“Standing in the Shadows of Love.” “Bernadette.” “Baby I Need Your Loving.” “This Old Heart of Mine.” “You Can't Hurry Love.” “I Hear a Symphony.” “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave.” “Nowhere To Run.” “Jimmy Mack.”
If you have a working set of ears, you probably already have more than a passing familiarity with the brilliance of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland. As songwriters and producers during Motown's mid-'60s heyday, Holland-Dozier-Holland churned out more great records than the label knew what to do with. Between 1963 and 1967, the trio scored 37 pop and R&B chart hits with singles by the Four Tops, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers and others, most of which are still in such regular rotation on oldies stations like KACE and K-EARTH that you can usually hear an H-D-H cut within a half-hour of tuning in.
Yet despite the enduring quality and popularity of the trio's songs, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team is only now receiving its first Grammy, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Trustees Award, which recognizes “outstanding contributions in a nonperforming capacity.” While the award puts H-D-H in some pretty stellar company (previous honorees include such heavyweights as Count Basie, Aaron Copland, George and Ira Gershwin, W.C. Handy, Quincy Jones and Cole Porter), the three men – already longtime members of both the National Academy of Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – could certainly be forgiven for feeling that recognition from NARAS has been a little too long in coming.
But if you're looking for bitterness, you'd best look elsewhere. Gathered together at Dozier's palatial Encino digs on a recent rainy afternoon, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland radiate only warm humor and harmonious vibes.
“After a while, you just don't think about it,” says Lamont. “To be recognized, and to have these songs still loved and bought, and being danced to and partied to, is a blessing in itself.”
“I thought only Berlin and Gershwin had songs that would last this long,” laughs Brian. “I can remember 'White Christmas' and Gershwin songs bein' played when I was a little baby, you know what I mean?”
Eternal fame was pretty much the last thing on anybody's mind back in 1962, when Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier began collaborating on songs for Berry Gordy's then-fledgling Motown label. With the help of fellow songwriter Freddie Gorman, the two came up with “Strange I Know” and “Forever,” a couple of minor hits for the Marvelettes. But when Gorman left Motown, the two roped in Holland's older brother, Edward, to do some lyrics.
“I was still singing,” remembers Edward, who'd recorded a handful of Motown hits (including “Jamie” and the oft-covered “Leaving Here”) as Eddie Holland. “I think they were both very happy to whip out those melodies very quickly, and give it to an upstart lyric writer such as myself. That was my gig, to whip those lyrics together and then teach the artist the song.” The trio's first collaboration, “Come and Get These Memories,” made the pop Top 30 for Martha and the Vandellas in the spring of 1963, and the hits just kept on coming.
“We were punching the clock,” says Lamont. “When we came into the office, we tried to put in as much time as possible. We would try to come up with the [musical] ideas, and the lyrics – at various times each of us wore various hats. That's how we were able to accomplish so much in a short time.”
But Holland-Dozier-Holland's success was about more than just hard work. Songs like the Four Tops' “Reach Out I'll Be There” combined elaborate, multihued chord changes with a complex rhythmic base; it was, as Lamont says, “an eclectic sound full of a little bit of everything for everybody.”
The sophisticated sound made a lasting impression, to say the least. “There's no such thing as the 'Motown Sound,'” observed Don Waller in The Motown Story (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985). “Nevertheless, the size and sheer number of H-D-H hits have made their 'sound' synonymous with Motown's.” “What a lot of people don't understand,” says Edward, “is that Holland-Dozier-Holland also cut records in California, and you had hits coming out of here. People will say, 'That's the Motown sound,' but it was never cut at Motown, it was cut in California!”
Another H-D-H hallmark was a thematic repetition from hit single to hit single. It's no coincidence that the Supremes' “Baby Love” sounds a lot like their previous “Where Did Our Love Go,” or that the Four Tops' sound-alike follow-up to “I Can't Help Myself” is called “It's the Same Old Song.”
“Whatever records caused the artist to hit that peak of success,” explains Edward, “it set a style and a tone for that artist. So what you tried to do was to stay within the tone and the style of that artist. Then you need to have a sense of timing to know when to maybe move off of it a little bit. Often, we would do several different songs, and then Quality Control – Berry Gordy and Billie Jean Brown – would pick. It was a combination of inputs and talents.”
But it was these very issues of artistic control (not to mention royalty disagreements) that caused H-D-H to leave the Motown fold in 1968. At least that's the standard historical line; Edward, choosing his words carefully (litigation involving the split is still going on), says that the real reason for leaving was much more mundane.
“Berry Gordy had promised my brother stock in the company, and then he didn't want to follow through. My brother had such a close relationship with Berry, and I could tell it had bothered him. So I became very angry. My position was, 'Well, I don't know if I want to be here anymore.' I told Berry, 'I think I'm just going to leave and do my own thing.' One of the things, even to this day, that Berry Gordy himself does not understand is, I never told Lamont Dozier or my brother to leave Motown. Never. I didn't even tell my brother that I was gonna go. He saw me on the porch of the house next door to Motown, and he said, 'I hear that you're leaving.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Well, if you're gonna leave, I'm gonna leave, too.'”
“And I had already made up my mind to move on, without even discussing it with them,” adds Lamont. Edward practically falls out of his chair.
“Hey,” he laughs, “can I tell you somethin'? I never knew that! This is a mindblower!”
“I had other aspirations,” continues Lamont. “I wanted to move out to California, I wanted to venture into the motion-picture business. It seemed like I had been sittin' in Detroit too long. That's the truth of the matter.”
“But you never told me,” protests Edward, laughing uproariously.
The breakup with Motown was hardly the end of the line for H-D-H. Thanks to the likes of Freda Payne, Honey Cone and the Chairmen of the Board, the three gentlemen racked up plenty of early-'70s hits on their Hot Wax and Invictus labels. H-D-H split up again when distribution problems prematurely sank Hot Wax and Invictus, but the '90s have seen the trio reunite under a new label, HDH Records, whose diverse roster includes the nasty funk of Q&A and the smooth jazz of Bryan Carter. And, unlike many record men of their generation, Holland, Dozier and Holland remain extremely open-minded about rap music and sampling.
“To me,” says Edward, “sampling is a form of respect. I wish they'd sample the hell out of my music!”
“Rap is an art form,” adds Lamont. “It's entertaining and it's enlightening. It's quite interesting what the kids are thinking about nowadays. They have a lot to deal with that we didn't have, growing up – the peer pressure and all the other googly-gop that's out there.”
And if Holland, Dozier and Holland were all in their 20s today?
Edward howls, “We'd be rappin' our ass off!”