Our favourite podcasting duo Sodajerker meet the Motown legend in Liverpool, to talk about songwriting and the peerless trio Holland-Dozier-Holland
Lamont Dozier was born in 1941 in Detroit, Michigan and made his first record aged just 15 years old. At 17, he signed to Gwen Gordy’s Anna Records, cutting his first single, Let’s Talk It Over, under the name Lamont Anthony. When Anna Records folded, Lamont accepted an invitation from Gwen’s brother Berry to join his fledgling Motown label, signing on in 1962 as an artist, writer and producer. Shortly afterwards, he met fellow employees Brian and Eddie Holland and an astonishingly fruitful, creative union was born.
Between 1963-67, Holland-Dozier-Holland penned no less than 46 Top 10 singles beginning with the sublime Where Did Our Love Go? for The Supremes and that was the first of 13 consecutive No 1s for the group, all of which were produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland. The trio left Motown in acromonious circumstances in 1968 and relocated to Los Angeles, where they continued to produce work of tremendous quality, not least the huge-selling singles Band Of Gold for Freda Payne and Chairmen Of The Board’s Give Me Just A Little More Time.
Lamont left the Holland-Dozier-Holland fold in 1972, signed to ABC Dunhill and embarked on an impressive solo career, releasing a number of fine albums. He moved to England with his family in 1980 spending a couple of years there and continued writing for, and with, a host of other artists throughout the decade, including Phil Collins, Alison Moyet, Boy George, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton and Simply Red. More recently, he’s worked with artists like George Benson, Mark Ronson, Joss Stone and Kanye West.
As well as being a member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Songwriters Halls Of Fame, Lamont received – along with the Holland brothers – the Special International Award at the 2004 Ivor Novellos and, in 2009, was the recipient of the Johnny Mercer Award, one of the highest honours for a songwriter. And, in February this year, the team were awarded their own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
The legendary Lamont Dozier sat down with Simon and Brian in Liverpool, to discuss his incredible story and formidable songwriting technique…
The first thing we wanted to ask was how you developed your songwriting skills as a young man. It seemed you were already writing words and music before you were even a teenager.
“A lot of the ‘gifts’, you might call them, came about by living with my grandmother who was a choir director at church. She taught me a lot about how when I’m standing in front of an audience and singing, that I should always pronounce the words and make sure that I’m singing the right words and the words mean what they’re meant to be. So a lot of that came from her, her being a music-teaching source. Then, by the time I was eleven years old, I was in the elementary school and one of my main teachers, that I really gave credit too, was Edith Burke and she had an assignment for all the kids to write a poem and the best poem would go on the blackboard. I came up with a poem called A Song about what a song does to the human psyche and what people feel or get from a poem, no matter what it might be. She thought, for a kid that was eleven years old, it was very unusual to be thinking that deep at that age. She accepted my poem, put it on the blackboard and it stayed on there for about 30 days, to influence the other kids to show them what to do and what not to do, and what is appropriate.
“That encouraged me to do more writing and read up on lyric writing and listen to a lot of material, records and what have you; Rodgers & Hammerstein and Rodgers & Hart, and those different people. Even at that age, in the 50s, I was drawn to musical theatre, as a kid. When I saw My Fair Lady in the theatre, that was it for me, I just wanted to be one of those guys who wrote the music for that type of genre. It just so happened that I kept on with that thought and going down that road with that premise of being Rodgers & Hart and those people, because I just loved Singing In The Rain and My Fair Lady, which I considered the greatest musical ever written.”
But even with the Romeos you had songs recorded at the age of 13, didn’t you?
“Yeah I was writing the songs and singing the songs. The lead singer and I wrote the songs. The Romeos was a group that we put together in a housing project, where I stayed, and an opportunity came for us to record, from a guy who wanted to be in the recording business – he owned a couple of drug stores. One of the guys, the bass singer, Don Davenport said he knew this guy and wanted to start a company. That happened, so I wrote a few songs and lo and behold the song Fine, Fine Baby – I must’ve been about 14 or 15 – became a big local hit. And Atlantic Records heard it and wanted to approach the guy, his name was George Braxton, that started this label and so George got the opportunity to sell it, so he saw the money and said, ‘fine!’
“So we found ourselves on Atlantic Records. The record didn’t make a lot, I guess it was a Top 40 hit. We started to wait around and see if we were going to hear anything from the record company – to do some more recording or have an album – and we didn’t get any word, so I sent them a letter. I put on another hat as the producer and spokesman for the group, and more or less gave them an ultimatum. They just sent us a nice letter back saying, ‘Gentlemen, we understand your frustration… we wish you well in your future endeavours.’ It sounded like they were giving us the old shove, and that’s what it was. It was a farewell, goodbye letter.”
When you got to Motown in the early 60s, did you intend to become part of a writing and production team, or did you have more designs on becoming a solo singer-songwriter?
“Well, when I got to Motown, Berry Gordy signed me up as an artist. He knew I was a songwriter and he knew I could produce, and make records, so he wanted me as an artist and producer and songwriter, because he had a lot of artists, but nobody to write and produce them. Because he wrote for Jackie Wilson, a lot of his hits, so he really was respectful of the writing I did, of course. While I was there at Motown, I ran into Brian Holland one day. I was playing the piano in the studio one day, working on a song called Forever and Brian came in – he was a recording engineer as well and was working on something for the Marvelettes, which he was part of the writing team that wrote the Please Mr Postman. Brian came in and said, ‘What’s that there you’re writing?’ and I said, ‘I’m just writing a ballad here, but something is missing, I need to add some more.’ He said, ‘Yeah, it sounds like you need a bridge to it.’ So he added some ideas and that was the start of Holland & Dozier, as a writing team.
“Then the workload got so heavy that all the other artists around said, ‘Will you write us something?’ It got so busy and, Eddie Holland was a singer, and all we sang, but Eddie wanted to be in the background – he didn’t like being on stage – so he said, ‘Why don’t you and Brian give me a shot at writing some of those lyrics and I could take the load off, then with you and Brian coming up with new ideas all the time, and in the studio cutting tracks, we could have our own little writing situation and have our own production team – a factory within a factory.’ And that’s what we did. We had so much work and we worked constantly – the work ethic was just spot on – we wrote all the time, from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the morning, sometimes. It all depended on how many songs we needed for the resident artists in the company.”
The vibe of some of those songs are so upbeat and energetic. With something like Heatwave for instance, when you’re writing a song like that, would you be bouncing around the world singing, or would you be at the piano?
“That particular song was a warm-up song for me, in the mornings when I got up and went to the studio. It was something that just got my juices flowing. I hadn’t really thought about finishing it until one day, somebody was working with Martha And The Vandellas on something else and they said they needed one more song to complete whatever situation they were working on. Brian said, ‘Why don’t you give them that thing you’re always playing?’ So we knocked that out in about an hour or two and we had another little thing called This Old Heart of Mine [Is Weak for You] that was another warm-up song that we finished off for the Isley Brothers.
“Things like that happened: we were such a dynamo as far as the writing came – once we started, we kept moving it. We had that real tight connection, so were able to write a lot of songs and produce a lot of people, which we did for The Supremes, Martha, The Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye… We became Berry’s go-to guys at the company and a lot of other producers didn’t like that too much! It kind of looked like we were taking over the reins and they weren’t getting the shots they thought they should get. But he just told them, ‘Don’t give me no lip about these guys, because they’re bringing in the stuff that matters here!’
It seems like everything you were writing at the time became a hit. Was it really a hot streak or were you having to write hundreds of songs to get to those gems?
“We thought out everything meticulously. If we were going to write things about love, we made sure that the truth was in the songs. We were calling ourselves, ‘champions to the women’s cause’, because a lot of the women were always getting their heart broke, or misused by guys. So we had to put their two cents in the songs. That’s why Baby Love and Where Did Our Love Go? all had this premise of the woman’s side of view, of the situation. Also women bought all the records, so we were like an ally to them, as they were to us.
“Some of the songs would come naturally. We had three heads – they say two heads are better than one, but three was even better! When felt something, when we triggered something on the piano, we could easily look at each other and think – without saying anything. We might be sitting there, reading the newspaper or looking at a deck of cards and then we’d stop and say, ‘What was that?’ And that was how we wrote. When things came up, that caught our attention, all three would pop up and say, ‘oh yeah!’ and then we’d work on that.”
The rhythm arrangements of these songs are so distinctive as well. Do you guys play a role in getting those parts together for songs?
“When I started writing a song, I always start with my left hand. Always the bass line first, in the bottom, held the song together, then with my right hand plug out the melody and the feeling against it, with some idea of a beat. Then when we’d get in the studio. James Jamerson and I used to be in a band together, before we got to Motown, so it was easy to work with Jamerson and Benny Benjamin the drummer, Robert White on guitar, Eddie Willis on guitar, Joe Messina on guitar, piano was Earl Van Dyke or Joe Hunter. Clarence Isabell on those vibes sounds, you always heard on those records, and Norman Whitfield came in and helped from time to time. That was The Funk Brothers, that’s basically what they called themselves.”
The story behind I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) – are we right in thinking that came from your real life?
“When I stayed with my grandmother as a kid, she had her own beauty shop. My grandfather would usually be piddling in the garden, and when the women would come up the walkway and into the beauty salon, he would be flirting with them. He was a bit of a rascal! He’d be saying, ‘Hello sugar pie, how are you doing?’ and as a kid I’d be sitting out on the porch listening as the people came in and those little things he’d say, I remembered a lot of those things. So when the opportunity came, years later, when I was sitting at the piano, just thinking and going through my repetoire of memories, they’d come to me. I’d see my grandfather’s face and hear him saying that.”
Stop In The Name Of Love was borne out of personal experience as well, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, getting caught at an inopportune time with another girl, you might say! When the girl came in, the other girl went out the back door, and this girl I was going with was known to have quite a temper and she came in raising hell and I said, ‘Oh baby, please believe me, there’s nobody here. Stop! Just stop, in the name of love will you!’ She said, ‘I don’t think that’s funny,’ and I said, ‘wait a minute, did you hear what I just said: “Stop in the name of love.” Did you hear that cash register?’ Y’know I was trying to tone it down and discourage the argument. Anyway, we got through that, I went back in the studio later and told Brian, ‘Man, I’ve got something.’ He was sitting at the piano, and when he came up with ideas a lot them started out really slow, like some funeral march, or something, and I said, ‘pick up the tempo’ and I sang, ‘Stop in the name of love…’ And that’s how a lot of the stuff was born, through those kind of simplistic things.”
They’re so economical those songs as well. A lot of them come in under three minutes. Was that by design or something that was imposed on you by Motown?
“That was the time. If you listen to any of the songs from the early 60s, nobody had song over two-and-a-half or three minutes. As time went on, the songs got longer and longer. By the time the 70s hit, Barry White and them were bringing in songs that were seven or eight minutes long, so things change. I mean, now you’d be hard-pressed to find a two-and-a-half-minute song, nowadays it would be too short.”
Another one we wanted to mention was Baby Love. It’s such a simple title, yet so effective. Did you start with the title for that one?
“Yeah, after Where Did Our Love Go, Brian came in one day and said, ‘I’ve got the next one, there’s a similarity but the same feeling.’ We wanted to keep the momentum going in that vein, so it was the same moody type of thing and the cousin of Where Did Our Love Go.”
Did you store up titles generally to use later?
“Sometimes. It all depends what the music was saying. The music always dictated what the story should be, a lot of times. So we’d play around with it until something would come out. Sometimes the songs would just speak for itself, with the energy. But a lot of people were asking me why those sad songs had these energetic, up beats. I call it optimism. The songs were sad, but then poignant at the same time. If it was a sad song, what you were doing was expressing a woman’s feelings but giving them the optimism that somebody else is going to come along and treat you right or better. That’s what the music would be saying, that’s why it’s up and happy. Don’t give up, something better’s coming down the line.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts –including the full hour-long interview with Lamont Dozier – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.