Music Features

Motown's songwriting masterminds: the enduring influence of Holland-Dozier-Holland

There were many independent labels competing for a share of the soul music market in the early sixties. In Detroit, the competition was fierce, with labels like Golden World, Tri-Phi, Chex and Fortune all vying for potential hit makers, house musicians, and industry connections. Motown Records would eventually overtake them all, becoming the hub of local musical activity. It had a lot going for it: the business savvy of founder Berry Gordy, a great roster of artists and musicians, and a top staff of writers and producers. Equal parts visionary and manipulator, Berry created a culture of competition where quality-control meetings were mandatory, goals were redrawn from day to day, and the stock of artists rose and fell with their chart positions. It was a tense environment, often unfair, yet out of it came a formidable group of songwriters, all with their own signature, such as Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson. The kings of the lot, however, were the team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, who cemented the Motown Sound and took the company to new heights.

Holland-Dozier-Holland functioned like a well-oiled machine. Dozier and Brian Holland would come up with the melodies and arrangements, then Eddie Holland would work on the lyrics, though the spark of inspiration didn't follow a strict order. Working in tandem seemed natural, but the team would never have come to be without Berry Gordy. Though they grew up together, the Hollands' musical paths seldom crossed until Motown. Born in 1939, Eddie was the oldest. He would be the first to experience the hardships of a singing career, recording a slew of failed singles before joining Gordy for demo work, which led to a contract with his fledgling company. Brian did his own solo-singer stint, but his forte was as a musician. He was a multitasker who played in groups and did session work, even while learning skills as a sound engineer. Lamont Dozier's gift for melody was prodigious. He probably would have made it on his own as a singer-songwriter, but recording for small Detroit labels only lead to a dead end. Motown finally opened the door of opportunity for him.

Brian was the first to see success as a cub songwriter. Partnered with Robert Bateman, he wrote "Playboy" for the Marvelettes, who in 1962 were Motown's premier girl group. When Bateman left the label, Lamont Dozier joined Brian, writing "Forever" and "Strange I Know" for the Marvelettes as a duo. Meanwhile, Eddie Holland's career as a solo singer was treading water. Though he had a modest hit with "Jamie", his follow-up singles had failed to dent the charts. However, he had his talent as a lyricist to fall back on. Brian and Lamont were quick with melodies, but lyric writing took a great deal of their time. Eddie solved that problem when he joined them for "Come And Get These Memories", a big hit for Martha and the Vandellas in early 1963. The strings of hits that followed boosted the Vandellas' standing at Motown with a succession of up-tempo scorchers like "Heatwave" and "Nowhere To Run" and pop-oriented tunes like "Jimmy Mack".

The Midas touch extended to the Miracles, granting them a dance hit with "Mickey's Monkey". HDH also brought Marvin Gaye out of his crooner comfort zone. He sang higher and rawer on "Can I Get A Witness?" and "Baby Don't You Do It", which widened his range. Such was Gordy's confidence in the HDH team, that he gave them his greatest challenge: turning the Supremes into a hit group. They did so admirably with "Where Did Our Love Go", which was followed by the similar-sounding "Baby Love", both topping the charts in 1964. Once the group was imbedded in the top-ten, HDH discarded the formula on "Stop! In The Name Of Love" and "Come See About Me". The Supremes became Motown's biggest hit makers and a source of constant inspiration for the team. Eddie Holland has expressed in interviews that working for girl singers brought a new sensitivity to his writing. For the Supremes, it allowed him to reach deeper expressions of regret and longing on songs like "Reflections" and "Love Is Here And Now You're Gone". There was also a progression in Brian and Lamont melodies and arrangements. The gospel influence was always there, but there was now a classical sensibility on hits like "I Hear A Symphony" and "My World Is Empty Without You".

HDH proved that lightning could strike twice with the Four Tops. The group had been around since 1954, but their recording career had little to show for it after ten years. The team turned things around for them with "Baby I Need Your Loving". Singer Levi Stubbs was soon reaching new histrionic heights with "I Can't Help Myself" and "Bernadette". By then, the writer-producer trio had come up with their very own wall of sound. Engineer Lawrence T. Horn had set up a three-track sound system for the company, and Brian Holland took full advantage of it, giving the recordings a fuller, richer sound. As a producer, he searched for dynamic highs and lows, evident in the interaction between snare drums, tambourines, and the fluid bass notes of James Jamerson. Most times, HDH would lay down instrumental tracks before vocals were recorded, which came in handy when the groups were out on tour and production couldn't be halted. Brian and Lamont taught the chords and arrangements to the house musicians while Eddie worked with the singers, sometimes while figuring out the final lyrics. Despite the demands of production schedules, the team would always come up with a seamless sound mix.

The team's relationship with Motown came to an abrupt halt in 1967. A demand for a fair share of the company's profit had them locking horns with Gordy. Their suit against Motown was met with a countersuit for breach of contract. Meanwhile, the team was working under the radar to set up their own record labels. In court, Gordy proved that Brian and Lamont were still under contract to Jobete, the publishing arm of Motown. However, Eddie Holland wasn't under such obligation, which allowed him to run the Invictus and Hot Wax labels as president. What posed a problem was that neither member of the team was allowed to work as a songwriter. Though they were mentoring songwriters like Ronald Dunbar and General Johnson, Motown's lawsuit was jeopardizing the launch of their new labels. Despite the odds, the labels had immediate success in 1970 with Freda Payne's "Band Of Gold" and Chairmen of the Board's "Give Me Just A Little More Time". Both songs credited Ronald Dunbar and Edythe Wayne as songwriters, but they had the unmistakable stamp of HDH. It turned out that Edythe Wayne was an alias for HDH. The subterfuge served them well until a settlement with Motown in 1972 allowed them to write and produce under their own name. By then, the Invictus and Hot Wax labels had had a sizable number of hits from artists such as Flying Ember ("Westbound #9"), Honey Cone ("Want Ads" and "Stick Up"), and Laura Lee ("Women's Love Rights"). Yet both labels would run aground in 1973.

There were multiple reasons for the failure. The labels depended on distribution deals with Capitol and Buddha, the former being the less profitable. To make matters worse, Hot Wax's distribution deal with Buddha came to an end when that record label went bankrupt. A new distribution deal with Columbia only brought cash flow problems and mounting debts. Moreover, the trio had overextended themselves with the launching of Music Merchant, a new music label that never gained hits, only losses. There was also the stiff competition from Gamble & Huff, a remarkable writer-producer team that had gained top-ten supremacy for their Philadelphia International label in the early seventies. However, the biggest blow for the team was the departure of Lamont Dozier, who complained that he was wasting too much time on administrative duties instead of devoting it to the creation of music. All that was left after years of partnership was acrimony and a lawsuit.

Though the labels were relaunched in 1976, disco killed them for good. Lamont Dozier made a lasting career as a singer and producer, recording for labels such as ABC, Warner, and Atlantic. The Hollands went on to write songs and produce for Motown artists such as Michael Jackson and the Supremes. One song written for Diana Ross in 1982 seemed to sum up their relationship with Dozier at that juncture: "We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again". A reunion with Dozier seemed unlikely, yet the team got back together in 1983 to work on Back Where I Belong, an album that marked the Four Tops' return to Motown. The reunion was brief, but the friendship lingered on. The trio finally got back together again to work on The First Wives Club, a musical play that had its debut in 2009. It proved the wide appeal of the HDH brand with a successful run.

By the turn of the millennium, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team was as recognizable as the artists they wrote for. Like the Beatles, they had made a lasting impact on music and on people's lives. Even in their darkest moments, when their music and style of writing had lost its grip on the charts, it was still the pulse of oldies radio stations and Northern Soul discos. Since then, their catalog has grown in value. It is filled with little-known gems that beg for discovery, such as Martha and the Vandellas' "In My Lonely Room" and Lamont Dozier's "Why Can't We Be Friends".

The trio's impact on music history is undeniable. They set the bar high for every songwriter who came after them, transmuting songcraft into magic. They didn't have to explain how love felt; it was captured and preserved in their melodies. And that's what great music is all about.