One of the most famous record labels of all time, Motown fostered a group of uniquely talented writers, engineers and musicians who often had to invent the equipment and techniques they used to keep their music at the cutting edge. Lamont Dozier explains how it was done...
Remember those scenes in corny old Hollywood biopics about famous composers? One second, Beethoven's noodling around on the keyboard — da-da-da-daa — and the next thing, as an inspired look creeps over his face, he plays the entire Fifth Symphony. Or while a Doris Day-ish singer improvises perfectly rhyming lyrics, a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith handily concocts the music: et voilà, a hit record. Hardly how things turn out in real life, you might think, yet sample this recollection by Lamont Dozier about the crafting of 'Reach Out I'll Be There' with Brian Holland:
"Brian played the intro on the piano before I jumped in, pushed him out of the way and sang, 'Now, if you feel that you can't go on...' Then he jumped back in with the bridge, and we were both literally sliding on and off the piano stool. I'd slide him off and go, 'Darlin' reach out...', he'd slide back in for 'I'll be there...' and that's the way we did a lot of the stuff. It was a beautiful experience and one I'll never forget."
Indeed, the aforementioned process — or variations on it — resulted in many, many songs released on the Motown label that, as written, arranged and produced by Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie, no one will ever forget: 'Where Did Our Love Go?', 'Baby Love', 'Stop! In The Name Of Love', 'Come See About Me', 'Back In My Arms Again', 'I Hear A Symphony', 'You Can't Hurry Love', 'You Keep Me Hangin' On' and 'Reflections' for the Supremes; 'Baby I Need Your Loving', 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)', 'It's The Same Old Song', 'Reach Out I'll Be There', 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love' and 'Bernadette' for the Four Tops; '(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave', 'Nowhere To Run' and 'Jimmy Mack' for Martha & the Vandellas; 'Can I Get A Witness' and 'How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)' for Marvin Gaye; 'This Old Heart Of Mine' (with Sylvia Moy) for the Isley Brothers; and '(I'm A) Road Runner' for Junior Walker and the All Stars.
The team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, actually started out as three separate musical entities operating within the Detroit-based sphere of one Berry Gordy Jr. In fact, Gordy produced Eddie Holland's 1958 single, 'You', prior to forming Tamla Motown, and three years later Eddie scored a Top 30 US hit on that label with 'Jamie'. At the same time, Brian Holland was enjoying success as a Motown staff songwriter, co-composing the Marvelettes' 1961 single 'Please Mr Postman', which was the label's first chart-topper, and it was Brian's main songwriting partner, Robert Bateman, who suggested that Brian should team up with a young solo artist named Lamont Dozier.
Dozier had sung lead as part of the Voice Masters vocal group on 'Let's Talk It Over', a 1960 single released on the Anna Records label of Berry Gordy's sister, and he had also worked with Gordy on recordings by Motown's first signing, Marv Johnson, by the time Robert Bateman quit Detroit to seek fame and fortune in New York. That quest would prove to be fruitless, yet Dozier took his advice to team up with Brian Holland before also being encouraged to pursue this career path by Berry Gordy.
"Brian and I wrote stuff for various Motown artists, and some of it started to get attention," Dozier recalls. "Then Berry told me 'Look, if you really want to be successful and make some money at this thing, the writing and producing aspect of it is the way to go.'"
Again, Dozier heeded the advice, and soon the composing/production efforts of he and Brian Holland were supplemented by Eddie's lyrics and vocal arrangements.
"Eddie didn't want to sing any more," Dozier explains. "He didn't like to be on stage, jumping around. He preferred to be in the background, writing lyrics, so we brought him in and that's when things started to click."
Indeed they did. As both a lyricist and melody man, Lamont Dozier would generate most of the initial song ideas, and after working on the music with Brian Holland he would also often come up with ideas for the lyrics and hand these to Eddie, who would finish them and then teach the vocal lines to the singers. They, too, would often also contribute their own ideas.
"We had our own little factory within a factory," says Dozier, referring to the role that he and the Holland brothers played within the overall Motown setup. "In the early days, we all had to clock in and clock out, but eventually we learned our craft to the extent that that we didn't need to punch clocks any more. All of the guys working for Berry had a budget, and they had to come up with something out of that budget. You got your shot and you had to come up with something that sold. We called it 'Motown College'. He just let us do what we wanted to do. He trusted us. We were all talented people and he believed in us. Being a songwriter himself, he knew that standing over somebody while they're working is just nerve-wracking and you're not going to get much done. He or she has to have some leeway, and he understood that."
Meanwhile, in-house there was plenty of healthy competition between the various songwriters and producers, such as Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, H-D-H, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
"You might say there was friendly fire," remarks Dozier. "Everybody wanted to have the next release on an artist, and so they would work overtime to make sure they'd get it. Then again, we were also under constant pressure to come up with new material. Berry would say 'We need something for Marvin,' or 'We need something for the Supremes,' and so we were always thinking a little bit about the artists we worked with, although most of our efforts still went into being prolific and making sure that the songs had what it took to be hits. If there was an infectious quality to the melodies and the hooks, they could be recorded by anybody. Most of those people could sing any one of those songs, and in a lot of cases they did sing each other's songs."
Among the more notable examples of this are the hit recordings of 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' by both Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell's cover version of the Isley Brothers' 'This Old Heart Of Mine', and Diana Ross's 1971 remake of 'Reach Out I'll Be There'. Berry Gordy was hardly complaining. Meanwhile, thanks to Motown's in-house disc mastering capability, he and his sidekicks could listen to reference acetates in his office, evaluate what they heard and suggest changes as part of the collaborative process.
"We didn't have A&R meetings, we called them 'quality control meetings'," Dozier remarks, "and we actually used to get people off the street to come in and listen to the new material. Eventually, through word of mouth, people got to know that on the first of the month or every couple of months we would have one of these listening parties, and so they would hang out in front of the Hitsville building and then we would bring them into the studio, give them Coca-Cola, potato chips and hot dogs, and play a bunch of stuff for them to rate. That was in the earlier stages. Later on we did away with that and had a nucleus of staff in the A&R department that was unmatched by any company in the world, but early on we did everything to try to be on the ball and keep up with what people wanted to hear. We were trying to give people things that would touch them emotionally, and we didn't think that because we were black we would only do this for the black population. We had all mixes, all races of people in there, because Motown embodied the notion that music is a language of its own and it crosses all barriers."
Hitsville USA, located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan, and purchased by Berry Gordy in 1959, was Motown's original headquarters, housing its administrative offices and, at the back of the building, its recording studio, the live area of which was commonly referred to as 'The Snake Pit'. In 1965, this was supplemented by a mix room located at 2644 West Grand, yet Studio A was where the classic hits were recorded, and it stayed open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, until the company relocated to Los Angeles in 1972. (The offices moved to a 10-storey building in downtown Detroit in 1968.)
Mike McLean, who joined Motown in January 1961, was the Chief Engineer, and he initially built a pair of half-inch, three-track machines with Sel-sync using Ampex parts. The Marvelettes' 'Please Mr Postman' was recorded during the first three-track session. In addition to the Altec 605A monitors positioned in each corner near the ceiling, the control room housed a five-input, rack-mounted Altec 1567A tube mixer and four-input Ampex MX10. The limited number of effects included an EMT 140 plate reverb and an echo chamber in the attic that had been built by Pop Gordy, Berry's father, with parallel plasterboard walls, a door at each end and an RCA 44BX mic to capture the flutter echo. Other mics included a Neumann U47 and U48, two Electro Voice 666s, a pair of RCA 44BXs and an RCA 77DX. Later on, as part of the 'factory' approach, there would be a switch to all Neumann KM86 condenser mics.
During the early years, it was normal to have the lead vocal on track one, run through a Fairchild 660 mono compressor/limiter and the Altec 1567A. Horns and backing vocals would be on track two, going through a small custom-built console, and the rhythm section, routed to the Ampex MX10, was on track three. Tracks two and three would be cut together, but there wasn't much room for strings, so in 1964 McClean built an Ampex-based one-inch, eight-track machine that was used for the Supremes' 'Where Did Our Love Go'. This would remain until the purchase of a two inch, 16-track four years later, at which time Motown also upgraded to a conventional, state-of-the-art console and Altec 604E monitors.
The mix room at 2644 West Grand had its own eight-input custom console, featuring Langevin slide pots, Centralab rotary pots and API VU meters, along with 604E monitors, Studer C37 two-track tape machines and three echo chambers. Nevertheless, the consensus of opinion among those who played on the classic '60s recordings is that these chambers were outstripped by the one at 2648 West Grand as a contributing factor to the 'Motown Sound'.
"We were always trying different things," says Lamont Dozier. "The recording process was definitely more innovative back then, without synthesizers, and we'd have to improvise on the spot, banging on the piano, using car tyre snow chains — anything to get different effects. By the mid-'60s, everybody was looking for new sounds and new conversation pieces, and so we'd do things to make people wonder, 'What was that?' I mean, we didn't have the luxury that the Beatles enjoyed of always having new equipment invented for us, so we'd just beat on boxes, stomp on two-by-four hardwood floorboards for 'Where Did Our Love Go' — whatever we could come up with... and get away with."
The strategy worked. In 1964 and 1965, at the height of the so-called 'British Invasion' of the American music scene and pop charts, Motown enjoyed smash-hit success on both sides of the Atlantic with numerous artists on its roster. Chief among them were the Supremes, for whom Holland-Dozier-Holland created a string of five consecutive US number one singles. The first of these was 'Where Did Our Love Go', even though the song itself had originally been written for — and rejected by — the Marvelettes. Accordingly, before lead singer Gladys Horton refused to perform it, the backing track was cut in her key, which was considerably lower than that of the relatively shrill Diana Ross.
For their part, the Supremes were less than happy when they discovered they were being handed a Marvelettes reject. True, they may not have had much success up until that point, but they did have their pride, and this manifested itself in the form of curse words being hurled at the hapless composer-producers.
Hitsville, at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, is where all of the early Motown hits were recorded. The studio has been preserved as it was in the '60s and is open to the public as a museum. See www.motownmuseum.com for more details.
"Diana was already feeling unhappy about doing the song because of the key, and a lot of things were said," Dozier confirms. "However, she came off sounding very sultry as a result of that key. I was trying to teach them intricate harmonies for the background, and I was getting nothing, so I suggested singing 'baby-baby' in a fairly quick tempo and the only way Diana could do it was to sing 'bay-beh, bay-beh' in that low and sultry way. All of a sudden that was her sound, whereas previously she had been up in the air. If, as usual, we had put it in the higher key that she was used to singing in, it wouldn't have come off the same way. Those kinds of moments in the studio you can't explain. Nobody plans them, they just happen, and in this case it was their blessing and started them on a string of hits.
"We became so good at what we were doing, and we were selling so many records and breaking so many artists that, in addition to having our assigned artists, we also started to release what we wanted to release. We were so prolific, Berry trusted us to the point where he would say 'What are you guys putting out on Diane now?' We'd tell him that we liked the song 'Stop! In The Name Of Love' and he'd say 'Yeah, I heard that. I like it, too. Great, you're gonna go with that?' We'd say 'Yeah,' and that was the conversation. We were on such a roll, it was amazing. We were astounded! I-remember having a conversation with Brian and saying 'Man, I don't know what this is, but I don't think this stuff is ever going to end. I get the feeling we've stumbled onto something here that's worldwide and lasting.'
"Brian agreed. He said 'I get a weird feeling, man, like somebody has zapped us!' It was like 'You got the power.' I mean, how else can you explain it? Nobody knows what a hit is. You just do what you feel. We had such a closeness together, and we all would just stop and look at each other when we hit this certain chord, and we'd go 'Yeah, that's it...' Bam! We'd all have that feeling, and where that comes from God only knows, because what you're doing is selling a feeling to get to people of all races from all over the world. They pick up on what you're feeling and they know where you're coming from.
"Sometimes the songs wrote themselves, and at other times things weren't so easy. I remember 'Heatwave' for Martha & the Vandellas just came right away. It started out as a little theme that I used to warm up in the mornings when I arrived at the studio. I had the hook and then I decided to add to it, and that's how things could be. On the other hand, we cut the Four Tops' 'Without The One You Love' three times and it just didn't fit. It took a long time to get the take that we wanted."
Whereas the Supremes were Holland-Dozier-Holland's main female vocal group, their male counterparts in this regard were the Four Tops, comprising Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson, Lawrence Payton and lead singer Levi Stubbs, whose baritone voice distinguished the Tops from most other contemporary groups that were fronted by a tenor. The irony was, he still had to perform songs that were purposely written in a tenor range so that his gospel-laced vocals would have a greater sense of urgency.
"From an artistic standpoint, Levi Stubbs and Marvin Gaye were the best artists to work with," asserts Dozier. "When they came into the studio, we could give them a couple of beats and some direction as to what the song's feel and attitude should be, and they would get it right away, sometimes in one take, without even knowing what the song was about. It's very unusual for people to be able to do that, but they were just so talented."
Interestingly for such a notable pop vocal group, the Four Tops not only spent their early Motown years recording jazz standards, but their first chart hit evolved out of a song that Holland-Dozier-Holland initially created as a purely instrumental track. 'Baby I Need Your Loving' was subsequently embellished with lyrics, and after it reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-1964 the Tops wisely left jazz behind. Nevertheless, once 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)' had become their first chart-topper in April of the following year, H-D-H suddenly found themselves having to recycle their own work in order to meet demand and curtail some unwelcome competition from one of the group's former labels.
"We got a call telling us that Columbia were releasing an old Four Tops album and trying to take advantage of the momentum they had recently gained," Dozier recalls. "'I Can't Help Myself' had fizzled out, and Columbia were just sitting back and waiting to jump into that space, because they figured that we didn't have anything else, and we didn't. So, we had to rush the band into the studio, and I came up with 'It's The Same Old Song', which was similar to 'I Can't Help Myself'. I found a way of turning the bass figure around, but basically the chords were all very similar — it really was the same old song. So, I added a few chords on top of the high part just to give it some new nuances, and after that we had it out on the street in five days and we squashed the Columbia record."
While Pop Gordy's original echo chamber in the main Hitsville building played an intrinsic part in what came to be known as the 'Motown Sound', so did the local session musicians nicknamed the Funk Brothers who, according to the 2002 documentary film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, "played on more number-one records than the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined".
Uncredited until the 1971 release of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, the Funk Brothers comprised a revolving door of different, predominantly black musicians. Around the time of 'Reach Out I'll Be There' these included bandleader/pianist Earl Van Dyke, keyboard player Johnny Griffith, guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White and Eddie Willis, bass players James Jamerson and Tony Newton, while percussionists Jack Ashford, Jack Brokensha and Eddie 'Bongo' Brown, along with drummers Uriel Jones, William 'Benny' Benjamin and Richard 'Pistol' Allen, all contributed to the famous 'four-on-the-floor' rhythm that called for a snare hit on every beat. Indeed, most Motown recordings featured two drummers, sometimes playing together, while Gaye's 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' utilised three.
The aforementioned names were just a few among many, many talented musicians, including brass players and the string section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And then there were the Adantes — Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow and Louvain Demps — who sang backing vocals on thousands of Motown recordings, not least the high harmonies on all of the Four Tops' hits produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, as well as substituting for Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong on many of the late-'60s releases by Diana Ross & the Supremes.
"I was able to come up with a lot of great ideas with the Adantes," says Lamont Dozier. "Like on 'Baby I Need Your Loving', they gave such a richness to the hooks while blending in with the Tops. Those girls were good on everything, and they really helped groups like the Marvelettes whose voices were only so-so. The Adantes had a great feel."
A purpose had been served, yet as straightforward pop began giving way to studio experimentation during the mid-'60s, much of Motown's output also became more sophisticated, and this was clearly evident in what would turn out to be the Four Tops' signature song and biggest hit. 'Reach Out I'll Be There', released in August 1966, featured Levi Stubbs belting out the lead vocal to a melody that kept shifting between minor and major, as well as major and augmented chords, to create contrasting tones that underpinned one of the most famous of all Motown song hooks.
"Up until then, most of the songs basically had three chords," says Dozier. "They were very simple and, in a sense, very rock & roll, but I think the experiment of putting classical and gospel together reached full force on 'Reach Out I'll Be There'. I mean, so many people have tried to define the 'Motown Sound', and if it's anything, it's gospel and classical merging together. I was raised on that music, it's all we ever heard in our house. My grandmother wouldn't allow anything else — unless it was Tony Bennett or Nat 'King' Cole or Frank Sinatra — and so I had this stuff ingrained in me. At the same time, being indoctrinated into the gospel way of thinking, I wound up being a lead singer at church. A good friend of mine, Aretha Franklin, was there, and a lot of influences were around. So, the 'Motown Sound' definitely had those elements in it, and if you listen to the chords of 'Reach Out I'll Be There' there are very intricate patterns.
"To my knowledge, those structures had never been explored before, and on that song we were reaching out for different sounds and approaches. To start with, there was the Russian-type intro — it was almost gypsy-like, mixed in with a little Russian theme, summoning up images of the Cossacks. It was Brian who was responsible for that. He came into the office one day and was kind of searching around on the piano until he came up with this little melody. He kept playing it over and over and over, but he couldn't find any other place to go with it.
"Then something came over me, so I sat next to him — as we'd often do — at the piano and I just went into left field with a totally different feel, a gospel feel: 'Now if you feel that you can't go on...' A real hallelujah jump-and-shout type of thing. The two different parts seemed to match, creating an excitement and a collaboration of sounds and feelings that we'd never heard before. When one of us appeared to exhaust what we were feeling, the other would take over and improvise until the whole thing was completed. The chorus featured a little bit of both of us, changing chords and adding progressions, and in the end the song came together and really wrote itself in a lot of respects. Brian and I were like two scientists in a laboratory, mixing different concoctions to see what fitted and what sounded best, and it was just unusual that everything fell into place like that.
"Usually, I would have an idea for the lyrics, or a title, and I would give that to Eddie to continue, but in this case there was nothing, and so he and I fooled around together on the words. I gave him little pieces, he came up with the title, and when the song was completed Eddie then sang it to Levi Stubbs to give him direction in terms of the feeling and the performance. Originally, Brian and I had just been searching for a new song and didn't have a particular artist in mind, but once it reached a certain point we knew it was for Levi. And so, after I arranged the background vocals, I'd give him some of the nuances and then he would take it from there. He, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross were just phenomenal in that way."
The 'just look over your shoulder' comment on 'Reach Out' was one of Stubbs's improvisations, after the backing track had already been recorded in preparation for overdubbing the vocals. To that end, various members of the Funk Brothers rhythm section listened as Dozier previewed the song on the studio piano, and they in turn picked up fairly quickly on what they each and collectively had to play.
"There was no guide vocal," Dozier says. "We would do that for the singer once the track was cut, but for the band members we would just sing the melody and the song's other nuances to them right there on the studio floor, giving them little bass lines and little drum licks to demonstrate what the feel should be. It was strictly what we called a head arrangement, and that's how Brian and I would split the workload. He would show the drummer, Benny Benjamin, different lines, and I would show James Jamerson his bass lines, and that was very much the way we worked on 'Reach Out'. It was one of those songs where we split the job, and it worked. Nothing was ever really planned — it was sort of on-the-spot producing, wheeling the artists in and out while we were trying to be prolific as possible, and that kept us up a lot of nights."
The artistic incentives were great and so were the musical rewards. However, by 1967 Holland-Dozier-Holland no longer felt like making the effort in return for a minuscule slice of the monetary pie — low statutory rates and none of the publishing — while the company they had helped build became richer and richer. The result was that they quit Motown and, in 1968, formed their own Invictus and Hot Wax records labels, enjoying success with the likes of Freda Payne and the Chairmen of the Board while engaging in ongoing litigation with Berry Gordy.
"You need to get compensated for work that can destroy your mind and body and drag you down into the depths of depression," says Dozier, who parted ways with the Holland brothers in 1973 to pursue a solo career as a singer, songwriter and producer while Brian and Eddie continued with their own company. "It just isn't fair to not get what you worked for, what you made yourself sick for in a lot of cases. I mean, you put your life, your being and whatever you're about on the line, and then somebody says, 'OK, two for you, five for me, three for you, 15 for me.'"
Now back together as owners of HDH Records, which issues new material in addition to recordings from the Invictus and Hot Wax catalogues, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland are also collaborating again as composers, working on a Broadway-bound musical version of the 1996 hit movie The First Wives Club, comprising all-original music and 22 new songs.
"It's weird," says Dozier. "We get into a room and shut the door, and it starts all over like we never skipped a beat. We've always had our own ideas about how to approach being creative and how to open up our minds to the muses, so to speak. We have our own feeling and I really think that can be sustained for a lifetime. It's a frame of mind and creativity never dies. It just depends on the individuals, and in our case it's about believing that we can do it and that we have what it takes to come up with a hit song. We always believed that we had something special together, and I think the new songs are fabulous."