When you consider that we’ve looked at Motown writers from Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy, Mickey Stevenson and Smokey Robinson to Norman Whitfield and Ashford and Simpson, the casual observer might think that pretty much sums it up. Shedloads of hits, after all.
But music lovers all around the world know there was a songwriting trio more profilic than all those others: Holland Dozier Holland.
The Holland Brothers, Eddie and Brian, teamed up with Lamont Dozier in 1962 and became almost synonymous with Motown, such was the volume and quality of songs they wrote and produced.
Unusually, one of their first efforts was arguably also the finest: Heat Wave, which took Martha and the Vandellas to the top of the US charts in 1963. This is a tune that could make a camel dance, and I’m just sorry I don’t know the technical term for the rhythm that propels it.
Although obviously it is the work of the masterly Motown house band, The Funk Brothers, it’s not something even they repeated. Let’s just say it’s like My Guy on amphetamines and Needle in a Haystack with more swagger. The Vandellas’ Third Finger Left Hand is pretty close. It’s also close in brilliance. I used to have a vinyl single of that with Jimmy Mack on the other side: both HDH songs, and what a pairing.
Although most of the time the Motown writers found their work snapped up by more than one of the label’s acts, HDH did a lot of work with The Supremes and The Isley Brothers. Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love and Stop In The Name Of Love paid huge dividends for Diana, Flo and Mary, while This Old Heart of Mine – intended for The Supremes – is an Isleys standard that has been covered many times, not least by Rod Stewart. And there’s I Guess I’ll Always Love You, again with that Heat Wave beat.
Martha Reeves makes no secret of the fact that HDH had very definite ideas about how their songs should be recorded, and that Eddie Holland, the lyricist of the trio, would tell the singers exactly how they should deliver the lines. Reeves speaks reverently of Levi Stubbs, lead singer of The Four Tops, but says Eddie Holland would even lay down the law to him.
Speaking of the Four Tops, HDH demonstrated a cheeky streak when, as the follow-up to I Can’t Help Myself, they came up with a tune that was so similar they called It The Same Old Song – and still managed to slip it under the radar of the vast majority of us. That was in addition to the solid gold trinity of Reach Out, Standing In The Shadows of Love and Bernadette.
Among the lower-profile acts on the label, HDH provided hits for The Elgins (Put Yourself In My Place – better known in the UK by The Isley Brothers – and Heaven Must Have Sent You) and a classic that somehow seems like the odd one out in the whole catalogue, Roadrunner by Junior Walker and the Allstars. The conspicuous white face among the artists, R. Dean Taylor, was given a flying start (which didn’t lead to consistent success) with There’s A Ghost In My House.
During 1967, the “Summer of Love” which largely passed Motown by, HDH fell out with Berry Gordy over money, and the following year they were gone. The dispute wasn’t resolved until 1977. In the meantime they set up Invictus Records and wrote under pseudonyms, because they were still bound by their Motown publishing contract. Band of Gold by Freda Payne and Give Me Just A Little More Time (Chairmen of the Board) are the highlights of a surprisingly paltry post-Motown output.
So it ended, if not in tears, then in disappointment for them and for us.
Their legacy of cover versions, though, includes James Taylor’s how Sweet It Is, Linda Ronstadt (Heat Wave), Phil Collins (You Can’t Hurry Love) and You Keep Me Hanging on, versions by the Vanilla Fudge and Kim Wilde.