There are songwriters who follow trends. There are songwriters who create trends. And then there are songwriters whose catalogs go beyond any trends, who create the sound of an era and whose influence is still felt decades later. The team of Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland and Brian Holland fall into that third category.
Motown songwriting legend Lamont Dozier wrote his first poem, “A Song,” at age 11 and his first song, “Fine Fine Baby,” at 13, recorded two years later by his own group The Romeos. Shortly thereafter, he recorded for Anna Records, owned by Gwen Gordy, which led to his signing at Motown Records where he met fellow staff writers Brian and Eddie Holland. Lamont and Brian began collaborating in 1962. After a year, Eddie joined the team. The duties within the trio were defined quickly: Lamont, music and lyrics; Brian, engineering and melodies; Eddie, lyrics.
Holland/Dozier/Holland went on to write some of the most cherished songs of the era, or any era, including “Where Did Our Love Go”, “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Baby Love,” “How Sweet It Is,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” to name a few, recorded by such Motown legends as the Supremes, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye.
To celebrate Lamont Dozier’s birthday today, here are bits of an interview we had with him a decade ago on a cloudy summer morning in his Encino recording studio. Happy birthday, Lamont, and thank you for a lifetime of songs and teaching us what a great uniter music can be.
Who did you first write for at Motown?
The Marvelettes, then Mary Wells. But we didn’t have huge hits. Then Martha and the Vandellas hit with songs like “Heat Wave” and “Quicksand.” Eventually, the Supremes came aboard with “Where Did Our Love Go.”
But before that song, the Supremes had eight charted hits, none of which were big. Why did the first songs not break through?
That’s a question we’re still trying to answer today. “Where Did Our Love Go” was actually for the Marvelettes, but they refused to do it. We had a big argument. We had the track already cut in Gladys Horton’s key, and it was in a lower key than Diana Ross normally sang in. We left the track as it was; it gave Diana a lower pitch and a fuller sound. She was pissed because she didn’t want to do it. But they were low on the totem pole at Motown, so they couldn’t refuse. Gladys told them, “You got to talk up for yourself. You can’t let them push you around, doing horrible songs like this.”
The Supremes felt bad that they were getting leftovers. But it became their blessing and the Marvelettes missed out on it. Diana went out of the room crying and went to [Motown president] Berry [Gordy], saying we did this horrible thing. He came down and listened and said, “It’s got something. It doesn’t sound like a smash, but it sounds like it could be a Top 20. It will keep the girls going until the right song comes along.” That record went to No. 1 so fast. It was my first No. 1.
You appealed to a whole generation of kids. Motown music broke down racial barriers at the time. Why did your music appeal to so many?
It was deliberate. When I got to Motown, I had an idea—I wanted to get rid of this stigma of “race music.” There were some nasty events that happened to me as a child, racial things. I figured that music could bring people together. It was that one common denominator that could get around all obstacles, all hatreds or stupid prejudices. With music, in the ’50s, I’d seen people dance, come together. I saw the beginning of something that could be good for the world. With that in mind, I started compiling ideas.
Was it the chord progressions or melody that made the songs universal?
A little bit of all that. Once we knew what we were going for, we realized we had the sound of young America. The music brought people together. It was one of the more significant things, even more than the politicians making speeches. I feel that the music we did at Motown did more for race relations than any politicians or laws being implemented at the time. If you stop to listen to the music, whatever your beef is, it will go away.
Tell me about “Jimmy Mack.”
There was a kid named Jimmy Mack who got killed in New York. His mother was called up onstage to get his BMI Award. He wrote a song, I don’t remember the name. I was so taken with the mother and her only son, her little speech—how he would have been so glad to receive this award, how he always wanted to be big in the music business, but the extent of his career was this one song. That stayed with me, so I came up with the song. Once again, it started off very sad because it was a sad situation. [Sings slowly:] “Jimmy Mack, when are you coming back?”
That line has new meaning, knowing the story. Did you intentionally write it to work on two levels?
Not really. Eddie took it from there. It’s always nice to leave a question hanging. It makes the song interesting. Most of the songs we wrote had double meanings. You could take it literally or some other way. I choose to believe those songs are still around today because of the double meanings.
What about “I Can’t Help Myself”?
The song was started with a bass figure, with me sitting at the piano. It wasn’t slowed down, like the usual songs. The bass line was the whole song, at that tempo. When I said, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,” it was over with. We went right in and cut it.
“It’s the Same Old Song”?
It’s just what it says. We had just come off of “I Can’t Help Myself.” Columbia was going to capitalize off their new success by releasing an old album, which could eventually hurt what we were doing. So I thought, “What’s the quickest way to squash this thing? It’s to come up with what we’ve come up with before.” So I took the bass figure in “I Can’t Help Myself” and turned it around. The chords were different, but basically we kept the same feeling. It worked—right back into the Top 5.
In “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” Diana speaks during the record, and that started a trend for her later solo records.
That was Eddie’s idea, and it worked. We like to say that when a melody has gone as far as you can take it, maybe you should stop and just speak the words. This adds to the dynamics of the song. We could have put melody in, but we thought, “Let’s have her speak kind of sexy.”
“How Sweet It Is.”
Same situation as the Supremes with “Where Did Our Love Go.” Marvin Gaye was pissed because it was out of his key. He hated to be cut in higher keys because he wanted to be a baritone crooner. But he has such a fire in certain keys. When you take him at the end of his range, where he had to scuffle for it, he became very imaginative, hitting his falsetto in certain places. It was effective and it made something magical happen.
“Stop! In the Name of Love.”
The title came from a fight with my girlfriend. I got caught in an embarrassing situation where I was being a little unfaithful. This particular girl was very headstrong. So we got into an argument. She started swinging, missed me, hit the floor. And I laughed and said, “Please stop! Stop in the name of love.” I was being facetious. Then we busted out in laughter because it was so corny to us. She had a choke hold on me, and I said, “Hold it for a minute. Did you hear a cash register? Is that a hit title?” And she started laughing again. The music stopped the fight. It came to the rescue. Then Brian came up with the hook [musically] for it.
“You Can’t Hurry Love.”
It was a gospel thing that Brian came up with. He wrote the melody, and Eddie got the title. It’s a term our grandparents used. In other words, don’t rush things, you’re so young. It’s really a double meaning, though. We used love, but we were really saying to take your time, feel your direction, find out where you’re going, study the terrain more before you dash off into an unknown place. You can’t hurry anything. I think we were trying to reconstruct “Come See About Me.”
“Reach Out, I’ll Be There.”
Brian sat at the piano and came up with [the intro melody]. I sat down, pushed him over and came up with “And if you feel that you can’t go on.” He played one part, then we came up with the bridge and the breakdowns. That’s another favorite because of the structure. The feeling again was infectious. The intro melody had a little Russian or Jewish or gypsy feeling. It’s everything. It’s a flute or an oboe playing that melody.
—by Gordon Pogoda
Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 70, June 2003
Lamont is also Featured in an interview with Holland Dozier Holland