“Money (That’s What I Want)”: A History

Most music fans of a certain age are familiar with the song and the sentiment expressed in Barrett Strong’s hit single “Money (That’s What I Want),” the biggest hit from the early days of Tamla-Motown studios (distributed nationally on Anna Records) . The song was written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, and since its release it has spawned hundreds of cover versions. We will examine the original and then five notable cover versions. But first, those unmistakable lyrics, especially that first couplet:

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

[Chorus]
I need money
That’s what I want
That’s what I want
That’s what I want

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

[Chorus]

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

[Chorus]

Money
Lots of money
Whole lot of money
Uh huh
All I want
Whoa Yeah
Give me Money
Oh, lots of money
All those lean greens, Yeah
I got that, uh, that’s what I mean
All that I want
Whoa Yeah

 

BARRETT STRONG 1959

Riveting blues piano by Strong kicks the track off before the tambourine (Brian Holland) falls in, then drums (Benny Benjamin), bass, and guitar, with backing vocals by The Rayber Voices. Strong’s voice is perfect here; Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray described “Money” as “one of the earliest Motown classics from the days when the label left some of R&B’s rough edges in place.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) That piano figure is unrelenting as it provides the heartbeat of the song.

 

THE BEATLES 1963

The Fab Four covered the song on their second U.K. release With The Beatles. They don’t stray far from the original, hewing close to Strong’s version as they did on most of their early covers of soul and R&B classics. Paul McCartney plays piano, John Lennon sings lead, and the harmonies help define the Beatles.

 

THE ROLLING STONES 1963

The Stones took a grittier tack to the song, very bluesy, with Mick Jagger on harmonica and the guitars slamming. Charlie Watts’ drumming is dynamite. It was part of The Stones’ first EP in the U.K. (November 1963) with “Bye Bye Johnny,” “You Better Move On,” and “Poison Ivy.” It appeared in the U.S. on the 1972 collection More Hot Rocks (big hits & fazed cookies).

 

THE KINGSMEN 1963

Forget “Louie, Louie.” Yes, it’s a fun, era-defining track, but the remainder of The Kingsmen in Person is one of the best dance records of all time, or it would be if not marred by hideous fake crowd noise almost drowning out the music (think “Got to Give It Up,” but worse). A tremendous drum beat by Gary Abbot introduces the song, then great organ (Don Gallucci), and finally guitar. Jack Ely sang vocals on “Louie, Louie,” but the rest of the album features Lynn Easton, a really good singer. This is a killer version. Also, this video reminds us how horrible the lip-sync era was (check that drum “kit”).

 

JR. WALKER & THE ALL-STARS 1966

The first Jr. Walker album, Shotgun, was pure brilliance, another amazing party album. By the time of the second album, Roadrunner, there was a balance of great party tunes and more pedestrian covers such as this. Walker recorded on the Soul label, a subsidiary of Tamla-Motown. This was also twice as long as the previous four, which all clocked in a bit over two minutes.

 

THE FLYING LIZARDS 1979

The first five versions we selected were recorded in the space of eight years. We need to jump another 13 years for a cover of “Money” that can safely be described as unique. Quirky. Bizarre. Over the top. Yes, that would at least begin to characterize The Flying Lizards. This new wave stutter-step version hit number 5 on the U.K. charts and 22 in the U.S.

 

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