Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Lamont Dozier

24th August 2022

Bill Brewster marks the passing of the late songwriter, instrumental in the success of the Tamla-Motown label, who died earlier this month aged 81.

Lamont Dozier’s dizzyingly diverse catalogue showed a man whose fingertips were there or thereabouts at the birth of everything from soul music through to disco, boogie and jazz-funk. His partnership with brothers Eddie and Brian Holland (the much feted Holland-Dozier-Holland) is as iconic as any in the Brill Building, scoring 28 Top Twenty hits between 1963 and 1966, for acts like Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops, Jr. Walker & The All-Stars, The Isley Brothers and Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. Driven by Motown CEO Berry Gordy’s insatiable drive and factory conveyor-belt methods, the trio were instrumental in guiding the organisation to greatness — and world domination — before a fall-out in 1967 led to their premature departure from the company who’d single-handedly redefined the sound of (young) Black America. 

Lamont Herbert Dozier was born in Detroit on June 16th, 1941, wrote his first song aged 10 (the snappily-titled ‘A Song’) and was active in the bubbling Motor City music scene by the age of 14 with local heroes The Romeos, alongside fellow singer Ty Hunter (who would later sing in both Glass House and The Originals, both produced by Dozier). He had a brief spell living in New York as a young man, but returned and recorded a few sides for Anna Gordy’s Anna label, before it was subsumed into Berry’s Tamla-Motown organisation. 

Although Dozier’s singing career stalled, he was partnered up with the Brian Holland and his brother Eddie, the former having delivered Motown’s first US #1 with ‘Please Mr Postman’ for the Marvelettes. Their first song together was Marvelettes’ ‘Lockin’ Up My Heart’, featuring singer Gladys Horton, an early sounding board for HDH. When Horton turned down another song, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, they handed it to the Supremes, giving them the first of five successive #1s written and produced by the same team:  ‘Baby Love’, ‘Come See About Me’, ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ and ‘Back In My Arms Again’. 

Holland-Dozier-Holland displayed a feverish work routine, competing with other on-staff production teams, sometimes writing two or three songs in a day. “If we didn’t complete them at least we would start them,” Dozier told Paolo Hewitt in 1984. “We would have parts of the songs, like hooks, or maybe parts of verse, so that at the end of the day we would have something accomplished.” And they were not averse to unorthodox practices, if the results provided hits. Paranoia, jealousy and loneliness were frequent themes in the early songs of HDH, with Dozier later confessing he’d deliberately sabotage real life relationships to lay the creative groundwork: “I used to break up with girls just to feel miserable enough to write a sad song about them.”

That’s not all. Holland-Dozier-Holland all but invented northern soul in 1965 with the Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself’, with its its doubled-up snare hits, breakneck pace and lyrics imbued with the sugar-rush of yearning. While most self-respecting northern DJs would never have played the all-too-common Motown label in the early 1970s, they unearthed a forgotten HDH gem, R. Dean Taylor’s ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’, when DJ Ian Levine rediscovered it in 1973. It was a Top Three hit in the UK in 1974, seven years after its original release. (They would also later be responsible for another later period northern smash, Eloise Laws’ ‘Love Factory’.)

In 1967, unhappy with royalty payments HDH demanded an audit of their royalties. Motown countersued to the tune of $4m. The team had effectively gone on strike, setting up their own labels, Invictus and Hot Wax, in secret. MOTOWN ENGINE MISFIRES, reported the Detroit Free Press. They were mired in the dispute for the next few years, eventually releasing the huge hit ‘Band Of Gold’ (with a pseudonymous writing credit of Edythe Wayne) for Freda Payne, backed by the Motown Funk Brothers. At one stage the team had Payne at #1, with new group led by General Johnson, Chairman Of The Board, at #3 in the UK pop chart. 

“When they left it devastated us”, confessed Four Tops’ Lawrence Payton. “Without them we couldn’t get a hit record. Besides, we weren’t getting much action anymore as an act.” The Tops left for ABC/Dunhill where they eventually scored their first crossover song in five years with ‘Keeper Of The Castle’.

In  1973, Dozier decided to leave the Invictus camp and strike out on his own. He signed to a solo deal with ABC that also included duties as an in-house producer. The deal handed him a debut solo hit with ‘Fish Ain’t Bitin’’, an unusually political song for Dozier,  pleading with disgraced President Nixon to go: “Tricky Dick is tryna be slick; and the short end of the stick; is all I’m gonna get it; Tricky Dick, please quit.” His debut, Out Here On My Own, also contained early disco smash, ‘Take Off Your Make Up’, as well as the title track. While he only recorded one further solo set for ABC, he produced albums for Aretha Franklin (with whom he’d gone to elementary school), Dionne Warwick and Ben E. King and underrated LPs for The Originals, Margie Joseph and Popcorn Wylie (California Sunset, Heard The Words Feel The Feeling and Extrasensory Perception). Dozier didn’t speak to the Holland brothers for the next ten years. 

Signing for Warner Bros., his most successful album was 1977’s Peddlin’ Music On The Side, in which he enlisted a phalanx of African players and singers, with old friend Hugh Masekela helping the Detroit veteran recruit from his home continent. The African influence was at its most obvious on the album’s big hit ‘Going Back To My Roots’, Dozier’s first big Europe-wide hit (Odyssey also had a Euro chart smash with the song in 1981).

Dozier persevered with his solo career despite reservations about live performing. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when he was already five solo albums deep that he decided to go on tour — the first live performances since the days of the Romeos in the late 1950s. “All those years I thought Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye had it going for them so easily,” he confessed to Robin Katz. “I always thought it was the songwriters who did the creative work. But I’ve learned you can also destroy your popularity with a bad stage act. Recording and performing go hand in hand. Performing requires a lot of preparation. You need to be visual. I tend to feel awkward standing on a stage.”

Dozier continued recording right through to 2018, though his last album of original material was the 1991 Atlantic Germany release, Inside Seduction, which was co-produced by Phil Collins, with whom he’d struck up a friendship during the making of 1988 movie Buster. During a long and storied career, the only Grammy Lamont Dozier won was for ‘Two Hearts’, a Motown pastiche he co-wrote with Phil Collins for the Collins-led movie. In fact, from 1958 to 1983, only three Black acts won the Grammy award for Song Of The Year. Dozier died peacefully at his home in Scottsdale, AZ on August 8th, 2022. The celestial choir up there got itself one of the all-time greats.

Lamont Dozier, June 16, 1941 – August 8, 2022


Bill Brewster has compiled a playlist in tribute to Lamont Dozier, which you can listen to here.