Lamont Dozier's songwriting career began with poems - love letters in particular. He would sell them, Cyrano-style, to his friends for 50 cents each, a fair bargain for his romantic flair. A native of Detroit, he joined the Motown family in 1960 as an artist, recording some singles under the name Lamont Anthony. In 1962, he teamed with the Holland brothers - Eddie and Brian - to form the fabled team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Their first big hit was "Heat Wave" for Martha & The Vandellas, which rose to #4 in 1963. They wrote hits for Marvin Gaye ("Can I Get A Witness") and Mary Wells ("You Lost The Sweetest Boy"), but couldn't get anyone on the label to record "Where Did Our Love Go," which like many of their songs, was inspired by one of Dozier's breakups (he would sometimes break up with a girl just so he could write a song about it - something he talks about in this interview). The Supremes, who had earned the title "No-hit Supremes" after toiling for three years on the label without success, reluctantly recorded it. It became the first of 10 #1 hits the trio wrote for the group; they had two more with the Four Tops, and Lamont landed another when he wrote "Two Hearts" with Phil Collins (his #1 hitlist climbs to 14 with Kim Wilde's cover of "You Keep Me Hangin' On").
There is a lot of lyrical dissonance in these songs, which are upbeat musically but often evoke heartbreak. No songwriters have done it better. As Lamont explains, H-D-H made their magic by voicing the chords a certain way and starting the songs as ballads, which is their natural state. You can hear these interpretations on Dozier's 2018 album Reimagination, where he is joined by Graham Nash, Lee Ann Womack, Todd Rundgren, Cliff Richard, Marc Cohn and Gregory Porter.
The feelings behind these songs are genuine and immutable, which helps explain their staying power. You'll hear them in a whole new way after reading what Dozier has to say here about how they were formed, especially "Reflections."
Lamont Dozier: No, never. I was too busy. I told people I was too busy writing hits. Back in the '60s when all of the work was coming out and I had so many projects and so many artists to work with, there was no time to write the music, so we had other people translate what I did on the piano.
Songfacts: So when your songs are analyzed and you hear how they have these amazing minor sevenths and dominant harmonies, that means nothing to you?
Dozier: No. It was just what I felt and what I heard in my head, and what I played and practiced. Working on a piano you come across these chords not knowing the names of them. You just like the sound of them.
Songfacts: I wonder if that has something to do with why the songs have endured, because they have that feeling behind them.
Dozier: Yeah, that has a lot to do with it. I always had a feeling that it's certain notes. That old saying about looking for the lost chord, I believe that chords dictate a feeling, or they send out a feeling that the listener picks up on. It's just a natural thing to hear chords. We're all born with that innate feeling for music, and when it hits us the right way, we give into it.
When I was listening to my aunt as a young boy in the '40s and '50s when she was studying to be a classical pianist, I used to love those chords and things she used to play from the classics. And that's how I developed my ear, you might say, by listening to her playing the piano, practicing the classics.
Songfacts: Do you have a favorite chord?
Dozier: Not really. I'm always looking for new-sounding chords and voicing of chords - voicing them a certain way. When I was working with the guys in the studio, I would play a C-chord, for instance, and not being a classical pianist or having taken lessons, I had my own way of voicing those chords. They were trained piano players and musicians and they would say, "You don't need to play it that way, you could play it this way." I said, "Well, when you play it that way you give me a different sound."
There are lots of way to play those chords and voice them, and I like the way I voice them. I've learned to voice chords a different way to get the sound that's appealing to me in the song that I'm writing. So, they caught on to that and after a while they didn't question what chords I was playing and how I was playing them. They gave me respect for having an ear to voice chords the way I was playing them.
Songfacts: Motown was new, but these musicians had been around for a while.
Dozier: Oh yeah. They had all this training and played with various bands over the years and read all types of music and went to school for the proper training. So when they saw the way I was playing and creating these songs, they eventually gave me the respect of another musician, and I felt good about that.
Songfacts: Were you under instruction to keep the songs upbeat, musically?
Dozier: No, that was just something we thought of, Brian Holland and I. As a rule, most of the songs we started out to get the right feeling and the right emotion of the chords. And to get that feeling, we would start writing in ballad form - a slower, torch-song type of feeling. Then when we got in the studio, we would pick up the tempo. Because at the time, dance music was in with the kids, so we tried to make them commercial by picking up the speed. That's what made the songs commercial.
We had this kind of soft, personal feeling of chords and melody going underneath the artist singing that gave us a nice feeling. Torchy but not torchy, fun but not over-produced. We wanted to get the same feeling of a ballad, without it being a ballad.
Songfacts: Yeah, and it also adds layers to the song. You could listen to "Come See About Me" ten times before catching on to what the lyric is trying to say.
Dozier: Exactly. You said it. Couldn't have said it better.
Songfacts: Did you really break up with a girl just so you could write a song about it?
Dozier: Yeah, that's right. I would do that when I hit a wall or I couldn't seem to get my head working in the right direction. Or if I couldn't come up with the right feelings and I needed an idea for a love song.
All the songs were love songs, basically. I started realizing that I could come up with new ideas or spark the energy of my mind when I had arguments with my girlfriend, or whoever the girl was. And that would spark an idea to write a song about love or unrequited love or whatever kind of love, and to write an appropriate lyric to that feeling. I got away with that for a while.
Songfacts: How did the girls feel about that?
Dozier: Well, they didn't know I was doing it until they heard certain interviews I had done, and they were pretty pissed at the fact that I was using them to write songs. They said, "You didn't mean what you said, it was all for the purpose of finding a hit record!" I said, "Well, you do what you have to do when you're a songwriter."
Songfacts: You talked about how you liked to start songs as ballads because it gave you the nice starting point, but when you have a song like "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You," how did that originate?
Dozier: With what they call a 12-bar blues - a shuffle. The drum feeling is the shuffle and it's a 12-bar shuffle blues, basically. But, finding the chords, I remember Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows who had came to Motown, he mentioned that song. He said, "Man, those chords that you played were really interesting because it's the blues but not your run-of-the-mill blues. The chords you have are very intricate." I said, "Well, I just play what I feel."
That's the way that particular song came out. Those chords gave me the feeling of that melody, "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You."
Songfacts: I read about how you would try to get Marvin Gaye out of his comfort zone in terms of how he would sing a song. Is that something you did on that track?
Dozier: Well, we would just pick the key. We would stretch it a key higher, or even half a key higher, so it was out of his comfort zone and when he sang it, he could develop his own style and make the song his. You had to do that by adding a stress point: raise the key a little higher so he had to sing harder.
Marvin on that particular song, "How Sweet It Is," he would reach into his falsetto. He had a way of doing it and making it sound even better than I thought up originally. He was just great at manipulating his voice into where it has to go to hit the right notes.
Songfacts: When The Supremes did that little ad-lib on "You Keep Me Hangin' On" where they say, "There ain't nothing I can do about it," how did that come about?
Dozier: We wanted to make it believable, add some everyday talk, like the girl was really going through this predicament. When you get to a certain point with a situation, you realize, "Hey, there ain't nothing I can do about it," because you're so wrapped up with this individual that you can't run, you can't hide, and there's nothing you can do about it. So, you just deal with it the best you can.
Songfacts: One of the more intriguing songs you wrote is "The Happening." It was for a movie, and I take it you were given that title to write around. Can you talk about when you have to start with a title that you didn't create?
Dozier: Yeah. In this particular case it was for the movie The Happening with Anthony Quinn and Faye Dunaway, and we wrote it because of the title. Frank DeVol, it was his music that had to do a lot with that. He had partial music already written, so we took that feeling that he had and added our own interpretation and added melodies and whatever we had to do to make it a pop song. That's why you'll find his name on the credits, because he was responsible for some of the music.
But with a movie, sometimes you can be too close by doing the title, and you just write around the subject matter of the movie. You want to take that assignation and put it into the song lyric, and try to adapt to the feeling of the overall movie.
Songfacts: Is that what you did with "Two Hearts"?
Dozier: Yes, exactly. With "Two Hearts" I came over to track music first after hearing what Phil [Collins] wanted. We met in Acapulco, and while I was on that road trip I wrote for the The Four Tops "Going Loco In Acapulco."
But "Two Hearts" is about these lovers, this train robber and his love for this girl. It just spoke of two people in love and they didn't want to break up. It was like two hearts but one heart. They were in love so tight that their romance, their feeling for each other, was like one person. So it was two hearts being of one mind because of their love. The love story they had was so deep.
Songfacts: On Reimagination you string a few of your songs together. For instance, on "Bernadette" you have a coda with "Standing In The Shadows Of Love" at the end. Can you talk about that?
Dozier: That was the producer's idea, Fred Mollin. He was the guy that produced the album. He's been trying to get me involved with doing these songs this way for about 15 years, and finally I gave in. He called me one day and said, "Man, you want to do this album one day?" I said, "Why don't we do it now, I've got a little time." And that was about a year and a half ago.
We just jumped into it. He came here and we talked about the feeling of the album, what it should be like and who some of the guests on the album should be. We were on the same page because I had said that one day I wanted to change those songs into what they originally were meant to be: as ballads, or a slower, more intimate feeling.
Songfacts: Was there anything that you discovered or learned about these songs that you hadn't realized before?
Dozier: I always knew that the songs had some deeper meanings to be brought out in them. I figured we could change them. You can change songs in arrangements. It's really miraculous how those notes can generate so many different melodies and be responsible for a lot of different feelings. A piano is an amazing instrument.
I just felt that these songs had a lot of depth in them, and in the melodies and lyrics there was so much to be done. You could do these songs over and over again with a different response every time, and if you sit at the piano long enough playing these same chords, you get a different idea and a different feeling. They had the stuff in them, we just had to bring out the new ideas and new feelings.
Songfacts: "Reflections" is one of those songs that can have so many different meanings. Can you talk about what the meaning was when you wrote it?
Dozier: It's about when the love has gone bad, or when things have changed in life. One thing in life that's ever changing is tomorrow is always different from today. Things change for many reasons, and you have to be aware of why, and what is happening around you. You have to adapt to the changes in life. That's what that was about: your reflection on how things used to be, can be and will be, hopefully.
It's all about hope, too. The main theme of that song is hope: although things have come to pass, you have to start changing, remembering the old to get involved with a new approach in life. If that makes sense.
Songfacts: It does. It really does.
You were working as part of a team with Motown, so it wasn't like you could get an idea and from start to finish it was all yours. Which of the songs ended up being really different from how you envisioned it when you wrote it?
Dozier: Let me see... OK, "Come And Get These Memories" by Martha & The Vandellas. The chords are more jazzy and it's not like your typical blues song or R&B song. And the melody is on top of those chords.
The story itself lent itself to a country and western feeling. That's the way I envisioned it, but I didn't know how to go about finding Loretta Lynn to convince her to do this song "Come And Get These Memories." I had her in mind when I first wrote the song, but I didn't know how to get in contact with her.
I had written it all out when I was just starting at Motown, before I got with the Hollands, so I had to change it. The way I felt it, it was a country song with twangy steel guitars and a banjo. At Motown, I had to get out a lot of songs in a short time, so I figured I'd just change the arrangement I had in my mind from country to a progressive type of R&B/jazz with a shuffle. That's how it got a jazz type of feeling with the chords, elevenths and ninths and what have you.
Songfacts: Which of the hits that you wrote is the most difficult to sing?
Dozier: Oh man, probably the ones for Levi [Stubbs, the mighty baritone of The Four Tops]. Levi could sing anything, and Diana Ross as well, and Marvin Gaye. But the hardest stuff was probably like "Reflections" or "I Hear A Symphony" by The Supremes that we did as a band.
But Levi was a good, dynamic type of singer and he had to stretch singing "Bernadette" and "Reach Out." He had to develop his own feel because although we gave him a demo to practice from and show him the way the song should go, he had to deliver and he had to be dramatic. He took that upon himself, bringing out that dramatic feel of those songs.
Those are hard to sing, those particular songs. We were on a show and BeBe Winans had to sing "Reach Out." He had the hardest time singing it because it was switching keys and going to different places. He said singing it was a bitch. But he finally got it. Some of those songs are awkward to sing and you have to be a great singer to sell it.
Songfacts: The Four Tops really set themselves apart in that way because a song like "Heard It Through The Grapevine" just about everybody on the Motown roster would sing, but a song like "Bernadette" you can't imagine anybody but Levi Stubbs doing.
Dozier: That's right. He was good at that, dramatically. He's a dramatic singer with those attributes. He has certain skills and that skill set allowed him to take chances and go to different directions, feeling-wise. He was good at finding different routes of dealing with the melody, incorporating his feeling with the original feeling and melody. He had a good sense of direction.
Dozier: The story was, the girl found out this guy was not all there. He had his own feelings about giving his all. He wanted to love this girl, he married the girl, but he couldn't perform on his wedding night because he had other issues about his sexuality. I'll put it that way.
It was about this guy that was basically gay, and he couldn't perform. He loved her, but he couldn't do what he was supposed to do as a groom, as her new husband. I know it sounds simple but that's where the idea came from.
Songfacts: Did you guys flesh out that story before condensing it into the lyric?
Dozier: Exactly. We'd talk about a lot of music. What's happening here? What are these chords saying? Either we would do it that way or we would say, "What is this title about? What's the story going to be in 'Band Of Gold'? She's married, she's got the ring, but what's happening in the story now to make it interesting?"
That's how that came about. We said, "Let's make the guy gay and he can't perform. He loves her but he has these other issues." That's how we developed it.
That's how we would do a lot of things: tell stories. "I Hear A Symphony" was another one. I used to go to the movies and I would see that the main stars had their own theme songs. When they appeared on the screen, you would hear this melody behind them - they had their own little melody each time they appeared in the movie. So the lyrics, "Whenever you are near, I hear a symphony," it was about this guy. Whenever he came around, in her mind she got this feeling and she heard this melody. He brought out the music in her.
Songfacts: I was surprised you didn't do that one on Reimagination.
Dozier: Fred and I were talking about a sequel because there were some 76 Top 10s altogether, so we've got quite a bit of songs to pick from for a sequel.
Songfacts: Yeah, you have made life difficult for songwriters because you have expressed these thoughts in ways they can't do any better. I'm wondering if it makes it hard for you then to write an original song because you've already covered it.
Dozier: Everything's been said! We often say that. That's why we came up with the gay song and then with "Stop! In The Name Of Love," I thought of my infidelity song because the backstory is about this guy getting caught at the no-tell motel. His main squeeze, as we say, she's caught him in another incomparable situation in a hotel that he shouldn't have been in, with another girl. Well, she knocked on the door to find out where he was. He got the other girl out of the back door, but he tried to calm this other girl down, the main girl, and said, "Please, stop. In the name of love."
But, when he said it... when I said it, I said, "What did I say just then?" And I tried to defuse the argument. She was screaming and carrying on, and then I said, "Did you hear that cash register? Did I say, 'Stop! In the name of love?'" And she said, "That's not funny." But we laughed about it, and that was the beginning of defusing the argument.
But, later on that day, when I got back to the studio, Brian Holland was slowly playing out this tune. I said, "Man, I've got the perfect melody and idea. Just keep playing it. How about this: [sings] 'Stop! In the name of love.'"
That's how that particular idea began. A lot of times ideas were born out of situations that we had gone through personally.
Dozier: Well, I guess it was being out of your comfort zone, and Motown was definitely where our comfort zone was. The band did not go with us when we had to do "The Happening" at Columbia Studios in LA. We did that with a whole new group of musicians that we hadn't been used to playing with or working with.
But, all good musicians can play and get what you're trying to do, or you can sort of get them to play the feelings that you want them to play. In this case, LA had a lot of good guys, so it wasn't too bad. It wasn't too much of a stretch to get the guys to play the feelings that we wanted.
Songfacts: Which of the Detroit guys had the most distinctive sound?
Dozier: Oh, the guys that we always used, we called them The Funk Brothers and they had two sets over there, the first set and second. We always had the first set, which is James Jamerson on bass, Benny Benjamin on drums, Joe Hunter or Earl Van Dyke on piano, Clarence Isabell on the vibes – you heard that vibe sound in the background – and the guitars. We always had three guitars, and it was Robert White, Joe Messina and Eddie Willis. And then we had Eddie Bongo [Eddie "Bongo" Brown] on drums, on the bongos and congas.
That's what our nucleus was as far as the band that we used. If we couldn't have those guys we would wait until a later date when we could have them because they made our job easier. We played with the same guys all the time and they knew our feeling and what we wanted.
Songfacts: OK, so it's not necessarily about one guy being able to play his instrument so much better. It's about being comfortable and familiar.
Dozier: Oh yeah. It's like Clint Eastwood. He uses the same guys when he makes his movies. He has his own team of guys and every movie you see the same names in the credits because it's comfort. It makes your job easier when you're using the same guys all the time because they get to know you and you know their skill set and how to stretch them.
Songfacts: So that must have been a challenge for you when you had to leave that.
Dozier: Yeah, because if you went to another town like New York to record, then you had to take the time to get these people to understand where you're coming from and what you wanted to hear and what you expected from them as musicians. You had to take the time to do that first, and then you could go into the song that you're going to play.
You can just read music, but it doesn't mean anything - the chords and a few little feelings and little melody lines. You had to get them to understand what you're trying to do as far as the feeling and the way the song should be played.
H-D-H wrote the Martha & The Vandellas hit "Jimmy Mack," which Dozier titled after Ronnie Mack, the man who wrote the 1963 #1 hit "He's So Fine." Mack died of cancer at age 23 while the song was still at the top of the chart.
His story is not widely known, but Ronnie Mack had the talent and determination to become one of the greats. Had he lived, he "would have been one of the most successful songwriters of the '60s," said Jay Siegel of The Tokens, who produced "He's So Fine."
His sister, Dotty (Mack) Sanders, shared his story, along with photos of Ronnie, in this Songfacts piece.
Dozier: Oh no, they did that themselves. The ones that came in, they picked the songs themselves that they wanted to sing. They wanted to make their performance the way they wanted to do it, personally. I wouldn't dare tell them because all of them are professionals. The songs are already there - everybody knows the songs - so it wasn't a big deal. They just wanted to interpret it the way they wanted to interpret it.
Songfacts: So Lee Ann Womack picked "Baby I Need Your Loving"?
Songfacts: You know, I was talking to Bill Withers and he singled that out as one of his favorite songs because it had something - a "hook" he called it - that you just can't come up with anywhere.
Dozier: Oh yeah, that is a hook on top of a hook. It's one of the best hooks you could possibly have. Very clever and imaginative, as far as writing songs goes. I thought it was a wonderful idea.
Songfacts: And that means Todd Rundgren picked out "In My Lonely Room."
Dozier: That's right, and he did all the vocals in the background. He did it himself - he put all of that on. It brought tears in my eyes when I heard how he interpreted that song with that background. He felt it that way because he says he loved the way I sang it. We had no background, and we hadn't intended to put any on, but he wanted to do that background to give it another feel. That's what he was getting from my vocals. It was splendid, I thought.
Songfacts: What is the definitive Lamont Dozier composition?
Dozier: Oh man, that's hard because I'm always scattered all over the place. I have a feeling that I get from singing ballads and then on an up-tempo song I may get another feeling, like what I did when Phil Collins was producing the August album [for Eric Clapton], where I did a song "Hung Up On Your Love Again." That came out very close to what my feeling was.
That's a hard question because I'm all over the place in different genres of music all the time, from gospel to pop to country. I've written a lot of songs with country singers and country writers.
Songfacts: I think that speaks to how you're constantly moving forward. It's hard for you to look back on your career and peg one song.
Dozier: It is hard to do, because I'm always looking for a new direction and moving forward. I very seldom look back to something I've done 10, 20 years ago. I always try to look for a new direction, come up with a new feeling that's modernized, something that the kids today or people today might have a feel for. Of course, things change in life, your feelings change, so you start looking at things differently. So I'm always looking for new feelings to express myself with.
June 18, 2018
Hear samples of Reimagination at Amazon
Photos (1, 3): Lisa Margolis
List of songs written by Holland-Dozier-Holland
Valerie Simpson on Motown, 1969
Interview with Phil Hurtt, who wrote "I'll Be Around"
More Songwriter Interviews