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Black Music Sunday: RIP Lamont Dozier, who gifted us with so many songs and memories

The early 60s was a time when young Black teens formed street corner singing groups, and doo-wop was the genre they favored. As the Songwriters Hall of Fame notes in his obituary, Lamont Dozier was one of them; doo-wop is where he got his very early start in the music industry.

Lamont Dozier was born and raised in Detroit and was surrounded by music as a child, beginning to write lyrics and music before he was a teenager.

At the age of 13, Dozier founded The Romeos, was signed to Atco Records in 1957. The band had a charting R&B record with the song, “Fine Fine Baby”. Shortly thereafter, The Romeos broke up and Dozier joined The Voicemasters, a doo-wop band on Anna Records. Soon after, Dozier signed exclusively to Motown Records in 1962 as an artist, producer, and songwriter.

In the early 60’s, Dozier began writing with Brian Holland, and was later joined by Brian’s brother Eddie. Over a four-year period, 1963-67, Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland crafted more than 25 top 10 songs and mastered the blend of pop and rhythm and blues that allowed the Detroit label, and founder Berry Gordy, to defy boundaries between Black and white music and rival the Beatles on the airwaves.

As a doo-wop fan, you know I had to go look for Dozier’s first songwriting and singing efforts with The Romeos.

David Bianco, writing for Musician’s Guide, offers this synopsis of HDH’s career.

The Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting and producing team consisted of Eddie Holland (born October 30, 1939, in Detroit, Mich.) Lamont Dozier (born June 16, 1941, in Detroit, Mich.), and Brian Holland (born February 15, 1941, in Detroit, Mich.). Eddie and Brian are brothers. While all three are talented composers, Eddie Holland was noted for his lyrics, Lamont Dozier for the melodies, and Brian Holland for production and engineering.

[…]

The team was formed at Berry Gordy’s Motown Record Corporation in Detroit, Mich., in 1962. Depending on the source, their very first recorded collaboration was either Lamont Dozier’s recording of “Dearest One” on the Melody label or the Marvelettes’ recording of “Locking Up My Heart” on Tamla. Wrote and produced 25 Top 10 pop hits (12 of which reached Number 1) and an additional 12 songs that made the Top 10 on the r&b charts during career with Motown, 1963-67; left Motown in 1968 and formed own record companies, Hot Wax and Invictus, in Detroit.
 

Lamont Dozier was awarded a Grammy, with Phil Collins, for best song written specifically for a motion picture or television, 1989, for “Two Hearts” from motion picture Buster; team inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1990.

When the news broke of Dozier’s death, the tributes began to roll in. First, from singers he wrote for and songwriters he wrote with:

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He was also an inspiration to other songwriters.

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His death was noted by major media outlets, both here and abroad.

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The New York Times’ obituary for Dozier, written by author and journalist Gavin Edwards, offered some glimpses of his childhood and early songwriting efforts.

When Mr. Dozier was 5, his father took him to a concert with an all-star bill that included Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. While the music excited the young boy, he was also impressed by the audience’s ecstatic reaction, and resolved that he would make people feel good in the same way.

As a high school student, Mr. Dozier wrote songs, cutting up grocery bags so he would have paper for the lyrics, and formed the Romeos, an interracial doo-wop group. When the Romeos’ song “Fine Fine Baby” was released by Atco Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic, in 1957, Mr. Dozier dropped out of high school at age 16, anticipating stardom. But when Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler wanted a second single, Mr. Dozier overplayed his hand, saying the group would only make a full-length LP. He received a letter wishing him well and dropping the Romeos from the label.

After the Romeos broke up, Mr. Dozier auditioned for Anna Records, a new label called founded by Billy Davis and the sisters Anna and Gwen Gordy; he was slotted into a group called the Voice Masters and hired as a custodian. In 1961, billed as Lamont Anthony, he released his first solo single, “Let’s Talk It Over” — but he preferred the flip side, “Popeye,” a song he wrote. “Popeye,” which featured a young Marvin Gaye on drums, became a regional hit until it was squelched by King Features, owners of the cartoon and comic-strip character Popeye.

The Washington Post’s Brian Murphy reported a piece of information that astounded me.

Mr. Dozier never learned to fully read music or write scores. “I was too busy,” he once said. But he believed he developed a sense of chord structure and power from listening to his aunt, a classical pianist, practice in Detroit when he was young. He called the Motown sound, at its best, a mix of the chord progressions of classical music and the soulful energy of gospel.

“Torchy but not torchy, fun but not overproduced,” he said in a 2018 interview. “We wanted to get the same feeling of a ballad, without it being a ballad.”

Writing for The Guardian, Bob Stanley, writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne, was faced with a quandary: How could he pick “best songs” by Dozier when there are so many to choose from?

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His final list?

  • Martha and the Vandellas: “Heat Wave” (1963) 
  • The Four Tops: “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (1966)
  • R. Dean Taylor: “There’s a Ghost in My House” (1967) 
  • Diana Ross and the Supremes: “Reflections” (1967)
  • Chairmen of the Board: “Give Me Just a Little More Time” (1970)
  • Lamont Dozier: “Going Back to My Roots” (1977)

Take a look at the complete list of songs written by Dozier over at Secondhand Songs.

I doubt that any of us who know and love his hits will end up with the same “best of” lists. I, of course, have my own selections. Martha and The Vandellas were my favorite Motown girl group, so my top pick from the HDH list is “Come and Get These Memories,” written by HDH in 1963.

Growing up, I had a friend named Bernadette; the Four Tops singing this dramatic song by HDH in 1967 made her the envy of my crowd.  

What always struck me the most was this lyric:

Bernadette, they want you because of the pride that gives
But Bernadette, I want you because, I need you to live
But while I live, only to hold you
Some other men, they long to control you
But how can they control you Bernadette
When they can not control themselves, Bernadette

Fun fact: “Bernadette” is the only HDH song with a woman’s name as the title.

I could sit here all day and post my faves, but I will hold off and post them to the comments section. 

Back to “Bernadette”: In this clip from the Dutch program, Top 2000 a Gogo, Dozier talks about making the hit song—and so much more.

You can see more clips from Dozier’s episode here and here.

In 2015, Dozier visited The Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) to be named a Fellow and spend an evening talking with the audience gathered there. Gina E. Fann wrote about it for the university.

The child poet, raised on his uncle’s boogie-woogie and his aunt’s Chopin, kept the MTSU audience laughing as he shared tales from his ongoing career.

His days as the teenaged doo-wop leader of The Romeos, the raucous five years at the cinderblock home-turned-record label called Motown, his leadership at his own record label and million-selling record production work with American and British artists all were fair game for Dozier’s conversation with Fred Cannon, a MTSU recording industry professor and Dozier’s former label manager.

“I used to come in every morning and sit down at the piano and get warmed up playing ‘Heat Wave,’” Dozier recalled of those heady years when he made $25 a week — “which amounted to about bus fare, plus they gave us lunch in the room upstairs”­ — for 18-hour days composing and producing hits for Berry Gordy’s stable of artists.

His inside story of the “fussing and crying” chaos that ultimately led to “Where Did Our Love Go,” the first in a string of No. 1 hits for the poor neglected “no-hit Supremes,” had the MTSU crowd in gales of laughter.

Here’s a short recap of Dozier’s evening at MTSU, including a great story of how he came to work with “the no-hit Supremes.” 

The hit “Where Did Our Love Go” took “the no-hit Supremes” to the number-one position on the Billboard charts for the first time. The song stayed in the top spot for two weeks, kickstarting a string of number-one tunes for the group.

Mary Wilson talked about the song, which she disliked, in this 2012 Yahoo! music interview.

“Eddie Holland, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier said, ‘We have a great song for you, and it was called ‘Where Did Our Love Go,'” Wilson explained during an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Music. “So they played it for us and we said, ‘We don’t like that. Listen, we need to have a hit record, OK?’ They said, ‘No, trust us this is a hit record.'”

Despite their hesitation, The Supremes recorded “Where Did Our Love Go” and Motown released it. They were surprised by its reception. “We went on the Dick Clark show, and the record became a No. 1 hit while we were on Dick Clark’s tour. It was a major tour — The Shirelles, The Drifters, Lou Christie, Gene Pitney … That’s when we got our first hit record. But we did not like it, still.”

Wilson said she never sang the song after The Supremes disbanded in 1977. “I just don’t like the record,” she said. “I think the reason why I didn’t like ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ was that we really needed a hit record, and we had been singing since ’59. So now it’s ’64. We were called ‘The No Hit Supremes’ at Motown. [But] that [song] made us stars. Ever since then I’ve never said, ‘I don’t like this or whatever.’ I just kept my mouth closed. But of the 12 hit records there were many that I adored, but some just didn’t matter as long as we were on the road.”

For those of you interested in a deeper look into the man and his music, Dozier published his autobiographyHow Sweet It Is: A Songwriter’s Reflections on Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse, in 2019.

Sally O’Roarke, writing for Rebeat, documents HDH’s later career in “The Unhooked Generation: Holland-Dozier-Holland After Motown,” a seven-part series documenting the group’s three attempts (in eight years) to launch their own labels and move past Gordy’s Motown.

Despite the fact that the Holland-Dozier-Holland name had become nearly synonymous with that of Motown, the trio sued label founder Berry Gordy in 1967 for withholding royalties and profits. HDH left the Motown stable shortly afterward, but it wouldn’t be until 1969 that their own labels would be up and running: Invictus (distributed by major label Capitol Records) and Hot Wax (distributed by prominent indie Buddah Records). A third, the short-lived, independently-distributed Music Merchant, would be created in 1972.

The Unhooked Generation: Holland-Dozier-Holland After Motown is a seven-part series examining every single released on that trio of labels before they folded in 1977. The series follows the format of the 14-disc box set Holland-Dozier-Holland: The Complete 45s Collection, released this year by Harmless Records to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the formation of Invictus and Hot Wax.

Note on credits: due to the ongoing litigation between HDH and Motown, the trio was contractually forbidden to use their own names on their early releases. Production was often credited to “Stagecoach Productions” or “Staff,” while “Edythe Wayne” was HDH’s collective songwriting pseudonym (usually credited alongside Ronald Dunbar, a fellow writer/producer).

Beyond that, however, credits are often murky, with rumors that HDH used the names of other Invictus/Hot Wax staffers as fronts for their own contributions, or that certain producers/songwriters signed to Motown appeared on HDH releases anonymously. Even decades on, it can be difficult to ascertain the extent that HDH contributed to their only labels’ releases. The series assumes the trio took an active role in most of what Invictus/Hot Wax put out; however, it will also take most writing credits at face value (or, as much as possible, avoid the topic altogether).

One of the groups to come out of Invictus was Chairmen of the Board:

Formed in Detroit , the Chairmen were one of the first acts signed by songwriting legends Holland/Dozier/Holland for their Invictus label following H/D/H’s messy divorce from Motown. The group came out of the box strong in 1970 with the wonderful “Give Me Just A Little More Time,” a classic early 70’s radio smash highlighted by lead singer General Johnson’s emotive, plaintive vocals. “Give Me” was the foundation of the group’s excellent debut album, which also featured the infectious “(You’ve Got Me) Dangling on a String,”.

“Emotive, plaintive vocals,” indeed.

Dozier, who many people forget was also singer, released an album and DVD singing his sits in 2004 on his Jam Right Entertainment label.

Here’s the promotional video for Reflections of …

To close this week’s story, I came across an interesting video which illustrates how HDH songs went beyond R&B to have an impact on other genres.

Adam Reader, known as “The Professor of Rock,” interviewed Dozier, the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, and Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice about the HDH classic “You Keep Me Hanging On,” which was a Top Ten hit for four acts over nearly 30 years: First, the Supremes in 1966, then the psychedelic rock band Vanilla Fudge (1967), Kim Wilde (1987), and Reba McEntire (1995).

This brings my Dozier tribute to a close. However, the music will keep playing in the comments, and I look forward to hearing your favorites.

Rest in Music, Lamont Dozier.




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