MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This month, we talk to a true legend: Lamont Dozier, a central pillar of Motown’s songwriting powerhouse, as well as a successful solo artist in his own right. The World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
Holland-Dozier-Holland. La-la, la-la-la, la-la. Even their names make music.
They are, of course, two brothers, Eddie and Brian Holland, and Lamont Dozier, writers of some of the most wonderful, most enduring, most successful and most loved hit songs of all time.
It is Lamont Dozier, the man in the middle, the only one of the trio who wrote words and music, that MBW is lucky enough to be talking to today; the man with writing credits on Can I Get a Witness, Where Did Our Love Go, Baby I Need Your Loving, How Sweet It Is, Nowhere To Run, Baby Love, This Old Heart of Mine, Reach Out I’ll Be There, You Keep Me Hanging On and There’s a Ghost In My House, to name ‘just’ 10 indisputable classics.
If you haven’t sung or danced along to at least one in that list, then let MBW be the first to say: Welcome to planet earth, we hope you enjoyed your journey and thank you for coming to ‘help out’ with Mr Trump.
The below interview is part of our hugely popular World’s Greatest Songwriters series and, in this instance, that grandiose title seems, if anything, to err on the side of understatement.
With Dozier, via Motown, we are in the realms of ever-lasting cultural significance.
He co-wrote 14 US number ones (and co-produced them all as well, by the way) whilst helping create ‘The Sound of Young America’, which, again, in most circumstances, would sound a trifle boastful, l but in this case is actually a disservice.
Lamont Dozier’s work has transcended age and geography, it has sound-tracked people’s lives all over the world for more than half a century.
And the majority of it was done as part of a globally successful black-owned business during a period when the civil rights movement of America was at its height, fighting its most important and bloodiest battles.
But, as mentioned, this isn’t the Figures Of Ever-Lasting Cultural Significance, it’s The World’s Greatest Songwriters.
So, whilst Dozier is happy to contemplate the wider impact of his work, it is songs and songwriting on which we focus and where we start, in the early ’50s in, where else, Detroit…
When did you first think you could make your living from music, and was that as a performer or songwriter?
I think both. When I was 11 or 12, in school, I wrote a poem called A Song, and my teacher thought it was so unique and poignant that she put it on the blackboard. She kept it on there for about six weeks.
I thought it was mediocre, but she thought it was really good, and her enthusiasm really gave me confidence that I could do something creative, something in music.
How did you go about making that a reality?
Well, I was living in a housing project, and there were a lot of guys around, so we started our own doo-wop group called The Romeos when I was 15.
We’d been together about six months when an opportunity came to us to make a record with a local company, Fox Records. So I wrote a song that we recorded, called Fine Fine Baby. It was a silly record, but it became a local hit.
“Berry was just starting out with his company, so he came and said, ‘Gwen’s company isn’t around any more, do you want to join my company, called Motown?’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
It got heard by Atlantic Records, they signed us and it got to be a Top 20 record. But the group didn’t last that long.
Eventually, I had an opportunity to team up with the Gordy family in Detroit. I went over and I passed an audition when I was about 18 years old and signed to Anna Records – which was run by Berry’s sisters, Anna and Gwen – as a performer, writer and producer.
How did you then end up at Motown?
Anna Records turned out to be quite short-lived, and Berry was just starting out with his company, so he came and said, ‘Gwen’s company isn’t around any more, do you want to join my company, called Motown?’ And that’s exactly what I did.
What did you want to be at that stage?
Well I initially signed with [Gordy, pictured] as a singer, actually, but he wanted me to write and produce for other artists, because a lot of them didn’t write for themselves.
So he kind of wanted to put my singing on the back burner and write for a lot of artists who were already there, which I did, and it ended up taking up a lot of my time.
I recorded a couple of records at Motown, but of course my biggest success there, at that particular time, was with my writing and producing.
Initially did you do it on your own, or did you work straight away with Brian [Holland]?
Brian was already there when I got to Motown. He was producing the Marvelettes, with Please Mister Postman. One day I was writing a song called Forever for Marvin Gaye and I needed a bridge. He walked in and suggested a bridge. We started the Holland-Dozier producing and writing collaboration from there.
Then Eddie Holland, who was primarily an artist, decided he didn’t really want to sing anymore, but he wanted to try his hand at writing lyrics. So Brian asked me, ‘Is it okay if my brother writes with us?’ I said fine, and we became Holland-Dozier-Holland.
[From there] Brian and I would cut the music first, and then I would come up with ideas for lyrics and pass them on to Eddie and he would finish them up.
What do you think it was about the three of you that worked so well?
I actually think it was because we were all brought up in the church, and we just clicked. We liked the same music and the same feelings and had the same ideas.
“We put our heads together and we very seldom disagreed. The chemistry was just perfect.”
We liked classical music and we liked gospel music. It was just a perfect blend. We put our heads together and we very seldom disagreed. The chemistry was just perfect.
I guess the amount of time you spent together meant you had to get on personally as well as professionally?
Oh yes, absolutely. We spent so much time together, sometimes from 9 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock the next morning, if there was an assignment that we had to get out right away.
“Berry would come in and say, ‘So- and-so needs a hit…”
Berry would come in and say, ‘So- and-so needs a hit because they’re going out of town and they need something right away.’ We practically lived in the studio.
How long did it take to write those songs that are still being played 50 years later?
Oh, it could be two days or two months. They all have a life of their own, so it’s not always up to you.
Heatwave I wrote in about half an hour; Where Did Our Love Go took three or four days.
It all depended on what the songs called for. Some needed more attention. It’s like children, with some kids you have to spend more time with them than others.
You used the word ‘assignment’ earlier. how specific was Berry Gordy about what he wanted when he dished out those assignments?
Well he would always leave it up to us to come up with the ideas.
He would just come in and say, I need to have so many songs for these different artists by this date. That’s how it went.
Which artists did you enjoy writing with and producing the most?
I think we would all say that we loved working with The Four Tops. It was a party all the time. We’d be working into the early hours of the morning, but it was always a party. It was just a beautiful collaboration between the Tops and ourselves.
Levi Stubbs was just a hell of a singer, and Lawrence Payton, as the technician of the group, had great ears. It just worked really well.
Were there any artists that were not so easy to work with?
Sometimes we would have words with Marvin.
We would occasionally write so that the keys would be a little bit high for him, and he would have to slide up and be a little bit more imaginative, reach up to a falsetto.
“Sometimes we would have words with Marvin.”
He would get mad at us, but we did it on purpose, to make him reach to get on top of the song and become more inventive.
He didn’t like that, but he was a genius at manipulating his voice and he would always do what he had to do as a performer.
Were there some artists on the label that you would like to have written more for, but weren’t given the opportunity? Or did you pretty much have free rein?
We had free rein to do whatever we wanted to do. We became sort of like Berry’s pets.
When he needed something he knew he could come to us and he knew he would get the material he needed from us. In return, he let us have our own way.
“Berry had great ears, he could hear a hit. He just knew he didn’t have to worry about getting hits from Holland-Dozier-Holland, because he knew we would deliver.”
However we wanted to do it, we did it, without him bothering us. Berry’s a songwriter himself, he wrote for Jackie Wilson, so he knew to get out of the way to let us do our own thing.
He had great ears though, he could hear a hit. He just knew he didn’t have to worry about getting hits from Holland-Dozier-Holland, because he knew we would deliver.
Did you feel pressure being the ‘go to guys’ during that period?
Tremendous pressure. Pressure all the time. Because you always had to be thinking about the next song. You’d be working on one song and thinking about two other songs that you had to finish.
“The pressure was constant, but we handled it very well, because we were the top writers and producers – not only at Motown, but in the world.”
The pressure was constant, but we handled it very well, because we were the top writers and producers – not only at Motown, but in the world.
What was your view of Berry Gordy’s famous weekly ‘quality control’ meetings at Motown? Even when you’d had a run of number one records, did you still have to present your material at those meetings?
Everybody had to submit their songs, because quality control was a group of 12-15 people who were employees or other producers and we had to be there too. It was a formal structure.
Nobody really knows what a hit is and some of the people in quality control were just normal employees, not musicians – so they would listen to it like the audience would listen to it and give us feedback and tell us if they liked it or they didn’t. They would help us do better.
Did you ever worry that one or two classics might fall through the gaps if those people made the wrong decision?
Yeah, that would happen from time to time.
There was a song called Jimmy Mack [by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas] that was in the can for two years and, for some reason, the girl that handled putting the songs forward to be heard at the quality control meeting, she just personally didn’t like Jimmy Mack.
One day, Martha was very upset and she said, ‘We have songs in the can that you’re not even getting a chance to hear because she doesn’t like them personally.’
Berry said, ‘Okay, bring everything in the can by Martha’ – because she needed a hit at this point. So they brought out Jimmy Mack and everybody flipped out over it. [The song was a top 10 hit in 1967.]
How much did you enjoy those years?
I loved it. All three of us loved what we were doing.
It was a great opportunity to get your feelings out there; it was a very special opportunity that Motown gave us. It was a lot of hard work, but it was fun work.
Were there sacrifices you had to make in terms of your personal lives, simply down to the weight and pressure of work?
Oh yeah, a lot of the times, our personal lives would suffer.
“our personal lives would suffer. There were a few divorces.”
There were a few divorces. Brian and I both wound up getting divorces, because it was just too strenuous for the wives. They took a hard hit and I can’t blame them at all; our family lives suffered a lot.
How did you come to leave Motown?
Well Brian, Eddie and I wanted to have our own subsidiary label and develop our own artists.
We were in talks with Motown about that, but they would never give us anything concrete. It was always, ‘maybe’, or ‘some time’. So we decided we had to go.
“We signed with Capitol Records and CasablancA… And that ended up creating a lawsuit between Motown and ourselves.”
There were so many companies bombarding us, wanting to do business with Holland-Dozier-Holland. We decided to take a couple of them up on it.
We signed with Capitol Records and Casablanca, both of which gave us the opportunity to start our own labels [Invictus and Hot Wax respectively]. And that ended up creating a lawsuit between Motown and ourselves.
They accused you of breaking your contract. How did that end up?
Not too well. We ended up spending a lot of time and money, but we finally settled out of court.
It turned out to be a wasted adventure – although of course the lawyers made a lot of money.
How sad were you to leave Motown, especially in those circumstances?
It was very hurtful. A lot of nights I sat up feeling so sad about not being able to be there, doing what we did best.
“It was very hurtful. A lot of nights I sat up feeling so sad about not being able to be there.”
I hated leaving a lot of friends, but sometimes, you know, you have to make a change; you have to move on.
Did your personal relationship with Berry suffer greatly during that period?
It was hard for a while, that’s true. But we always kept our love for each other, because we’d done so much together, we’d made history together.
Do you feel that you and Brian and Eddie were fairly compensated for all the hits you wrote and all the money you made for Motown?
Well, I think there were things that could have been done better, put it that way.
That’s why we wanted to have our own label as a subsidiary of Motown. We figured we’d made a lot of money, millions and millions of dollars, for the company and we should be compensated a little better than we were getting.
“I think there were things that could have been done better, put it that way.”
They worried that we would pay more attention to our label than we would to Motown, which was never going to be the case.
But we couldn’t convince them.
Presumably the deal you signed originally meant that all your publishing rights belonged to Motown/Jobete?
That was another thing, yeah, another thing that was hard to take.
How do you look back on the Hot Wax and Invictus labels now?
Some of the songs with Invictus, through Capitol, were huge.
We came out with a big blast, you know. I’d say our first 10 or 11 songs were all top 10. The Holland-Dozier-Holland mystique was still alive, but this time with our own label: Band of Gold, Give Me Just a Little More Time, a whole lot of songs.
But my itch to go back to singing got very strong and so I decided that I wanted to move on.
In those Hot Wax and Invictus days, is it true that you, Eddie and Brian wrote songs together but had to put them out under other names [usually the collective pseudonym ‘Edythe Wayne’]?
That’s true, yes. The first songs on Invictus, like Band of Gold, we put other names on them because we were still in the lawsuit with Motown, that’s how that went.
“Everybody knew it was us, but nobody could prove it because we used fictitious names.”
Everybody knew it was us, because of the way it was written and produced, but nobody could prove it because we used fictitious names.
When you decided to leave the team and pursue a solo career, what was the relationship with Eddie and Brian like?
Well, the Hollands were not very pleased when I decided to go back to singing and signed with ABC.
So there was a lawsuit there, which was very distasteful, but we still have a great relationship today. We worked it out.
It got settled out of court, did it?
As well as it could, yeah, but no-one was especially happy, so it was all a bit of waste of time. Again, the lawyers made all the money.
Is it similar to Berry, though, as in everything is good between you now?
Absolutely. We still see each other.
When there’s a party or a celebration of some sort, we’ll all do it together and the love is always there, because it was a massive history-making venture that we did together.
You left for a solo career and recorded nine albums between 1973 and 1983, selling millions across deals with ABC and Warner Bros. How did you enjoy that phase of your life?
It was kind of rough at first, that’s why I called my first record Out Here On My Own, but that sold over a million.
It gave me some good feelings and some good times, but it was very strenuous.
“It gave me some good feelings and some good times, but it was very strenuous.”
The workload always increased, because there was production work for me to do for other artists.
Every label I went to, there were other artists they wanted me to work with.
After the solo career you worked as a songwriter and producer with some big UK artists. Can you tell us about some of those?
I moved to London in about 1984 and I started working with Alison Moyet, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins. Two Hearts was one of the biggest songs he and I had.
What did you think of his version of You Can’t Hurry Love?
I think he was being respectful because he loved the song and he loved Motown.
He had his own interpretation and his own style. I thought it was well done.
Who are your favourite songwriters of all time?
I love Burt Bacharach, and I loved a group called Bread, David Gates who wrote for them, he’s fantastic. And I like Brian Wilson.
What about today’s writers?
I think Ed Sheeran’s a very good songwriter. There are a few, but Ed stands out.
What would your advice to young songwriters be today?
Have a good work ethic. There’s a lot of competition out there and the people that work the hardest and put their heart and soul into it will get the benefits.
You have to work at it seven days a week.
“the people that work the hardest and put their heart and soul into it will get the benefits.”
There’s no such thing as ‘writer’s block’, that’s just being lazy, that’s something you put in your own head.
‘I don’t feel it today’, that’s bullshit; you’re not being honest with yourself.
What is your view on the impact streaming has had on how much songwriters get paid?
They need to straighten that out, because it’s unfair to a lot of creative people who work their heart out and are being taken advantage of.
What are the three favourite songs that you’ve written?
Oh man, that’s a big one! Okay, I would say, How Sweet It Is, Reach Out I’ll Be There, Bernadette and Where Did Our Love Go?
[Okay, that was four, but, honestly, which one are you gonna ask him to drop? And have you seen the ones he left out…]
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