It’s not exactly clear what parts of what songs Lamont Dozier wrote in the Holland-Dozier-Holland team at Motown Records in the mid-1960s. We don’t need to know. We do know that his death Monday, at the age of 81, is a terrible loss to American songwriting.
Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland wrote and produced some of the best records to come out of Motown in that golden age, which is to say there’s really no debate here. Their best records were magnificent popular music, right up there on music’s Mount Rushmore next to the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
The Holland-Dozier-Holland production line, which crafted some 400 songs from 1963 to 1973, includes “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “The Same Old Song,” “Baby I Need Your Loving “and “Bernadette” for the Four Tops.
It includes “Come See About Me,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go?” and “Nothing But Heartaches” for the Supremes.
Then there’s “Heat Wave” and “Nowhere to Run” for Martha and the Vandellas,” and “Can I Get a Witness” for Marvin Gaye, and “Want Ads” for Honey Cone, and “Road Runner” for Junior Walker, and “Band of Gold” for Freda Payne, and “This Old Heart Of Mine” for the Isley Brothers.
The hits just kept on coming, as they used to say in radio promotions, and speaking of radio, Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers understood exactly what Motown owner Berry Gordy Jr. understood, which is that it doesn’t matter how good a song sounds on a hundred thousand dollars worth of studio electronics. What mattered in those days was how it sounded through the tinny AM radio speakers of the automobile that was being made in another corner of Detroit.
Motown records sounded great on the radio, not just because of the sonic engineering, but because they were written to be heard on the radio.
Whether it was the deceptively intricate pop of a Supremes sing-along or the commanding baritone of Levi Stubbs on ”Bernadette,” the sound was just right, and not by accident.
As producers of the songs they wrote, Dozier and the Hollands would work with each member of Motown’s top-level house band, the Funk Brothers, to ensure those superb musicians knew how the writers heard the song. Dozier said in interviews that most of the time the Hollands would start with the drums and guitars, while he would work with the keyboards.
Similarly, Eddie Holland would work with the lead vocalist, since he wrote most of the lyrics, while Dozier would work with the background vocalists.
In general, Dozier wrote in his autobiography, Brian Holland focused on music while Eddie focused on words, “and I was the bridge between.”
The result was a full collaboration. They’d discuss ideas for a song, they’d all throw out riffs or lines that might fit, then they’d work separately before they regrouped to fit the pieces together.
They welcomed ideas from anywhere, Dozier said. When Eddie Holland was listening to a lot of classical music, they would employ more sophisticated changes in, say, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” or “I Hear A Symphony.”
When Marvin Gaye needed a song, Dozier reluctantly surrendered one he had written for himself, “how Sweet It Is.” The team recycled an early Supremes B-side, “Standing at the Crossroads of Love,” for the Four Tops’s “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” Dozier originally wrote “Come Get These Memories” as a country song he hoped he could persuade Loretta Lynn to record. He didn’t have her phone number, he said, so he threw in a few jazz chords and it was a hit for Martha and the Vandellas.
Even if a song didn’t start out with a familiar sound or rhythm, the team knew how to make it Motown.
Or the song might start with a very familiar sound. After “I Can’t Help Myself” reached №1, Motown heard that Columbia was going to release some old Four Tops tracks to cash in on the group’s buzz. Motown wanted to preempt that move with a new Four Tops record, but didn’t have one.
So Holland, Dozier and Holland essentially put new lyrics to “I Can’t Help Myself.” Just because they could, they titled it “The Same Old Song,” and it went top-5.
Nothing’s ever quite as smooth as it looks from the outside, of course, and Motown had its grumbling.
When Holland, Dozier and Holland arrived, the veteran musicians weren’t happy about these unproven upstarts telling them how to play. When bass player James Jamerson was asked to play some chords one time, he famously played “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
The Supremes complained for years that the Vandellas got grownup anthems like “Dancing in the Street” while the Supremes got fluffy pop like “Baby Love.” Gordy essentially told them to shut up and enjoy being №1.
And in the end, Holland, Dozier and Holland walked away from Motown because they felt Gordy wasn’t giving them enough monetary appreciation for their contributions. They formed their own labels while waiting out four years of rather nasty lawsuits and countersuits.
There are those, including the late Mary Wilson of the Supremes, who feel the H-D-H departure was a big part of the sunset on the label’s golden age.
Lamont Dozier said he wanted to be a singer from the time his father took him to a Count Basie concert, and a writer from the time he was a teenager. In 1957, age 16, he formed a group called the Romeos who had a couple of nice ‘50s-vocal-group-style releases that didn’t do much. Neither did his later solo songs, which led him to decide at Motown, not without some regrets, that he was better off writing hit songs than struggling to find one as a singer.
He did return to singing after he and the Hollands split up, amicably, in 1973. He recorded albums and wrote with artists including Phil Collins. Their “Two Hearts” went to №1 in 1989.
He and the Hollands were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
We might never know which of the countless great lines in the H-D-H catalog were Lamont Dozier’s. We do know he was a full partner in making those records into the soundtrack of an era.