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Motown Songwriting Trio Will Be Honored for Cranking Out the Hits

November 20, 1987|PAUL GREIN

"Motown kept pumping the singles out. They would barely go up the charts before we'd have to have another one ready," Eddie Holland said, sitting in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio with longtime partners Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland.

The team was reminiscing about the days two decades ago when they wrote and produced such Motown classics as "Reach Out I'll Be There" for the Four Tops and "You Can't Hurry Love" for the Supremes.

"It was just a question of Brian and Lamont hammering out the melody and producing the tracks and shooting them to me to write the lyrics," Eddie Holland said. "I'd have sometimes stacks of tracks, and I would take them and just start writing."

If it all sounds a bit like a Detroit auto assembly line, it was. But the team--which will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters on Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre--believes that the pressure to keep coming up with material had a positive effect on their work.

"It caused us to be able to work at a very fast pace," Holland said. "It's like anything else--the more you do it, the sharper you become."

"There's nothing slick about it," Dozier added. "It was shooting from the hip. We were fortunate to get the stuff out while it was still fun. The way they labor on songs now, they lose the edge. You wind up messing with it and changing it, and six months later you say, 'I lost the plot.' "

The numerous songs that Holland/Dozier/Holland ended up writing for Motown are an everyday part of pop culture.

That's why it didn't seem like big news earlier this year when English pop singer Kim Wilde hit No. 1 in the States with a remake of "You Keep Me Hangin' On," the song the team wrote in 1966 for the Supremes. It was the latest in a long line of remakes of Holland/Dozier/Holland oldies to reach the Top 10. Among others: Phil Collins' "You Can't Hurry Love," James Taylor's "How Sweet It Is" and Linda Ronstadt's "Heat Wave."

Pop fans aren't the only ones to have taken the team's music for granted. Despite having written and produced more than three dozen Top 20 hits, Holland/Dozier/Holland have never won a Grammy.

Saturday's award by the 5,000-member academy--part of its third annual "Salute to the American Songwriter"--is one step toward rectifying the slight. Dozier will perform a medley at the concert, which will also feature performances by other songwriters such as Randy Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Billy Vera.

Dozier was philosophical about having never won a Grammy.

"In the early '60s, they were still listening to a lot of pop-pop music. The (Motown) sound was relatively new. Probably that's why we were overlooked. It wasn't recognized, as it is today, as rock classics."

The Holland brothers met Dozier in their hometown, Detroit, where Eddie and Dozier sang together at record hops. They linked up with the fledgling Motown Records in 1961. As an artist, Eddie had one of Motown's earliest hits--"Jamie"--in 1962. The team's first big hit as producers was Martha & the Vandellas' "Come and Get These Memories" the next year.

After a remarkable run, the team left Motown in 1967, after a reported dispute over royalty payments. While reluctant to discuss the old dispute, they don't appear to harbor any ill feelings toward Motown. They pointed out they still own the rights to all their songs.

About the workload during their heyday, Brian said: "It was nonstop. We thought of nothing else--not even vacation or traveling. It was just songs, music."

Dozier noted that in-house competition at Motown with such other writer/producers as Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield kept everyone on their toes.

"You couldn't afford to be sitting around waiting because there were three or four other producers on your tail," he said. "If you didn't shine, somebody else would get that spot."

Holland/Dozier/Holland still write together occasionally--most recently last year for a stage project in conjunction with Motown. But most often, Dozier and the Hollands follow separate paths.

Dozier is especially active. In the past two years, he has written songs with or for Simply Red, Alison Moyet, Boz Scaggs, Eric Clapton and Jon Anderson of Yes. He is also writing songs for the upcoming Phil Collins movie, "Buster," and is planning to sing two songs on the next Crusaders album. And he's writing the music and collaborating on the book for an upcoming play involving Andrew Lloyd Webber's company.

In retrospect, Motown's greatest historic contribution, many industry observers believe, was that the label helped render meaningless--at least for a time--the division between pop and R&B music. Just a decade before Holland/Dozier/Holland's first hit, black music was still called "race" music in many quarters.

Recalled Eddie, "The style of much of the music that we produced . . . made it much more palatable for white radio to play it."

He also remembered the time in 1964 when he met Jerry Wexler, the highly respected Atlantic Records executive who eventually would have major crossover success with such artists as Aretha Franklin, but was frustrated in the early '50s by pop radio's resistance to playing black R&B artists.

"A fellow brought me over and introduced me," Eddie said, smiling. "And Jerry Wexler looked at me and shook my hand and kissed me. He said, 'You've done what I've been trying to do for years--to get black music to sell white.' "

Dozier said the team always wrote songs with a wide audience in mind.

"We geared our records toward the masses--not just one segment or one people or one sound. We wanted to make music for everybody."

"That's the way music should be anyway," Dozier said. "It should be colorless."

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