Behind the grooves

Nov 21, 2007 at 12:00 am

On "Baby I Need Your Loving"

Eddie Holland: It was a situation where [staff producer-songwriter] Mickey Stevenson opened the door and asked if we had anything for the Four Tops. I didn't realize at the time that the Four Tops had been signed to Motown for over a year! For some reason, that song popped into my mind. It was a pleasant song that was just lying around for five or six months.

Brian Holland: We had a little melody and just bounced it around and put some lyrics to it.

Lamont Doizer: Brian is being modest. He came up with that melody. I told him it was a pretty one. He was always whispering these melodies but they were so infectious, the way he would do them. Sometimes they would bring tears to my eyes. They had a lot of heart. If it didn't move us, we knew it wouldn't move anybody else.

EH: I played the track for the band and gave the tape to Levi. When he first came to the studio, it didn't come off right. He said, "Why don't you give this to Lawrence Payton. It'll be better for him." I said, "No, I want you to sing it." I told him to go home, learn the song and we'd try it again. He came in and gave a wonderful performance. Levi is a premier vocalist.

EH: That song sat around for months. We thought it was a B-side.

LD: It was like a chant. Brian was playing this thing and it felt so infectious to me. Eddie took the melody and wrote the lyrics.

On "You Can't Hurry Love"

Brian Holland: Once again, it's a gospel thing. We went into the studio and cut that with a feeling. Lamont came up with the intro rhythm thing on the piano. I do recall there was a little disagreement about which song should be released first as a single. "You Keep Me Hangin' On," which I felt was the better song, or "You Can't Hurry Love." I had an argument with Billie Jean Brown — she was quality control at Motown. I think I asked my partners. I think they both said "You Keep Me Hangin' On," too. But Billie persuaded Berry that "You Can't Hurry Love" has to be first; it's the right one. She won on that. But "You Keep Me Hangin' On" turned out to be covered by three or four different artists and went to No. 1. When the Vanilla Fudge did it, I thought it was one of the greatest arrangements that I ever heard. When I first heard their version I went, "My God!"

On "Come See About Me"

Lamont Dozier: That song has a gospel feeling. We'd sit around and talk about Sam Cooke and the Five Blind Boys, different people that were in the gospel field. That would stimulate some psychological urges to write certain things. We three were brought up in the church. Our upbringing was very close. Our grandmothers raised us. We were told that we must go to church, we must belong to the choir and we must listen mainly to gospel and classical music. We always kept that thread in our music.

Brian Holland: Yeah. Eddie, Lamont and I had a very symbiotic understanding of gospel, which was embedded in us early. We had a very natural feel for that and classical music.

On "Reach Out I'll Be There"

Lamont Dozier: Bob Dylan's phrasing on "Like A Rolling Stone." Something about the way he sang that song inspired me when I wrote the verses of "Reach Out I'll Be There." Brian came up with that Russian sounding intro. We went from that Cossack feeling that Brian was playing into the verses. And with that feel, we went back to church.

There was no book on how to write songs in those days. Unbeknownst to us, we were writing the book on how to write songs. We were making up the rules about songwriting as we went along. That's why a lot of people call the Motown sound the H-D-H sound. Brian and I had the most unorthodox chords that we would use, like on "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "Stop! In The Name Of Love." "Bernadette" is like opera. Sometimes the band would say, "That's not rock 'n' roll." And I'd say, "Who says we're doing rock 'n' roll?" (laughs)

On "Where Did Our Love Go"

Eddie Holland: It was a melody that Brian and Lamont were playing on the piano. It sounded like a hit song to us. I wanted Mary Wilson to sing it because her voice was soft. On the few things I'd heard Diana sing, she sang with a very high-pitched, nasally sound. I felt that if any singer could sing it and make it soft and sensual, it would be a hit. Brian and Lamont both looked at me as if I had lost my mind. "Mary Wilson? No, Diana Ross is the singer." So we dropped the song in a lower key and Diana sang it wonderfully. Diana Ross' voice is magical; she had that very unique, sensual sound that was very natural.

Lamont Dozier: The 'baby baby' singing in unison came about because of pure frustration on my part. The girls didn't like the song. I had worked out this elaborate background part and I threw the background part out the window and told them to sing 'baby baby' and it worked.

On "Bernadette"

Lamont Dozier: We had an unwritten rule that we wouldn't use girl's names in our songs because you narrowed your marketing potential. But in this case the reason why it passed that law (laughs) is because we each had known three different Bernadettes. We kept it to ourselves so when the name came up, the resistance was not that strong. My childhood sweetheart when I was 11 years old was named Bernadette. We broke our rule. Eddie wrote it and that was that. That was the only song we wrote with a girl's name. It was like a little secret that we kept among us. We just admitted this years later.

Levi Stubbs has such a dramatic way of delivering a song. He was like Caruso in that respect. He had that sense of drama. When he spoke to you on record, you felt that urgency. Eddie would teach him the songs but he had that innate quality. His delivery on the songs was far and beyond the call of duty. He was very good at interpretation.

On songwriting

Eddie Holland: It wasn't that I was such a great lyricist. I would just listen to what they were doing, musically, and it inspired me. With the Supremes, I wrote songs that would capture Diana's feeling. But it would all stem from Brian and Lamont's melodies and production. The music dictated the lyrics.

I always wanted to write songs that had appeal. I overheard Berry Gordy in a sales meeting saying, "Females buy the most records." When I heard him say that, a light came on. I would always gear the lyric towards female appeal. Whether it was a male or a female singing, it didn't really matter. I would do what I felt would be appealing to females.

But we wrote differently for the Supremes than we did for the Four Tops. By them being males, we had a tendency to be more punchy, musically and with the lyrics.

On the Motown formula:

Lamont Dozier: I think that it was so apropos for the Funk Brothers to get their due with that documentary. It made me feel good that they were finally getting some recognition. They had to be in the studio around the clock, sometimes 14, 15 hours a day cutting for various producers. They had to shine. They were on staff and they had to give the producers what they wanted. We certainly put them through the ropes because we were very pushy about what we wanted. We didn't want to sound like nobody else, Smokey or Norman Whitfield.

There was a variation of musicians we used. We call it the "A" team because they were the "A" team to us. They were James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, Robert White, Joe Messina and Eddie Willis and Joe Hunter or Earl Van Dyke. That was our nucleus. If we couldn't have these guys, especially James and Benny, we wouldn't cut. The music was so intricate and it took a lot of understanding of what we were going for. These guys just knew us instinctively. James Jamerson was totally awesome. I could give him a bass figure and he would elaborate. Brian would be with Benny telling him what to do with his foot to enhance what Jamerson was playing. That's how Brian and I would work the room to make sure those tracks were tight.

Eddie Holland: We used to have two or three songs to cut per three-hour session. That doesn't happen nowadays. You look at how many tracks we cut at such a fast rate. There was no way we could have done the work that we did without working with such superb musicians.

On creating the music

Lamont Dozier: We always tried to be leaders. We never followed anybody. We went out of our way not to sound like anybody else. We would listen to John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney) and Brian Wilson and see what everybody was doing. They probably inspired us to be better than we even felt we could be. When they got hot, we tried to get hotter. When they did something spectacular, we tried to be even more spectacular. In that regard I think we were doing the same thing for them. When I talked with John Lennon, he said, "You guys inspired us to do things." I said, "That's funny (laughing), you guys did the same thing for us." It was an appreciation we had for each other. At one time, we were hoping it would come to pass that the Beatles — John and Paul at least — we could have an album with them. Holland-Dozier-Holland meets the Beatles. We'd write songs with them. But it never materialized. Brian Epstein died and it just never happened.

Holland-Dozier-Holland on the Motown formula 2:

Lamont Dozier: In order to get our records released at Motown, we had to be better than anyone else there. We pushed ourselves and strived for excellence every time we went into the studio to cut tracks.

EH: It was a very exciting time to be at Motown in the ‘60. Holland-Dozier-Holland had their office. It was big enough that we could have four or five people for our poker games (laughs) and a piano. We’d be in our room writing songs. People would be coming in and out listening to what we were doing. Lamont would always keep the laughs going. In the outer room you’d find musicians or writers or arrangers working on songs with different people. You’d find someone in another room banging on a piano. It was a very very active company. It was very alive, every day. It was extremely competitive. You’d have to stand there and wait until the other person finished in the studio. You’d have Smokey Robinson in the studio or Norman Whitfield or us. There was constant action all day long. There was a real camaraderie there. It was a very exciting time.

Brian Holland: Berry Gordy would give awards to the top producer every year (laughs). He stopped (laughing) because Holland-Dozier would win every year. We tried to turn out the best music at all times.