesitated to exploit. 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.
“For 50 years, I had no idea about any of this,” Mr. Strong, 72, said in an interview here, in which he acknowledged his lack of business acumen. “It was hidden from me. So how do they expect me to have acted to protect myself? It’s crazy and unfair.”
The long and complicated tale of “Money” begins, in Mr. Strong’s telling, with a simple but mesmerizing piano riff that came to him more than half a century ago as he was working as a session musician in a recording studio here. He was 18, a Mississippi native who had grown up in Detroit dreaming of a music career and had just been signed to a contract with Mr. Gordy, who was both his label president and his personal manager — an arrangement unthinkable today because of its inherent conflict of interest, but not unheard-of at the time.
“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 of that.”
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,” Mr. Bateman said at an event at the Hard Rock Cafe in 2010. “ ‘Whoa, Berry, you’ve got to hear this, you’ve got to hear this, you’ve got to hear this.’ ”
“Anyway,” Mr. Bateman added, “it all emanated from Barrett Strong.”
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.”
Once the instrumental track was recorded, Mr. Strong said, Janie Bradford, who had written songs with Mr. Gordy for Jackie Wilson, helped on the lyrics. But Mr. Strong said he also contributed words.
On Nov. 12, 1959, Motown’s new song-publishing company, Jobete Music, of which Mr. Gordy was the sole owner, registered “Money (That’s What I Want)” with the United States Copyright Office. That filing, bearing Ms. Bradford’s signature, designated Mr. Strong as an “author of words & music,” with Ms. Bradford also getting a credit for words and Mr. Gordy for words and music.
Early in 1960, “Money” was issued under Mr. Strong’s name. It rose to No. 2 on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart, peaked at No. 23 on the pop charts and eventually sold nearly a million copies.
Then, in August 1962, Jobete filed an amended copyright on “Money,” instructing the copyright office to remove Mr. Strong’s name. Under procedures in place at the copyright office then (and still in effect today), Mr. Strong had three years to contest that filing — which he said he would have done had he only known of it.
Mr. Strong’s case may stretch back decades, but the potential for other artists to find themselves in a similar bureaucratic limbo remains written into copyright law. The copyright office has begun digitizing its vast archive, which includes handwritten filings dating back to the 19th century, and that should improve access for all copyright holders. But the process has been proceeding slowly.
“I think he’s got an uphill battle,” said June M. Besek, executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at the Columbia University School of Law. “It’s really a statute of limitations issue. He could be depicted as someone who did not conscientiously pursue his rights.”
In a letter, Barry Langberg and Deborah Drooz, lawyers for Mr. Gordy, wrote 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.” They enclosed a recently executed affidavit from Ms. Bradford to that effect.
In a separate letter, Nansci LeGette, the director of one of Mr. Gordy’s production companies, noted that Mr. Strong later signed songwriting agreements with Jobete and Mr. Gordy in which he failed to assert authorship rights to “Money.” Those “multiple transactions conducted by Barrett Strong over the years indicate that without any doubt, he did not himself believe that he was a co-writer” of the song, the letter stated.
Mr. Strong, however, said that he repeatedly asserted his rights as a writer directly in conversations with Mr. Gordy when “Money” became a hit. In retrospect, he said, he believes his name may have been removed from the songwriting credits because Mr. Gordy had come to see him as a troublemaker.
“I wasn’t getting any statements, so I started asking not too long after the record came out,” he recalled. “You couldn’t ask too many questions back then, because they’d say: ‘You’re being a bad boy. You’re getting smart.’ But I kept inquiring, and Mr. Gordy told me, ‘Don’t worry about statements and things, you’ll make your money on the road.’ On the road to what?”
Unable to generate a follow-up hit and sensing that Motown’s future resided with emerging stars like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Little Stevie Wonder, Mr. Strong concluded he had to look elsewhere to make a living. “I had to take care of my kids,” he said, “so I went and got myself a job at Chrysler, on the production line.”
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.
Music royalties are generally divided into two categories, one for the performance of a song and the other for the composition itself. Sales of recordings may have plummeted since the late 1990s, but the songs themselves — or snippets of them — have increasingly become the soundtracks for TV shows and movies, advertisements and ring tones. Broadway can provide yet another revenue stream: Besides “Money,” the Broadway show “Motown: The Musical” features more than 50 other songs from the label’s catalog, and a two-CD soundtrack has been released.
In 2009, Mr. Strong had a stroke, limiting his ability to play the piano and sing. He now lives in a retirement home here, and hopes that by recouping rights to “Money” he will more easily be able to pay his medical bills and residence fees. But he also wants his accomplishments properly remembered.
“Songs outlive people,” he said, with a mixture of sadness, resignation and anger. “The real reason Motown worked was the publishing. The records were just a vehicle to get the songs out there to the public. The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang on to it. That’s what it’s all about. If you give it away, you’re giving away your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.”