The Songwriters – Holland Dozier Holland

Lamont Dozier (left) Brian Holland and Eddie Holland

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.


The wisdom of pop songs – Girl groups part 1

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

The idea of looking at girl groups came about as a result of something blogged by my friend the anonymous lady of What’s It all About Alfie?, which can be found at She  picks on  certain individual songs that send her off down memory lane, and a while ago she chose The Ronettes’ Be My Baby.

So that’s where we’re going to concentrate: the golden age of the girl group, the early 60s.

But first let’s quickly dip into the charts of 1954, when The Chordettes brought us Mr Sandman. This tightly-harmonied recording was very much from a different era, the rapidly-dying 1940s worlds of big bands and doo wop, and I’m including it here because although it’s slightly uncool – or would have appeared so to those brought up on a sexier brand of girl group – it has resurfaced from time to time and  has real charm – plus you have to admire a vocal group that doesn’t do the ascending opening “bom bom bom bom bom bom bom bom” all together but handles them individually, one bom each.

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The Chordettes: Tell him his lonely nights are over – as long as I’m home by 11 and he doesn’t try anything

Mr Sandman was written by a man, Pat Ballard, who put words in the girls’ mouths, as songwriters do, that sometimes are not ideal. In addition to the rather provocative assertion that the man Mr S is supposed to procure should be told “his lonesome nights are over”, he is to bring the girl someone with “lots of wavy hair like Liberace”. Ah, songwriters – pushed around by the needs of rhythm and rhyme.

The fact that the vast majority of girl group songs were written by men poses the question of authenticity: were the girls projecting an image imposed on them by men? And the answer to that – in the context of this blog – is this: if you want to argue about that sort of thing, please go elsewhere. Any song written by someone who didn’t write it is one person’s expression of the thoughts of another.  So if you or I sing Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, do we really mean it? And that is to assume that Dylan meant every word. It is taken as a sort of protest song, but as the title itself tells us, there are questions to which there is no definitive answer. Thought-provoking stuff. Meanwhile, less intense men were supplying these women with lyrics, but do they not in the main deal with the basics of love and happiness, pain and loss and the general boy-girl obsession that is part of life for both males and females?

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The writing was on the wall for the boy who had been bothering the Angels

And on that note we jump the early rock’n’roll years and the subsequent relapse into cheesiness, and alight on the Phil Spector era. Currently doing a life sentence for shooting his girlfriend, Spector was an innovator whose “wall of sound” combined his own sonic building expertise with the talents of top session musicians. The girls were almost incidental, although he liked the lead singer of the Ronettes, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett,  enough to marry her.

Anyone who digs out Spector’s Christmas album every December will know that it is sometimes hard to tell who’s singing, and that is because whether it says on the cover it is the Ronettes, Darlene Love or The Crystals, if he wasn’t happy with a vocal performance and the offending girl wasn’t around to do it again, he would get one of the others to do it. With the singers all strong in the same sort of range, plus the oceans of aural dressing that swamped the recordings, who was going to know?

So Spector groomed The Ronettes and with his team of songwriters, including Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, he gave them not just Be My Baby but Baby I Love You, Do I Love You, Walking In The Rain and lesser known diamonds such as How Does It Feel. Listening to a Ronettes greatest hits album is like working your way through spoonfuls of each of your twelve favourite flavours of ice cream.

If it seems like favouritism,  that Spector was giving his wife’s group all the good stuff, The Crystals couldn’t complain when they got to record He’s A Rebel, Da Doo Ron Ron and And Then He Kissed Me.

Meanwhile, outside Spectorland, we had The Chiffons with He’s So Fine and One Fine Day and the Dixie Cups with the achingly innocent, wide-eyed Chapel of Love. And they also did the hypnotic, tribal-sounding, percussion-only Iko Iko.

The Shangri-Las were around with their haunting tale of death by motorcycle, Leader of the Pack.

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Hey buddy, just take the goddam picture will ya? My back is killing me

The Poni Tails had already been and gone with Born Too Late, and The Angels were talking tough with My Boyfriend’s Back, which detailed how the boyfriend was going to save her reputation by beating the cr*p out of a guy who had been pestering her and saying things that “weren’t very nice”.

The Shirelles chipped in with Foolish Little Girl and Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and as line-ups changed often in these circles, Dionne Warwick was briefly a Shirelle.

The format of three or four young black women (usually, although The Angels were white) with big voices and big hair was phenomenally successful, but on the subject of the voices, notice how the backing singers often belt it out with a disarming lack of subtlety. They would have all that knocked out of them today, with light and shade and mic technique drummed into them at the expense of raw emotion.

Witness The Velvelettes giving  it a good go on Needle In A Haystack and the Marvelettes on Too Many Fish in the Sea.

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You were saying, girls? “Doodalang doodalang” or something? Oh, yes, sorry: “Bop bop shoobeedoowah.”

That is not to say that subtlety went completely out of the window, though. The Marvelettes’ version of Smokey Robinson’s The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game is a model of restraint.

And now we’re in Motown territory, and the careers get longer and the stars get bigger as The Supremes racked up smash after smash with Baby Love, Love Don’t Come Easy and Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone. Motown even found a way to get psychedelia in there, with a few synthesized squeaks and squawks on Reflections, before Diana Ross went solo and the group continued with Jean Terrell singing lead on the likes of Stoned Love, Up The Ladder To The Roof and Nathan Jones.

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The Supremes weren’t all Diana: there was also, at various times, Mary, Florence, Cindy and Jean. And Betty early on. And a couple of others later

The Supremes all but eclipsed the other girl groups of their era, but they were fought all the way by Martha and the Vandellas, with their insanely danceable Heatwave, the poignant Jimmy Mack and their  paean to love and marriage, Third Finger Left Hand.

Motown in those days was fed by male songwriters of the caliber of Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, but, as we considered earlier, does that make girls sound girlier? Left to their own devices, would they have been singing about human rights and the Vietnam war?

For the sheer, naïve pleasure of it all, give me You Can’t Hurry Love any day.

Try this for youthful enthusiasm

Then come back for some pure sophistication:

Next Friday: the girls grow up (a bit).