Lamont Dozier: the Motown master craftsman who created miracles under pressure
Lamont Dozier was not a man much given to discussing the mystical art of songwriting and inspiration. You might have thought he would be. There’s certainly something extraordinary about the sheer quality of the songs he wrote with Brian and Eddie Holland in the 60s and early 70s: Baby Love, Nowhere to Run, Stop! In the Name of Love, Reach Out I’ll Be There, Heatwave, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), Band of Gold, You Can’t Hurry Love, You Keep Me Hangin On and Bernadette among them – a catalogue that meant Holland-Dozier-Holland stood out even amid the riches of songwriting and production talent assembled at Motown. There’s a fair argument for calling this collection of songs the greatest in the history of pop.
And it wasn’t just that these songs were hits – they were the kind of hits that became indelibly imprinted on the brain of anyone with even a passing interest in pop music. But Dozier took a very prosaic attitude to it all, presenting himself not as the genius he clearly was but as a man who’d simply worked hard, “banging on that piano”. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block,” he contended a few years before his death. “That’s just being lazy. That’s just something you put in your own head. ‘I don’t feel it today’ – that’s bullshit.”
Perhaps that was just the attitude one developed in the hothouse hit factory environment of Motown where, Dozier recalled, songwriting sessions could last for 18 hours straight and founder Berry Gordy was given to announcing “so-and-so needs a hit because they’re going out of town and they need something right away”. The more successful the label got, the more Gordy seemed to pile on the pressure: in 1965, at the height of Motown’s golden age, he issued an edict: “We will release nothing less than Top 10 product on any artist. Because the Supremes’ worldwide acceptance is greater than the other artists, on them we will release only No 1 records.”
It was a challenging environment to which Dozier and the Holland brothers responded in the most incredible fashion. Each of them had started out as a performer in Detroit before being brought together by Gordy. Dozier thought they worked so well together because of their shared background in the church and a mutual love of classical music. They were, by all accounts, as determined and tough as their boss, and not above provoking the artists they worked with in order to get the best out of them. Diana Ross fled the sessions for Where Did Our Love Go in tears: she hated the song, which Dozier just maintained gave her vocal “the attitude it needed to become a big hit”. Their relationship with Marvin Gaye was also frequently volatile, the singer feeling provoked by the trio deliberately writing songs in a key he felt was too high for him, in order, Dozier said, “to be a little more imaginative, reach up to a falsetto”.
However much trouble their methods caused around Hitsville USA, you couldn’t argue with the end result. Holland-Dozier-Holland were skilled at drawing out performances of startling intensity from artists. Listen to Levi Stubbs’ voice on the Four Tops’ Standing in the Shadows of Love. Or his cry of “Just look over your shoulder!” on Reach Out (I’ll Be There). Or the 1971 single You Keep Running Away, where the singer’s agonies – “Just look at me, I’m not the man I used to be / I used to be proud, I used to be strong” – chafe against the ebullience of the musical backing. Meanwhile, the Supremes may have been painted as Motown’s poppiest and sweetest group, but there’s a genuine desperation about Ross’s lead vocal on You Keep Me Hangin’ On that is startlingly powerful when combined with the music’s churning relentlessness, the pounding drums, the one-note morse-code guitar.
Holland-Dozier-Holland’s songs occasionally contained a darker undercurrent than was immediately apparent. Martha and the Vandellas’ wonderful 1967 single Jimmy Mack was inspired when Dozier attended a songwriting ceremony in New York where the mother of the songwriter Ronnie Mack – who had died aged 23 from cancer – accepted an award on his behalf for the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine. It takes on a noticeably different hue if you consider that the subject of the Martha Reeves’ pleas to return might be dead.
Although never overtly political, Motown’s golden age played out against a backdrop of turmoil in America, much of it connected to the civil rights movement. And without ever making it explicit enough to harm their commercial chances, Holland-Dozier-Holland frequently seemed to be sending out coded messages to their black American audience. As the writer Jon Savage subsequently noted, the tense, Bob Dylan-influenced Reach Out (I’ll Be There) “offered advice and sustenance to communities … under extreme duress”. Martha and the Vandellas’ Nowhere to Run, meanwhile, presents itself as a love song but in reality was inspired by the state of America. Dozier later said its claustrophobic atmosphere had more to do with seeing tanks on the streets in the wake of riots and teenagers being shipped off to Vietnam than with romance.
Immediate, accessible pop music that is emotionally impactful and rich with meaning: it was an incredible trick to pull off, but Holland-Dozier-Holland did it again and again. It wasn’t enough to save their relationship with Motown. Promised and then denied their own sub-label, and angry about the way money was distributed in the company, they first went on a go-slow, then left entirely in 1968. The ensuing litigation went on for years, and forced them to use a pseudonym – Wayne-Dunbar – when writing for artists on their own labels, Invicta and Hot Wax.
They had more hits – Freda Payne’s Band of Gold; Give Me Just a Little More Time by the Chairmen of the Board – maintaining the same breathtaking standard that they’d kept at Motown. But Dozier became disillusioned: he claimed the Holland brothers passed on the chance to sign both Funkadelic and Al Green, and their rejection of the latter pre-empted his decision to leave, and another lawsuit. He pursued a successful solo career as a performer: 1973’s gorgeous Take Off Your Make Up and the following year’s Trying to Hold Onto My Woman suggested songwriting powers undiminished by the break-up of the partnership, and the Afrocentric 1977 album track Going Back to My Roots enjoyed a long afterlife thanks to multiple cover versions. Somehow his friendships with both Berry Gordy and the Holland brothers survived the legal disputes: “Business is business,” he shrugged, “but love is love.”
He moved to London in the 80s and kept writing: he was behind Alison Moyet’s 1984 hit Invisible, and collaborated with Mick Hucknall, who one suspects couldn’t believe his luck, on a string of tracks for Simply Red. Sometimes he dealt in material that nodded to the classic 60s Motown sound, such as the Four Tops’ Loco in Acapulco or Phil Collins’ Two Hearts. None of it was ever likely to supplant Holland-Dozier-Holland’s 60s output in anyone’s affections, but clearly his hitmaking touch was intact.
In his later years, he dabbled in musical theatre, taught courses at the University of Southern California and seemed happy to give interviews in which he reflected on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s peerless achievements; the pressure they’d worked under at Motown; the havoc it had wreaked on their personal lives; the way they’d come up with this song or that song. Ultimately, however, every interview seemed to come back to the same unassuming theme. “It was blood, sweat and tears,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “We just worked and worked … until we came up with things.”