An Interview with Lamont Dozier – HuffPost 6.11.09
On Thursday, June 18th, Lamont Dozier will be receiving the Johnny Mercer award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame at their 2009 awards dinner held at the New York Mariott Marquis Hotel. This honor is bestowed to those members whose songwriting is not only exemplary, but also has contributed significantly to the culture. In Lamont Dozier’s case, as a part of the Motown hit machine Holland-Dozier-Holland (with partners Brian Holland and Eddie Holland, Jr.), that contribution was immense, his having written scores of pop and r&b crossover smashes while creating a new, exciting sound for virtually all of the biggest acts on that label.
Lamont co-penned some of the most classic songs of our time: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “(Love Is Like A) Heatwave,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Jimmy Mack,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You),” “Give Me Just A Little More Time,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” “Baby Don’t You Do It,” and “Band Of Gold.” Add on Supremes hits, such as “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “I Hear A Symphony,” “My World Is Empty Without You,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You keep Me Hangin’ On,” and “Reflections,” and you see just how large a role Lamont and his partners played in shaping American music.
Before he accepts his award on Thursday, there’ll be an opportunity for everyone to come see this esteemed mega-writer on Tuesday, June 16th, at 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center, located at 129 West 67th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam. The Songwriters Hall of Fame–celebrating its 40th anniversary–is presenting its 2009 Master Class with Lamont Dozier presiding in what will be a discussion of all things musical and lyrical, and some reflections on one of the greatest chapters of pop music history. By the way, the event is free, so anyone ranging from aspiring to professional songwriter, the musically inclined, fans, and even those curious about the class are encouraged to attend. And later that night, SHOF’s Abe Olman Scholarships for Excellence in Songwriting will be presented to some fresh, young faces starting out in the field.
Mike Ragogna: For many years, you and the Hollands pretty much owned r&b. The hits you’ve written and the records you’ve produced are of such a high caliber that they’ve influenced generations of songwriters and artists.
Lamont Dozier: Yeah, it was a lot of good luck that we were blessed with, and it happened at the right time. We were just flabbergasted at the amount of success that we were able to acquire. We had thirteen number one consecutive records with The Supremes alone, and it was scary! Everything we touched–with the Tops, Martha & The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye–it just went through the roof, and it was fun. The passion that I always had for music solidified itself, it all came rushing through and blew the top of the sucker all over the world, and it was a beautiful time.
MR: Early on, did your passion for writing and music lead you to your time with The Romeos?
LD: I started writing poems first when I was about eleven years old. From that point, I was encouraged to push it a little further, to proceed into the actual songwriting arena, which I did. I started banging on the piano to add music to my poems. I think by the time I was fifteen, that’s when we started The Romeos doo-wop group and recorded a couple of singles that got us a contract with Atlantic Records. We had Ty Hunter, Leon Ware–a pretty well-known songwriter himself who wrote some songs for Marvin Gaye. He’s still writing, and he’s recording for Concord Records. We also had Don Davenport, Bobby Alexander, Kenny Johnson and Gene Dyer…there were like five or six of us at different times. We started in ’57 and ended in ’59, we lasted about a couple years.
MR: Then you went out on your own, and there’s that story about your uncle bringing you to Motown.
LD: Yeah, my uncle James Allen, brought me over to the Hitsville U.S.A. building where I had been summoned by Berry Gordy to come talk about recording and signing a contract with them as a producer, writer, singer, you name it. A funny thing about it, I remember saying, “You know, James, from this place, I’ve got a great feeling I’m going to really establish myself, I’m going to do some great things.” My uncle took me there because I didn’t have bus fare.
I was already with (Gordy’s) sister for a while; when I left The Romeos I joined up with his sister, Gwen Gordy, who had a company which was named after their sister Anna. I joined Anna Records, and started singing with The Voice Masters, and I recorded a few records for them. After a few years, when Anna Records folded, Berry gave me that call.
MR: Do you remember how you were put together with the Hollands?
LD: The Hollands were already with Berry Gordy when Motown first started. The first time I met Brian Holland was at his partner Robert Bateman’s house, who lived next door to me. He had gotten the news that I was coming over to Motown, and so he called Brian up and said, “You guys should get together because I think you would make a good team.” Robert had decided that he was going to move to New York and accept another job…he was a recording engineer as well as a producer. He and Brian produced “Please Mr. Postman.” So he introduced Brian to me and we talked on a Sunday and had dinner, and on the following day, I was playing a tune called “Forever” and it needed a bridge, it needed some work. Brian heard it and said, “Man, why don’t you go here…” He sat down beside me on the piano bench, and that became the start of Holland and Dozier.
MR: What was your very first hit with Motown?
LD: Probably “Locking Up My Heart” by The Marvelettes. Since Brian was already producing them, I had an intro into working with them. We worked on it together, recorded that, but it wasn’t as big as some of their earlier hits–“Please Mr. Postman,” “Playboy,” and “Beechwood 4-5789”–but it did fairly well and got us started as a team.
MR: What was the creative process like? Did you get into a room together and just write songs or did you craft them for each artist?
LD: At first, we got in a room and started writing songs, not particularly for any designated artist. We just worked and wrote the songs, we felt that if we had the right song, it could be a hit for anybody if it had the right infectiousness and the right “stuff” that made people want to go out and buy it. So we wrote “hit” songs, quality songs that would break through, or that any kind of artist could sing. And we were very fortunate to have a lot of great singers.
MR: Were there times you guys would say, “Okay, this is what we need to write for Diana, or Marvin, or…”?
LD: From time to time, there were. There was one song, in particular, the first big thing that we had done. We had recorded “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” with The Supremes, and that came before the big one, “Where Did Our Love Go.” When we recorded, “Where Did Our Love Go,” I had already come up with it for The Marvelettes. They didn’t like the song at all, they said, in their own words, it was a bunch of crap, and refused to do it. They had some notoriety so they could refuse it. So I looked at the Motown roster to see who we could possibly do the song with since we’d already cut the track and I didn’t want the expense of that to come back to me. At the bottom of the list was The Supremes–they used to call them “The No-Hit Supremes.” They had already gotten word that it was a God-awful song, and they didn’t want to do it, so they were very surly. They felt like they were the step-children, like they always got the leftovers that nobody wanted…that was their words, you know.
We finally convinced them to go in and do the song. We had to because, like I said, we didn’t want to be charged for the track we’d already cut for The Marvelettes. In the studio, it was in a different key for Diana Ross, but it was in the right key because it was lower and it gave her a certain amount of sex appeal. And with her attitude of hating the song, it was just the attitude it needed to become a big hit. The backgrounds were simplified because I was tired of them complaining, “There’s too much background, there’s too much this, I don’t like that,” so, finally, I had them just sing, “Baby, Baby,” and that’s what they became famous for. It worked, and they sold four million copies coming out of the gate, and it was the first of thirteen consecutive number one records in a row. It made them one of the biggest groups in history.
MR: From Motown, you moved on and started your own Invictus record label.
LD: We started that with artists like The Chairmen of the Board, “Give Me Just A Little More Time” was their big hit, and then we had “Band Of Gold” with Freda Payne. Those were our first big number one hits on Invictus.
MR: When you look at “Band Of Gold,” you can see how it becomes relevant every decade or so, like especially now with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s the story behind that song?
LD: Since we had just signed Freda, we set out to write something specifically for her, and “Band Of Gold” was it. We had her in mind for the song, though Freda was basically a jazz singer, and we wanted to bring her into the pop field. That’s one of the very few times we sat down and tailor-made a song for an artist. We followed it up with a tune that we didn’t write, by General Johnson and Greg Perry, “Bring The Boys Home,” which was another number one hit. Because of the Vietnam War, we were able to put her in that vein, of singing anti-war songs. They had a “my love has gone to war and I’m here waiting” type of theme, and that’s how we launched her.
MR: Did you guys have strong feelings about the Vietnam War, and was that why you chose the topic?
LD: One thing, in particular, struck me. I had given a party to a kid who was about eighteen years old, and he was the boyfriend of a friend of the family. She wanted to give him a going away party because he was going off to Vietnam. So she had him come over to my house but he was scared to death, he wouldn’t say much at the party, and while everybody was trying to keep it lively, he just sat pensive in a corner. He told her that he had some premonition that he wouldn’t be coming back. Nobody could break that thought from his mind, and I was trying to speak to him and pull up his spirits. Well, long story short, three months later, they brought his body back to Detroit–he was killed by a grenade. It was a very sad affair. That’s one of the reasons why we were totally against that war, and any time that we had an opportunity to write something against it, we would, and we recorded it and put it out on several of the artists.
MR: On Invictus, you were Holland-Dozier for awhile, you had some hits, and then you recorded solo records.
LD: Right. You know, we were together from ’62 to ’72. I thought that there were other things I wanted to do, like move to California and venture into films. Before I got to Motown, I always had this love for Broadway, the musical stage, and I always wanted to do that. That was one of the main reasons that it was time for me to leave and strike out on my own. So I had this opportunity that came up with ABC/Dunhill who wanted me as an artist, so I took the deal, and recorded “Trying To Hold On To My Woman” and “Fish Ain’t Bitin'”–which is another anti-war song that became very big and got me noticed right away. It also got me the best new pop singer in Billboard magazine for ’74, and that launched my career as a recording artsist.
MR: There was a period when a bunch of artists like you, Barry Mann, Paul Williams, and Kris Kristofferson had Fred Molin-produced albums that were going to be released on the Guardian label. What’s the connection between what was started there and what was released as Lamont Dozier: An American Original?
LD: Actually, I got permission to do that album myself after Fred Molin’s company sort of folded. I went off and did a whole new recording of it. I rearranged the songs to try and give them a new face, and, evidently, the people at the Grammys liked it and gave me a nomination for it. That was quite exciting because I didn’t know how people would accept it.
MR: And the album mainly consisted of songs you’d written with the Hollands. Beyond writing with Brian or as part of HDH, you’ve worked with many people over the years like Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Alison Moyet, Joss Stone…
LD: Phil Collins and I had a number one hit that got a lot of accolades. It was from a film he did called Buster. The movie didn’t do that well, but it brought us all types of accolades–the Ivor Novello Award, the Brit Award, The Golden Globe, and the Grammy. It almost won the Academy Award, but Carly Simon got it for Working Girl…it beat us out.
MR: The rumor is that you have an instrumental on George Benson’s new album?
LD: Right, that will be coming out in August, his new album. One of the songs I wrote specifically for George is called “Living In High Definition.” It’s an instrumental that’s about eight minutes long, and it’s eight minutes of pure delight and joy, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t write many instrumentals, but George has shown the great artist that he is on this particular song, it’s fantastic.
MR: So many people were influenced by you, like The Doobie Brothers who covered a few of your songs.
LD: Yeah, Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers. They did “Little Darling (I Need You)” and “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While).” Michael McDonald is a big friend of mine, and I love him dearly. He, like no other person I know of that time, can sing all the Holland-Dozier-Holland songs, and, as you know, he did a couple of Motown albums just recently.
MR: Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall was a big fan too, and you wrote some songs with him including a couple British hits.
LD: Oh yeah, we wrote some songs together that did fairly well–“You Got It,” “Infidelity,”…as a matter of fact, it did real well, the album sold millions and we were quite happy about it. We see each other from time to time, and we talk about getting back together and doing something when we find the time because he’s doing a lot of things now, and I am too, like my plays…
MR: Does that include The First Wives Club, a reworking of that comedy from 1996?
LD: Yeah, it’s a one-time thing I’m doing with the Hollands. We got back together to do The First Wives Club because the people who own the rights, Paramount, gave them to the producers if they could get Holland-Dozier-Holland back together, and we decided to do this together. We’ve been working on it for four year, about to launch it in San Diego at the Old Globe on the 26th of July.
MR: And in addition to all the music you’re creating, it seems you’ve been working on the side as “Professor Dozier”!
LD: [Laughs] That’s what they call me, Professor Dozier, at USC. I teach songwriting there.
MR: And you’re also going to be teaching songwriting this Tuesday, right?
LD: Absolutely, at the Master Class, at the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
MR: Can you give us a little preview?
LD: Well, I usually talk about writing songs, having the passion first, and making sure it’s what you want to do because you have to be thick-skinned. You can’t get involved with a business like this without thick skin because it’s a business of rejection. I tell them you really have to search your mind and heart to know if this is what you really want to do because you have to apply yourself and give your self seven days a week–like I do–of constant writing, and you just surrender to the music. Let the music come first, and you’ll succeed in some fashion. If you’re not out in front, you’ll be in the background writing the song. But the point is, to get in the business, you have to be willing to give your all for it.
MR: Obviously, you’ve given your all, and now you’re getting the Johnny Mercer award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame next Thursday.
LD: That’s right, they tell me it’s the highest award you can receive. We got the first one (induction) in ’88, and now we’re back to receive the pinnacle, you might say, of those awards.
MR: Nice. Now what does the future hold for Lamont Dozier?
LD: Oh boy…more plays, and I’ve got a lot of new acts that I’m recording songs for and collaborating with. They’re dragging me into the hip-hop arena now. A lot of hip-hoppers have expressed that they want to collaborate with me–sort of bringing in a new type of hip-hop with pop music. And I’ve got artists like Nicki G, a known hip-hop artist on Sony, and I’ve just finished a song that is out right now called “Six O’Clock Blues” with Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles. I keep doing my music, just running all around the place. I love music, I’ll never retire.