Like a lot of the members of my generation, Motown music made up much of the soundtrack of my teenage years.
We remember the names of the acts that recorded those hit-after-hit-after-hits. But who wrote those songs that kept us hummin’ and singing along?
A lot of them were penned by a Motown songwriting and production team, Holland-Dozier- Holland, one member of which left the planet a couple weeks ago. Lamont Dozier, who was the D in the H-D-H, died Aug. 8 in Arizona at the age of 81.
Dozier, and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, were some of the principal songwriters for Motown Records from 1962-67. (Dozier and Brian Holland composed the music and produced the songs, and Eddie Holland wrote the lyrics and did the vocal arrangements.) That doesn’t seem like that long a time, but in those five-plus years, they wrote some the label’s best stuff.
The list of their work is amazing. The Supremes had 12 No. 1 hits; H-D-H wrote 10 of them, from 1964’s “Where Did Our Love Go” to “The Happening” in 1967. And the stuff they wrote for Diana Ross and Co. that didn’t top the charts, still did pretty well; six of them were Top 40, including a No. 2 and a No. 5.
But it wasn’t just the Supremes that H-D-H wrote gold for; a lot of the other big-name acts at Motown also rode their songs to hitdom. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” — still one of the great opening lines in pop music! — were No. 1s for the Four Tops, their “Bernadette” was a No. 4, and “It’s the Same Old Song,” a No. 5.
Holland-Dozier- Holland also wrote five Top 10s for Martha and the Vandellas — “Heat Wave,” “Quicksand,” “Nowhere to Run,” “I’m Ready for Love” and “Jimmy Mack” — and a No. 6 for Marvin Gaye, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You.)” They penned a No. 8 for the Miracles, before Smokey Robinson started writing their, and others’, hits.
H-D-D also wrote songs for Motown artists, like the Isley Brothers, who had more success with other writers. Then there were the hits by the not-so-famous, like Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” and “Give Me Just a Little More Time” by Chairmen of the Board, both No. 3s. And the minor classics like Jr. Walker and the All-Stars’ “(I’m a) Roadrunner.”
They also recorded some of their own songs, two of them having had performing careers before and during their team tenure at Motown. Eddie Holland had a No. 30 hit on his own, and Dozier had recorded in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Before they formed the three-man team, Brian Holland co-wrote the Marvelettes’ 1961 No. 1, “Please Mr. Postman.” (One of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio, perhaps because of those great lines, “Deliver de letter/de sooner de better.”)
But that great run of songwriting success in the mid-60s ran afoul of legal proceedings. H-D-H, unhappy with the royalties and profit-sharing they got from Motown and its notoriously stingy founder/owner, Berry Gordy Jr., staged a work slowdown and then left the label. Gordy and Motown sued, H-D-H countersued, and the court battles dragged on for a decade.
During that time, Holland-Dozier- Holland could not write and produce under their own names, so they adopted pseudonyms in an attempt to keep the hits a-comin’. The Freda Payne and Chairmen of the Board No. 3s were released with writing credits to Edyth Wayne and Ronald Dunbar, a Daphne Dumas also credited on the former.
They didn’t have much success after that, with just three of their songs charting from 1971 on. But the songs, and the memories, they produced before that earned them a place in our hearts, and in music history. R.I.P, Lamont.