This has been such an awfully sad year so far, one of the worst I can remember, as we’ve said farewell to far too many friends. While we were processing the deaths of Judith Durham (of The Seekers) and Olivia Newton John this month, we were hit broadside with the unexpected announcement that one third of the Holland, Dozier, Holland hit machine had died. Yeah, it was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to Lamont Dozier.
In the huge outpouring of love following his passing from all quarters of the music business, Smokey Robinson said, “Although he’s no longer on this earth, he will live forever through his vast catalogue of wonderful music.” Carole King wrote, “Gerry (Goffin) and I respected Holland-Dozier-Holland over at Motown. Striving to keep up with them made us better songwriters”, while Berry Gordy was probably one of the first to release a public statement. First off, he praised the work Lamont did with Eddie and Brian Holland, giving The Supremes not only their first number one single “Where Did Our Love Go” but the chart toppers that followed over the next three years: “They propelled The Supremes into super stardom and also worked their magic with artists like the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas too. In the 1960s, their sound became synonymous with the ‘Motown Sound’. Lamont was a brilliant arranger and producer who balanced the talents of the great Eddie and Brian Holland, helping to pull it all together. Lamont was a good friend and will be missed by the entire Motown family.”
Not wishing to provoke a clash of opinions here, but I think it’s fair to say that H-D-H were the “Motown Sound”. With the Funk Brothers and the Andantes, they crafted hit material by mastering a mixture of R&B and pop that enabled Berry to ignore the boundaries between black and white in the music industry at that time. H-D-H weren’t afraid of re-working formulas or repeating a previous hit either. I’m reminded here of a note I wrote because one journalist believed the “sound” H-D-H created “was generally characterised by several signatures including the accentuation of the back beat, melodic chord structures, call-and-response singing styles and deceptively simple melodies.” That about sums it up I reckon.
I won’t attempt to list all the compositions bearing their signature, but this handful represents a minuscule number of million sellers while resident at Motown including “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “(My Love Is Like A) Heatwave”, “Can I Get A Witness”, “This Old Heart Of Mine”, “Baby Love” and “Helpless”. And, man, didn’t we love every little beat, catchy phrase and chorus! So, for the next few paragraphs, let’s pay tribute to the Motown career of Lamont Dozier, an exceptionally talented man.
Born Lamont Herbert Dozier – (so named after the lead character Lamont Cranston in The Shadow, a popular radio serial at the time) on 16th June 1941, in Detroit, he was the eldest of five children. His parents Ethel and Willie held down several jobs between them, despite the fact that his father suffered a World War II injury which often meant he couldn’t work for long periods of time. However, it was a household of love and music, with Lamont’s growing passion for words being encouraged by a grade school teacher who liked one of his poems so much that she kept it on the classroom’s blackboard for a month. Despite having little spare money available, Willie managed to take his five-year-old son to see Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. This experience fuelled his ambition to write his own music in the hope that it would, one day, make people happy. So, while at high school, the young man scribbled away his lyrics on any slips of paper he could find, including paper shopping bags which he cut into strips. Buying notebooks was an extravagant expense for a family struggling with everyday life: “..I had no idea how people got into the music business,” Lamont wrote in his autobiography How Sweet It Is. “In my attempt to figure it out, I was always looking for music companies in the yellow pages. I’d get these addresses, put all my cut-down grocery bags into another grocery bag, then go walking all over town, knocking on doors….”
Lamont eventually hooked up with Harry Nivens, a local songwriter, producer and “all-round music industry hustler”. This guy had his own label, Penthouse Records, and worked quite successfully with local groups like The Royaltones. Both had big ambitions, but before they could get organised, Lamont’s parents scuppered their plans to take New York by storm. However, while he was mopping up his disappointment, fate took an unexpected turn when he met up with his school friend Tyrone Hunter. One thing led to another and they began singing with The Counts: later on, following a change of membership with Leon Ware stepping in, they became The Romeos, an inter-racial doo-wop group. Atlantic Records’ subsidiary Atco released their “Fine Fine Baby” single in 1957, prompting 16-year-old Lamont to drop out of high school, as he believed stardom was waiting. It was short-lived because when Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler requested a second single, Lamont told him the group would only consider an album deal. He had overplayed his hand and they were dropped from the label!
From The Romeos, Lamont headed for Anna Records, founded by Billy Davis and Berry Gordy’s sisters Anna and Gwen, where he joined The Voice Masters. He also branched out as a soloist. In 1961, using the name Lamont Anthony, he released his debut single, “Let’s Talk It Over” with his own composition “Popeye” on the flipside, featuring Marvin Gaye on drums. Sales on a regional level were healthy enough but before further distribution could be considered, King Features, the owners of the comic strip character Popeye threatened legal action. So that was that!
When Anna Records eventually folded (or rather became part of Berry Gordy’s growing record empire), Lamont was offered a songwriting job, with a weekly salary of $25. “I accepted that an artist career just wasn’t in the cards for me at Motown. I still wanted it, but I was constantly being bombarded with the demand for more songs and more productions for the growing roster of artists.” Then, before he knew it, Berry Gordy suggested Lamont work with another young composer with ambition, Brian Holland. Brian was Berry’s favourite at the time because he had produced “Please Mr Postman” with Robert Bateman, his composer/producer partner. “It was like Brian and I could complete one another’s musical ideas the way certain people can finish another’s sentences. I realised right away that we shared a secret language of creativity.”
In 1962, Lamont and Brian worked with Eddie, Brian’s brother, who had previously been a protégé of Berry’s, and had enjoyed rather limited local success with “Jamie”. Together they created “Darling I Hum Our Song” which, I believe, kick-started the partnership of Holland, Dozier, Holland. “Brian was all music, Eddie was all lyrics, and I was the ideas man who bridged both,” said Lamont. In his statement following his friend’s passing, Eddie Holland wrote, “He had the music in him. He had the soul of music in him….He was one creative person who could function better when he was sad and making melodies. It just made him stronger. I would marvel at that….I don’t think we ever met our potential as a team. We started off very young, and the more experience we got, the better we got.”
Lamont further explained their routine when working with the Funk Brothers in the studio: “I was…sandwiched between the two brothers…Brian was also the recording engineer. A lot of the time we would get on the floor and direct them first hand with nothing but a chord sheet. Just showing the band how to play and what attitude the songs should be played in.” Splitting up the workforce, so to speak, in this manner meant they were able to cope with the growing demand for material. “We were a factory within a factory. That’s why we were so far ahead of everybody else. We had this work ethic that kept us glued to the grindstone…We were sometimes in the studio eighteen or twenty hours a day. It was madness.” He believed that during the relatively short time they spent under the Motown umbrella, they racked up between four and five hundred songs!
Inspiration for their material came from all manner of things. For instance, they got the idea for the song “Reach Out I’ll Be There” from a Bob Dylan phrase; “I Can’t Help Myself” boasts the opening and ongoing lyrics “Sugar pie, honey bunch” because Lamont’s grandfather used the phrase quite excessively, while “Bernadette” was Lamont’s elementary school sweetheart. He admitted she was behind many songs through the years because “the situation I had with her was one-sided, it was unrequited. She didn’t know I even existed but I had this crush on her and hoped she would be my girl. But it wasn’t to be.
How “Nowhere To Run” was born was another that caught my attention. It was 1964 when America accelerated the number of troops being shipped into Vietnam. Lamont met up with this 19-year-old man who was due to be shipped out but before he went Lamont organised a party in his honour: “He was looking really solemn because he had this feeling that he wouldn’t be returning home. I tried to help him look on the positive side but he wasn’t having any of it….I felt bad for this young man.” That same night when Lamont was lying in bed, all he could think about was the guy’s dilemma and that there was no escape. He was trapped; there was ‘nowhere to run.’ H-D-H gave the song to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas: it was an instant hit. Years later when the single was included in Good Morning Vietnam Lamont felt that “the song was evident to those who were really in tune with those changing times.” Unfortunately, no further mention was made of the young man.
However, this is the story I liked the best which Lamont remembered in an undated interview for The Guardian. It concerned him breaking up with a girlfriend: “She was pretty heated up because I was quite the ladies’ man at that time and I’d been cheating on her. So she started telling me off and swinging at me until I said ‘Stop, in the name of love!’ As soon as I’d said it, I heard a cash register in my head and laughed. My girlfriend didn’t think it was very amusing. The only ones who were happy about it were The Supremes.”
I thought it was interesting to read in a 2001 interview Lamont admitting that all the songs they wrote actually started life as ballads “but when we were in the studio we’d pick up the tempo. The songs had to be fast because they were for teenagers – otherwise it would have been more like something for your parents. The emotion was still there, it was just under cover of the optimism that you got from the up-tempo beat.”
With H-D-H being such big money earners at Motown, they asked Berry Gordy if they could have their own label within his company. The request was turned down. This decision led to them thinking seriously about moving on to open their own label. While checking out their financial situation, they discovered a huge discrepancy in Motown’s royalty accounting system which did not include overseas sales. This was something, Lamont said, they had not even thought of until Four Tops’ Duke Fakir told him how big the audiences and record buyers were in the UK and Europe. “We’d been taken advantage of….Reinvigorated with a fresh sense of resolve, I was ready to pull the plug on Motown.”
News of the trio’s grievances with the company soon spread like wildfire, but as they were still under contract, they could not work elsewhere. It left them no option but to ‘ghost’ Motown until the contract ended, but all the while they stayed away from the studio, they planned their future. Then things turned very serious. In the summer of 1968, Motown sued the trio for four million dollars, charging them with breach of their contracts. They counter-sued for twenty-two million. The court battle stretched several years, added to which were other lawsuits between them and Berry Gordy which, Lamont described as “long, complicated and unpleasant.” Eventually, a deal was hammered out but the damage had been done. “We had such a family type of relationship,” said Eddie Holland. “In spite of the arguments, there was something special in that Motown system of people….When we needed each other, everybody was there. It was a strange, beautiful relationship that being involved in Motown created.” But for now, Motown was history.
Once they were officially free, H-D-H wrote material for their brand new labels, Invictus and Hot Wax, although Lamont confirmed they had actually continued to work while sitting out their Motown contract, by using other names in the composer credits. Under these imprints, the hits began again from the likes of The Honey Cone, Freda Payne and Chairmen Of The Board. The magic returned thousand-fold until the hits stopped whereupon Lamont decided to pursue the solo career he was forced to abandon back in the day. He also co-wrote and produced for third parties, and continued to enjoy royalty pay cheques thanks to artists like Phil Collins and Kim Wilde covering their Motown hits. Life was good and he continued to be successful on several levels.
An event in the early eighties briefly reunited him with Eddie and Brian Holland when Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary with the television show Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. There was a certain Motown fever about town which probably led to the trio working with The Four Tops who had returned to Motown after a lengthy hiatus. Their collaboration resulted in the “Back Where I Belong” album which, to be fair, was more of an historical reunion than a big success. The public world of Motown held its breath that H-D-H had returned to Motown. Yay! But that was not to be because the company insisted on owning the album’s publishing rights. Hah – nothing had changed from the early days, so the album was definitely a one-off, although the Holland brothers went on to work with Scherrie Payne, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson on their 1975 album, “The Supremes”. Meantime, the trio drifted apart, leaving Lamont to perform in concert, and write and produce for a host of acts, which often led to him being a familiar and welcome figure in British recording studios. In between times, he wrote and published his long-awaited autobiography How Sweet It Is in 2019, the same year as the Holland Brothers published Come And Get These Memories.
Lamont Dozier passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home near Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 81 years old. He leaves behind a massive musical legacy for which we will always be grateful.
Duke Fakir: “I like to call Holland, Dozier, Holland ‘tailors of music’. They could take any artist, call them into their office, talk to them, listen to them, and write them a top ten song.” Diana Ross: “(Lamont) will always be remembered through all the beautiful songs that we wrote for me and The Supremes.” Eddie Holland : “We’re going to miss each other. Maybe we’re going to see each other in a different life. Every time a person from Motown dies, someone we grew up with, it takes a little bit more out of us.”