Lamont Dozier: An appreciation of a song craftsman who wrote hits with heart and soul

Lamont Dozier was in his downstairs home studio singing “My World Is Empty Without You,” the classic Diana Ross and the Supremes hit he composed with his Motown partners Eddie and Brian Holland. He was in the middle of the song when the unexpected happened.

The legendary songwriter’s voice cracked and he choked. Despite writing the song and singing it himself hundreds of times, he was overwhelmed, so much so that he couldn’t finish it.

“The song just gushed out of me, and then all of a sudden the emotions took over,” Dozier explained during an interview in his spacious home in 1999. “It was overwhelming and I had to regroup. All these memories of the people and friends who are no longer with us. Marvin Gaye. [The late Supreme] Florence Ballard. Some of the temptations. … All I had to do was ask the sound engineer to stop the tape.”

At the time, Dozier, who died Monday at the age of 81, was busy recording his 2004 album Reflections Of…, which put Dozier’s personal stamp on the iconic R&B songs he and the Holland brothers made written for Gaye, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and other top Motown artists. The trio was at the center of transforming the Motown label into a cultural juggernaut that would revolutionize American popular music.

And though by the late 1990s Dozier was decades away from Motown’s heyday and had parted ways with his partners, the outburst of emotion at the project’s genesis demonstrated his enduring personal attachment to songs like “Baby Love,” “Where Did.” Our love goes”, “Baby I need your love”, “You can’t hurry love”, “Stretch up, I’ll be there”, “How sweet it is (to be loved by you)”, ” Stop! In the Name of Love”, “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”, “Heat Wave”, “Nowhere to Run”, “Bernadette”, “It’s the Same Old Song” and many other classics.

For people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s hard to imagine growing up without the tunes that pour out of our transistor radios or watch kids dance to them on American Bandstand and other teen shows. These songs were essential, transforming these Motown artists into international superstars and national heroes. But it was the craft and genius of the songwriting that made Dozier one of my heroes.

The power and universal vibrancy of these songs resonates with today’s musicians. LA-based hip-hop artist and spoken-word poet D. Zimm, 33, has listed Dozier as one of his major influences, along with RZA, J. Cole, Gang Starr and Jimi Hendrix.

D. Zimm said he discovered Dozier while listening to older music on Spotify. “I went through his entire discography for a week and each track had a section I wanted to cut out for a sample. One of my favorite songs is “Shine” which is his intro track [1974] Solo album “Black Bach”. I really appreciate his artistry and thoughtful sound.”

Black and white photo of a man staring out of a window

Dozier’s songs express devastating feelings of heartbreak and longing.

(Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images)

Providing hummable and danceable illustrations of the exhilaration of love was a central element of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s oeuvre. But her uncanny ability to lay bare the devastation of heartbreak and romantic breakups while giving her catchy tunes was her superpower.

“Let me get over you like you got over me,” Ross pleads on You Keep Me Hangin’ On, underscoring her pain with a plea: “Go on, get out, get out of my life and let me sleep at night .” The cut goes even deeper in the psychedelic hit “Reflections”: “In you I put all my trust and trust. My world has turned to dust before my eyes.”

One of their most vivid expressions of heartbreak appeared on the Four Tops’ “7 Rooms of Gloom,” when lead singer Levi Stubbs wailed, “All the windows are painted black. I’ll wait here until you come back. I’ll keep waiting ’til I see your face again.” I’ve had a few breakups where these lyrics accurately summed up my distress. Just common sense kept me from scraping out the black paint.

The power of Dozier’s songwriting carried over into his solo career, where he recorded several albums, beginning with his debut album Out Here on My Own in 1973.

In the single “All Cried Out” on Black Bach, he taunts a former abusive lover with news of a new romance: “Since the day you left me, I’ve been on the wagon. The new love I’ve found makes me brag. I’ve got a new way of walking, a new way of speaking. A new way to smile. A brand new style.”

He wrote and produced the 1988 hit Two Hearts for Phil Collins, which appeared in the 1988 film Buster, which won a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and received an Oscar nomination.

It was this brilliance of Dozier and his accomplishments that drew me to his great Encino house in 1999. He was one of several legendary songwriters involved in “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” a CBS miniseries that used the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll and the civil rights movement as the setting for a young couple’s love story in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the time, he was still embroiled in a bitter and longstanding legal battle with Motown and company founder Berry Gordy Jr. Dozier and the Hollands claimed they were cheated out of hundreds of millions of dollars by not paying substantial royalties on the songs, which were endlessly repackaged into box sets and other compilations. Attorneys for Gordy and Motown called the lawsuits and charges a “farce” and part of a “vindictive harassment campaign.”

Said Dozier: “It was very costly and painful. But I can’t blame the music. A lot of people would have been bitter, but I’ll keep making the music. It is a gift from God and it will live forever.”

Man in a suit and tie sings into a microphone

Lamont Dozier performs at the UJA Music Visionary of the Year Awards Luncheon at the Pierre Hotel on June 16, 2011 in New York City.

(Ben Hider/Getty Images)

He had met opposition from major labels, who were more interested in his older work than new material. But he had no interest in being a nostalgia act. He was determined to lay claim to his legacy while pursuing new creative endeavors.

“It’s taken me a long time to get to this place where I can focus on now and live for what’s happening now,” Dozier said while relaxing in his living room. “I certainly don’t take what I did before for granted. But I try not to dwell on things from yesterday.”

The recording of the new album called “Reflections” would give this music a new face. He wanted to perform the songs as he originally conceived them—as amorous slow ballads.

“Everyone in the industry has made these songs at some point, but nobody heard how they originally came about,” Dozier said. “Most of them started out as ballads. You will have more of a melancholic feeling, soft and sweet.”

I was then stunned when Dozier closed his eyes and began to sing in a voice that sounded like his heart was about to break: “Baby love, my baby love, I need you, oh, how I need you.” It sounded like his heart would break. He opened his eyes, smiled, and launched into a tempo closer to the Supremes’ rendition: “Babylove, my Babylove. . . .” Lamont Dozier: An appreciation of a song craftsman who wrote hits with heart and soul

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