To hit-churning Motown songwriting legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lamont Dozier, it’s still all about the hooks.
“If you don’t have (the listener hooked) in eight bars, you can go home,” said Dozier, citing the philosophy of Motown founder Berry Gordy. “That was the idea, to come up with something catchy — ear candy.”
The 74-year-old Detroit native packed the Tennessee Room at Middle Tennessee State University’s James Union Building on Wednesday night as he spoke about his more than 50-year career as a songwriter, producer and performer.
Best known as a third of the revered songwriting and production trio Holland-Dozier-Holland, known as H-D-H for short, Dozier was honored as a fellow of the Center for Popular Music, the wide-ranging, 1-million-plus-item music archive housed inside the university’s College of Media and Entertainment.
He joined inaugural 2013 inductee Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees as just the second music industry veteran to receive the honor.
While partnering with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, Dozier had a hand in some of Detroit-based Motown’s catchiest hits of the 1960s, including enduring classics such as “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” by Marvin Gaye, and the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Baby I Need Your Loving.”
“We were a factory within a factory,” Dozier said of the songwriting trio and Motown, which also featured the revered studio session musicians known by their nickname “The Funk Brothers.” “It was a sound all its own.”
The songwriting trio made its biggest mark, however, with The Supremes. Dozier said the group was known as the “No-Hit Supremes” until reluctantly going into the studio to sing what would be the group’s, and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s, first No. 1 hit: “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964.
With Diana Ross as lead singer, The Supremes followed with a string of hits written by H-D-H, including “Baby Love,” “Back in My Arms Again” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.”
The unexpected commercial rise of Ross and company led to the most fruitful period in Dozier’s career, but it was a change that he said “frightened” him at first.
“It was scary, the feeling you get about having ‘just getting by’ success to supernatural success,” Dozier said. “(Our music) was all over the world, and it gave us a kind of fear. Success is just as scary as failing.”
Luckily, Dozier was able to overcome that fear and went onto a revered solo career after leaving Motown in 1968, as well as working with artists including Eric Clapton, Boy George and Phil Collins. In particular the hit Collins collaboration “Two Hearts” for the movie “Buster” received Grammy and Golden Globe awards in 1989, with an Academy Award nomination as well.
While success at the level Dozier has achieved may seem unreachable in the modern music landscape, he told MTSU students and faculty that success is still attainable for budding songwriters and artists.
“If it’s their true love and destiny, they can make it,” he said. “If a poor boy from Michigan can do it, anybody can do it.”