Holland-Dozier-Holland, whose songs defined the Motown sound of the '60s, and Thom Bell, who masterminded the smooth Philly Soul sound of the '70s, stole the show Saturday at the third annual Salute to the American Songwriter at the Wiltern Theatre. The four-hour concert featured performances by two dozen songwriters--both star recording artists like Randy Newman, Kris Kristofferson and Stephen Stills and behind-the-scenes figures whose names are usually consigned to the backs of record albums.
H-D-H and Bell wrote some of the classiest and most successful music of the modern pop era, though Saturday's show dramatized the difference in their styles. H-D-H's songs for such acts as the Supremes and the Four Tops were brimming with passion and joyous intensity, while Bell's ballads for the Delphonics and the Stylistics were exquisitely tender and graceful.
The show included a wide range of musical styles and covered four decades of popular songs. The fun was in hearing stories of how the songs came to be written, and getting a taste of the original "demo" versions--would you believe that Whitney Houston's frenetic "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" was written by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam as a gentle, country-ish ballad? Or that the same team (Jay Livingston-Ray Evans) that wrote Nat King Cole's exquisite "Mona Lisa" also cooked up the cornball theme to TV's "Mr. Ed"? It's these discoveries and revelations that make the annual concert one of the year's most rewarding.