Brian Holland (born February 15, 1941), Lamont Dozier (born June 16, 1941) and Edward Holland (born Oct 30, 1939) – all from Detroit – were the most successful songwriter/producers of the ’60s.
Their run with Motown from ’61 to ’67 generated 13 No. 1 hits for the Marvelettes (“Please Mr. Postman”), the Four Tops (“It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There”), and most prolifically, the Supremes (“Where Did Our Love Go?” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” “The Happening”).
The team’s work, in conjunction (and competition) with that of Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, and Norman Whitfield formed the backbone of Motown’s “Golden Decade.” In addition to the No. 1’s, HDH wrote and produced dozens of other Top 20 hits for the aforementioned and other Motown artists including Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, and Jr. Walker and the All-Stars. HDH were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Brian Holland learned to play piano literally in church. “I would run up to the piano after church and start playing it,” he says. Though never a particularly accomplished musician, he had a knack for melody that would become the foundation of the team’s eventual success.
Both Brian and Edward (then called “Eddie”) were aspiring singers who recorded with Berry Gordy as early as ’58. Brian decided that singing wasn’t for him, mostly because he was shy, and pursued songwriting and its implementational consequence, producing.
With Robert Bateman, he co-wrote and co-produced Motown’s first No. 1, the Marvelettes irresistible “Please Mr. Postman” in ’61. Eddie continued to pursue a recording career and hit the Top 30 in ’62 with “Jamie.”
Lamont Dozier recorded (as “Lamont Anthony”) in ’61 for Anna Records, owned by Berry’s sister Gwen, and remained with the Motown family in relative obscurity for the next couple of years. There is some dispute as to the identity of the inaugural HDH team venture, but both Brian and Edward remember it to be “Forever.”
Brian recalls walking by the studio and hearing Dozier teasing out a melody on the piano. He recalls saying, “That’s a pretty good song – let’s see if we can finish it together.” They did – with Edward contributing lyrics – and as produced by Brian for the Marvelettes, the song rose to No. 24 on the R&B chart in ’63.
The team’s first Top 40 hit was Martha and the Vandellas’ “Come and Get These Memories,” followed closely by their first smash (also with Martha), “Heat Wave.” “Heat Wave” is a swinging, handclaps and sax number that speaks equally of revival tents, juke joints and the Brill Building. A clever analogy between love and heat (in the “Fever” tradition) is belted by Martha Reeves (tied with Gladys Knight as Motown’s most soulful woman) over a real R&B backing from the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers. Yet the feeling is never raw because of the brightness of the team’s production. In fact, rhythmic drive coupled with bright, open, “friendly” production is the team’s hallmark.
It was Brian who led in the studio because he could hear the records before they were recorded. Says Edward, “Brian has an exceptionally gifted ear. It was simple for him because he could hear the arrangements in his head. All he had to do was to convey that to the musicians. For others (like me) it’s hit and miss and complicated. Other producers depend on the musicians to add flavor to the song, but Brian had it all in his head.”
However, contrary to popular belief, HDH didn’t enter the studio with complicated arrangements written out. The musicians were given a chord sheet and general direction, but they were encouraged to contribute ideas which the team either accepted or rejected. Also contrary to belief, “Motown didn’t have blueprint on how to produce records. They had the ability to allow us to go do what we needed to do with the product. We were allowed the freedom to work on things until we got them right,” asserts Brian.
For HDH the process of writing flowed into the process of producing. If the process began with Brian, he would get a “feeling for the melody,” he says. “I would let Lamont and my brother know the kind of melody I was writing and see if they had an idea lyric-wise.”
Adds Edward, “I would make suggestions like ‘add two bars here, or four bars there.’ Brian would ask me why, and then make adjustments once he was convinced I needed that to complete the idea lyrically. Originally we would just write songs and then figure out who would sound best on them. But then as artists like the Supremes and the Four Tops became more successful, we would write for them. Often in the process of writing [for an artist] we would find out that the song didn’t necessarily fit them, so we would give it to someone else.”
While musicians were given artistic license, typically artists were not. Recalls Edward, “Once the song was done I would take the artist(s) and teach them to sing the song. I would go over it and over it until I thought they understood the song, and then I would direct them in the studio. They would add their feelings. I still feel that Diana Ross has one of the most sensuous, sweet-sounding voices I’ve ever heard. Levi [Stubbs of the Four Tops] has an exceptional voice. Marvin [Gaye] could hear something one time and pretty much comprehend what you wanted.”
And it is the team’s work with the Four Tops and the Supremes that best exemplifies their sound. The Tops (Stubbs, Obie Benson, Lawrence Payton, Duke Fakir) had 10 years of R&B vocal experience behind them when they signed with Motown in ’63. That R&B vocal harmony experience grounded them even as HDH took flight into their “classical period” of late-’66 to mid-’67 with “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing In the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette” and “7 Rooms of Gloom.”
The Tops’ earthy harmonies and Stubbs’ stentorian pipes are never swamped by the melodies, chording, nor the tension (verses) and release (choruses) model that HDH drew from sophisticated orchestral music for these songs, where archetypal black and archetypal white music reach an exquisite balance that reveal the power and beauty of both.
In spite, or because of the fact that the Supremes’ music was less grounded in the black tradition, they became the most successful Motown group of them all. Within the competitive Motown schema, once it became clear that the Supremes (and especially Diana Ross) were Berry Gordy’s favorite, it behooved HDH to craft the most accessible possible sound for them in order to remain atop the pack. This they did by opening up a sound so wide that it was able to swallow America (and the world) whole.
The Supremes (Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard) were the first musical artists to truly transcend race. Diana Ross’ appeal as a woman was based upon trans-racial characteristics: style, grace, the figure and photo-friendliness of a model, and a transcendent eagerness to please men of every hue. Though never denying her blackness a la the pathology of Michael Jackson, Ross never saw race as her defining characteristic. Almost perversely, Ross demystified race for many Americans (especially whites) by proving that a black woman could display all of the offhand narcissism and giddy coyness of a Newport debutante.
HDH wrote and produced to this image, emphasizing Ross’ sultry and sensuous vulnerability on songs like “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” gratifying men and women of all races with the notion that even the most perfect women are subject to heartache: even objects of desire, desire. All of this would have been of little consequence if not for the unyielding appeal of the songs. Is there a fan of popular music who can’t sing the chorus of virtually every Supremes’ No. 1? Who doesn’t move to their pulsing, scintillating beats? Is there a more perfect production than “You Can’t Hurry Love”? with the throbbing bass and tambourine intro, the snare and horn punctuations on the offbeat, and Ross’ creamy, toothy vocal over a hopeful rhythm guitar?
Upon leaving Motown in ’68 over a royalty dispute, HDH formed the Invictus/Hot Wax labels where they hit again with Freda Payne (“Band of Gold”), Chairman of the Board (“Give Me Just a Little More Time”) and the Honey Cone (“Want Ads”). Both Edward Holland and Lamont Dozier began singing again; Dozier hit the Top 30 twice in ’74 with “Trying To Hold On To My Woman” and “Fish Ain’t Bitin’.”
In April of ’98, the Pullman Group signed a “finance securitization agreement” valued at about $30 million with HDH, backed by their future publishing rights. Their song catalog is valued at over $100 million.