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Songwriter Lamont Dozier on life during and after Motown, respect for Burt Bacharach, more

Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier talks about his 'Reimagination' album, and from there discusses a myriad of subjects.

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By Warren Kurtz

Lamont Dozier, with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, became one of the most successful songwriting teams of all-time. The Holland-Dozier-Holland partnership began in Detroit, with the Motown collection of labels, writing hit songs for vocal groups from Michigan and Ohio, including The Four Tops, The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, The Isley Brothers, and more. On his Reimagination CD, Lamont Dozier peels back the Motown arrangements and slows the tempo on the songs to expose the melodic and lyrical beauty of his compositions, accompanied, but not overpowered, by a wide variety of musical guests. Goldmine spoke with the composer about Reimagination and his Motown years in the first part of this interview. In the second part, we explore his post-Motown record labels and a song from his own recording career.


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The Motown Years

GOLDMINE: In the winter of 1968, growing up, we took a vacation from Cleveland and stayed at the Diplomat hotel in Miami Beach, where big name acts would entertain the adults in the lounge nightly. After getting ready on our first morning there, I took the elevator down to the lobby. As the doors opened I found my father frantically pacing, and asking me, “What took you so long? You missed meeting The Four Tops. I held them off as long as I could, saying, ‘My kid loves your music.’ They were so nice.”

LAMONT DOZIER: They were my favorite group to work with. It was always an album party doing a product with them. We enjoyed ourselves, often working until 3 or 4 a.m., rushing to get an album out, because they toured a lot, so getting them in town was hard. Levi Stubbs’ voice was incredible. So fantastic. I would give him a vocal part and he would take it to the limit.

GM: On your version of their biggest hit, “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” hearing you and the piano, you seem to bring in a touch of Burt Bacharach’s “Reach Out For Me” composition, along with a great gospel backdrop. You also add some power from Jo Harmon when you conclude the CD with a second version of the song as a bonus track.

LD: I loved Burt Bacharach in the ‘60s. I’m a big fan. I got to write with him about 10-15 years ago, nothing was released, but what a thrill that was. I was influenced in the ‘60s by what he had done. Jo Harman was fun to work with and I was so happy to get her. She is popular in England and has a great voice.

GM: In the spring of ’67, Philadelphia’s WIBG AM radio station was plugging your composition “I Got a Feeling,” my favorite Four Tops flip side, in addition to playing what the rest of the country was enjoying, “Bernadette.” As intense as Levi’s vocal delivery was on that hit, your new, soft version, backdropped by Spanish guitar with a bit of “Standing in the Shadows of Love” added near the end, might be my favorite track on the new collection.

LD: You know, there are three real life Bernadettes. Brian, Eddie and I said we would never do a song with a girl’s name in it, as that would cut down on any girl buyers. Bernadette was my first love when I was eleven years old. She came from an Italian immigrant family. Her father had a fruit and vegetable truck. She was in my class in elementary school and was like a muse to me. Later I learned that both Holland brothers each had Bernadette girlfriends too. It must have been a popular name in Detroit. We let our “no girl name song” rule go by as our only exception, our only girl name song title.

GM: Your Reimagination CD is filled with songs that I know from the radio, with one exception, and I am happy to learn from you, “In My Lonely Room.”

LD: I knew you were going to say that one. It just missed making the Top 40 by Martha & The Vandellas. That is one of my personal favorites. It is basically a ballad and we would write our songs in ballad forms in the ‘60s, but in the studio, that is where they turned into dance songs. Todd Rundgren did the background vocals on that new recording.

GM: So many people enjoy singing your songs. I have heard such a variety on “This Old Heart of Mine” over the years. In the ‘70s, the Canadian band Shivers had a single on the Private Stock label, with John Unger on lead vocals. Living in Roanoke, Virginia, in the ‘90s, the local band Domino often had it in their set, sung by Rick Landers. Now I hear Cliff Richard bring his emotion to the song with you.

LD: I enjoyed when Rod Stewart brought the song to the Top 10 with Ronald Isley in 1990. Cliff is a good friend. I worked with him on his 2011 duets album, Soulicious.

GM: You include a song that I bought three different versions of over the years, with all three making the Top 10, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” It was No. 1 with The Supremes in ’66, No. 6 in ’68 for Vanilla Fudge, and No. 1 again in 1987 for Kim Wilde. Now England’s Rumer joins you for her tasteful touch.

LD: Vanilla Fudge’s version was very clever. Kim Wilde’s turned it into a fun dance number. I got Rumer through the album’s producer Fred Mollin and she volunteered to do this song.

GM: When our daughter Brianna was starting 7th grade in 1995, radio stations in Roanoke were heavily playing the Top 10 hit single “Roll to Me” by the band Del Amitri. Then we heard it a lot for the rest of the decade because it was only two minutes long, easy to squeeze in before the top of the hour news. Justin Currie sang, “The right guy, the wrong situation, the right time to roll to me.” I also enjoyed “Not Where It’s At” from them and I certainly enjoy hearing you and Justin together and his delivery on the bridge of “Reflections.”

LD: With this collection I didn’t want to use the old Motown people. I wanted new voices, unexpected guests. I love Lee Ann Womack. Her “I Hope You Dance” is great. You can hear emotions from her heart to her throat and we have her on “Baby, I Need Your Loving.” There is jazz singer Gregory Porter, a fellow Clevelander for you, Marc Cohn, and Graham Nash on a Supremes medley, which includes “Stop In the Name of Love,” which he recorded with The Hollies in the ‘80s.

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After Motown

GM: After you, Brian and Eddie left Motown in the late ‘60s, you formed a pair of record labels with more hits into the next decade. “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne was a Top 10 gold single on the Invictus label and “Want Ads” by The Honey Cone, another gold single, went all the way to No. 1 on the Hot Wax label. Speaking of Hot Wax, one my wife Donna’s favorite compositions of yours is “Mind, Body and Soul” by The Flaming Ember on that label.

LD: Their drummer Jerry Plunk was a fantastic, emotional singer. I was always looking for unique sounds, different from everybody else. There were many singers trying to sound like Stevie Wonder and I wanted people who would sound unique. I was a music teacher at USC for six years and my main advice was to be unique.

GM:My favorite act on the Invictus label was Chairmen of the Board, with another Top 10 gold hit single, “Give Me Just a Little More Time.” After that hit, you co-wrote a pair of Top 40 hit songs with their lead vocalist General Johnson, “(You’ve Got Me) Dangling on a String” and “Pay to the Piper,” plus my favorite flip side, “When Will She Tell Me She Needs Me.” Ken Knox from that group told me, “General Johnson credited Lamont Dozier with strengthening his songwriting.”

LD: General had a great voice. Jeffrey Bowen, who worked with us, found him in Virginia and brought him to Detroit. He had a hook in his voice, that I knew from when he was with The Showmen, singing “It Will Stand.” General came in, and he was singing smoothly. I stopped him and asked where the hook was in his voice. He didn’t know what I meant. I wanted that “It Will Stand” type of vocal sound. He sang “It Will Stand” for me and I loved it again and told him to stick with that sound and to do it on this new song, “Give Me Just a Little More Time.” He also brought that vocal sound to “(You’ve Got Me) Dangling on a String” and “Everything’s Tuesday.” He sure wrote a lot too.

GM:I got to know him and the group in the ‘90s when we moved to Virginia and General had moved close by in North Carolina, bringing Chairmen of the Board there, too. Living in that region, their song “Carolina Girls” would receive a lot of airplay in a genre I didn’t know about, beach music. I listened to beach music DJ Sandi Conner and would learn all these songs, including your ‘80s song “Cool Me Out.”

LD: I didn’t know about beach music either until someone told me that I had a big beach music hit. I asked, “What is that?” I was surprised about the success of “Cool Me Out,” from my Working on You album, in that region and with that genre. You never know where things will take you. For example, with my son Paris Dozier, we have a children’s play called Last Stop at Market Place, a musical of course, and it did well in Chicago and we would like to take it to New York.