7 great Lamont Dozier songs you don't already know by heart

·5 min read
Lamont Dozier
Lamont Dozier, one-third of the classic songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

When a person writes as many perfect songs in as brief a period of time as Lamont Dozier did, other people’s temptation is to liken the labor to that of a machine or a robot or an industrial plant.

How else to understand the ability to pump out tunes like “Heat Wave,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love” — songs that defined the sound of Motown Records and by extension of young America, as the label’s slogan accurately put it — over the course of less than half a decade?

Even Dozier himself, who died Monday at age 81, reached for the comparison: Referring to the songwriting and production team he formed at Motown with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, Dozier wrote in his 2019 memoir, “We thought of H.D.H. as a factory within a factory.”

But if their pace of assembly reflected a technician’s know-how — not to mention a belief in the efficiency of interchangeable parts — their music always beat with a human heart. In their work for Martha and the Vandellas, the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and especially the Supremes, for whom they wrote and produced no fewer than 10 No. 1 hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland channeled the blooming ecstasy and the pervading agony of young romance; they also evoked the thrill of young sex in an era when its pleasures had to be rendered in code.

Think of “Bernadette” by the Four Tops, which went to No. 4 on the Hot 100 in large part due to the desolation in Levi Stubbs’ inconsolable vocal performance. But what a text Dozier and the Hollands gave him. “Bernadette, they want you because of the pride that it gives,” Stubbs howls of his lover’s other suitors as the song’s descending bass line chases him down into a hole, “But Bernadette, I want you because I need you to live.”

This guy isn’t just horny and heartbroken — he’s locked in an epic moral struggle in which his only hope for victory is that the purity of his emotion matters.

Another way you could tell Dozier wasn’t actually a machine: Not everything he created did what it was designed to do. Though he landed dozens of indelible singles inside the Top 40 during his life, Dozier leaves behind a catalog rich with less commercially successful songs, some composed by the H-D-H team while it was at its peak, others by Dozier and separate collaborators in the decades that followed. Because you already know all the classics, here are seven underrated gems worth revisiting or discovering for the first time.

1. Lamont Anthony, “Popeye” (1960)

Sung by Dozier himself (under a stage name) before he linked up with the Hollands, this rough-edged funk tune sets a delightfully shameless lyric — “Just when I thought he was finished / He pulled out a can of spinach” — against scrubbing guitar, rollicking piano and a propulsive beat bashed out by a pre-stardom Marvin Gaye. When the owners of the “Popeye the Sailor Man” comic strip threatened to sue, Dozier recut the song as “Benny the Skinny Man.”

2. The Marvelettes, “Locking Up My Heart” (1963)

One of H-D-H’s earliest singles to chart on the Hot 100 (albeit at a lowly No. 44), “Locking Up My Heart” showcases the songwriting trio’s knack for marrying emotional misery to musical ebullience: “Hello loneliness, goodbye love,” the Marvelettes sing with cheerful resignation, “I’m tired of being abused and being misused.” Great sax solo too.

3. The Supremes, “Run, Run, Run” (1964)

In a chatty YouTube video posted just days before her death last year, the Supremes’ Mary Wilson admitted that she and her bandmates thought this speedy, scrappy pop-soul song about a two-faced man “was gonna be a hit, but it wasn’t.” Today it sounds like a hidden pointer toward the Go-Go’s and the Bangles.

4. Freda Payne, “Unhooked Generation” (1969)

H-D-H left the Motown fold in 1967 amid a fight over money and then started their own labels, Invictus and Hot Wax, with which they scored hits including Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” and “Give Me Just a Little More Time” by the Chairmen of the Board. This fuzzed-out Payne jam — credited like many other Invictus titles to Edythe Wayne as a means of skirting Motown’s legal department — did nothing like “Band of Gold’s” business but has swagger for days.

5. Dionne Warwick, “You’re Gonna Need Me” (1973)

Warwick drafted H-D-H following her split from Burt Bacharach and Hal David; the partnership was short-lived yet yielded this lightly psychedelic groove later sampled by J Dilla on his beloved “Donuts” album.

6. Lamont Dozier, “Going Back to My Roots” (1977)

Any good pop songwriter knows the value of flexibility, which is why Dozier went disco (or close to it) after a few years of struggling to reignite his solo singing career. His ultra-growly vocal delivery here contrasts intriguingly with the track’s sumptuous strings-and-winds arrangement — and explains perhaps why the song floundered in the year of “Dancing Queen” and “I Just Want to Be Your Everything.”

7. Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle, “Without You” (1987)

Dozier made it back atop the Hot 100 — and earned an Oscar nomination — in 1989 with “Two Hearts,” his and Phil Collins’ chipper bit of Motown cosplay from the film “Buster.” (Don’t forget that Collins had covered H-D-H’s Supremes smash “You Can’t Hurry Love” in a nearly note-for-note rendition in 1982.) But by then, Dozier was already in the movie business, having penned this lush R&B ballad for the sorry Bill Cosby vehicle “Leonard Part 6.” Forget the movie; savor the song.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.