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.

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The Songwriters – Smokey Robinson

With his high voice, slight build and innocent smile, Smokey Robinson couldn’t be further from the macho image cultivated by many of his contemporaries in the late 60s and early 70s. No Shaft-style bushy moustache and threatening manner for him. He was a vegetarian before it was fashionable (he gave up meat in 1972) and practices transcendental meditation.

The Smokey persona comes through in his songs, too: light, relatively sophisticated  and they suit female singers  as much as men. He often co-wrote songs, sometimes with other members of the Miracles, but there is never any doubt who is at the helm.

Shop Around was a Motown hit in 1960 and although as the title suggests it is about playing the field rather than settling for the first girl who comes along, we are invited to believe the advice came from the singer’s mother.

Of course, you can’t get a perfect picture of a man through the songs he writes, and Smokey was  no angel – he married fellow Miracle Claudette Rogers and they had two children together, but he had extramarital affairs and a son by another woman. But fidelity in the entertainment industry is a difficult thing to achieve. How many men could go through decades of girls throwing themselves at them without weakening? I would suggest it’s more a case of who gets caught and who remains undetected.

Mary Wells was an early recipient of Robinson songs. One of Motown’s first stars, Wells soon left the label, making the mistake of thinking she could do it on her own after a while. But before she went, she found success with Robinson’s You Beat Me To The Punch and the timeless My Guy, smooth and seductive as a milkshake, even when the seduction was already booked by the object of her affections.

My Girl, a major success for The Temptations, did for men what My Guy had done for women and instantly Smokey was a genuine songwriting star.

For his own group, The Miracles, he came up with Ooh Baby Baby, the divine nature of which probably owes as much to his singing as to the song itself. It wouldn’t have amounted to much in the hands of, say, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, but with Robinson’s vocals weaving patterns like little white clouds in a blue sky, it was a smash in the US in 1964, although for some reason not in the UK. Not to worry: the digital download age makes it available to us now. And what an addition to a Motown collection it is: he’s treated his girl badly and lost her, but he’s not giving up; he’s not exactly begging, but making it clear that it will never happen again, and for once in pop it sounds genuine. Ella Fitzgerald, Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt are among those who have covered it, and British lovers rock pioneer Janet Kay did a typically cute, bouncy version, but the composer’s original is untouchable. Since I discovered Ooh Baby Baby there have been whole weeks when I couldn’t get it out of my head.

The Miracles, now with Smokey’s name upfront, cemented their place in pop history in 1965 with Tracks of My Tears, and the following year The Temptations grasped with both hands the opportunity to record Get Ready.

Then there was The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game, a sublime recording by The Marvelettes and reworked in 1990 by Grace Jones, with some success but losing the wistful charm of the original. The Marvelettes track is one of Robinson’s masterpieces, that evocative title giving a new twist to the age-old question of who-captures-whom when prospective lovers get together.

Shortly afterwards, Robinson was back on classic territory with I Second That Emotion, The Temptations getting first crack at it and unerringly hitting the spot. The Miracles did it too, it almost goes without saying, and probably the most unlikely cover version was by arty rock group Japan in 1980. Their choosing to do it is testament to the enduring power of the Motown catalogue to inject some magic into an album of almost any genre.

In 1970 Tears Of A Clown emerged like a most welcome throwback to the mid 60s, and again it was adapted by a very different act later on: The Beat gave it the hyperactive TwoTone treatment in 1979/80.

In the early 70s The Supremes were in need of a lift, with Diana Ross well established as a solo performer and Holland Dozier Holland no longer available to supply the raw material. Robinson came to the rescue with Floy Joy and Automatically Sunshine, before the bubble burst.

Smokey himself flew back into the charts in 1981 with Being With You, but, as with the rest of the Motown crew, it’s the immortal 60s stuff we remember.