R.I.P. to a Motown tunesmith and a pop icon

The talented musicians, songwriters and entertainers who dominated the charts in the ’60s, ’70s and into the ’80s have been passing away with disconcerting regularity lately. Not surprisingly, some of them were important and influential to me, responsible for songs and/or albums that rank high among my musical preferences. Others, while wildly popular among many listeners, were never really my cup of tea. Such is the case with two notable deaths this week, both of whom I feel are worthy of a detailed look back.


Because they work their magic behind the scenes instead of on stage, songwriters are often not widely known by name. That’s probably the case with Lamont Dozier, who died August 8th at age 81.

Dozier is partly responsible for many of the biggest hits to come from the legendary R&B artists at Motown Records in the 1960s. He teamed up with songwriting brothers Brian and Eddie Holland while they were all in their mid-20s and became Motown’s most successful songwriting team. Holland-Dozier-Holland, as they were known, composed an astounding TEN #1 singles for The Supremes between 1964 and 1967: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hanging On,” “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening.”

The Supremes (L-R: Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross) with Ed Sullivan

As if that wasn’t remarkable enough, the trio also wrote the bulk of the hits registered by The Four Tops: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette.”

Hang on, I’m not done. Dozier and Company also wrote “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” for Marvin Gaye (later a hit for James Taylor) as well as “Baby Don’t You Do It” (later covered as “Don’t Do It” by The Band), plus “You’re a Wonderful One” and “Can I Get a Witness.”

More? You bet: “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack” for Martha and The Vandellas; “This Old Heart of Mine” for The Isley Brothers; and “I’m a Road Runner” for Jr. Walker and The All-Stars.

These were just the biggest hits out of an enviable catalog that included many dozens of lesser singles for these and other acts. Talk about prolific!

“Brian and Eddie and I, we had a special kind of chemistry,” Dozier said for a 2003 Rolling Stone article. “It was like being at the carnival and hitting that bell. Bam! Number One! Bam! Number One! Bam! Number One! When we weren’t doing that with The Supremes, we were over here with the Four Tops. Bam! It was just surreal.”

Dozier (seated) with Brian and Eddie Holland, 1965

As too often happens in the music business, Holland-Dozier-Holland got involved in an ugly, lengthy contract dispute with Motown mogul Berry Gordy in 1967 over profit-sharing and royalties, which wasn’t settled for more than a decade. The trio went out on their own label, but without Motown’s promotional muscle, they weren’t able to sustain as much commercial success. Still, a few of H-D-H’s songs climbed the charts with other artists, most notable Freda Payne’s #1 smash “Band of Gold” and Chairman of the Board’s #3 hit “Give Me Just a Little More Time.”

Dozier, born in Detroit in 1941, had begun his career as a singer with local doo-wop groups like The Romeos and The Voicemasters, so it wasn’t out of his wheelhouse to return to recording his own songs in 1972. He enjoyed some success on the R&B charts and had a #15 pop hit with 1974’s “Trying to Hold On To My Woman.”

He enjoyed a resurgence as a songwriter in the ’80s when his song “Invisible” was a #21 UK hit and a #31 US hit for singer Alison Moyet. Then he teamed up with the ubiquitous Phil Collins to write “Two Hearts,” a #1 smash from the 1988 British film “Buster.” It won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song from a film, and was nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy as well. From that “Buster” soundtrack LP, Dozier also wrote “Loco in Acapulco” for The Four Tops.

Holland-Dozier-Holland were inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Dozier, circa 2005

In a 2019 interview, Dozier was humble in discussing his legacy. “Everything I wrote or co-wrote, I give credit to God, the master muse,” he said. “I thank him for letting me put my name on his music. That’s how I look at it. I don’t read music, and I can’t write it out either. I did it all by ear and feeling when I sat down at the piano. I’m stunned that I still hear all those songs over and over. It still hasn’t let up. It’s amazing. I thought some of it wouldn’t last a day. But it’s been here and all over the world for 60 years, and that’s a great feeling.”


For more than 50 years, Olivia Newton-John — wholesome songstress, iconic actress, sexy pop star, committed activist — has been in the public eye, and her worldwide legion of admirers shed a collective tear August 8 when she died at age 73, succumbing to a long battle with cancer.

Newton-John, 1974

Full confession: I’ve never been much of a fan of Newton-John’s music. I found her stuff to be way too cloying and middle-of-the-road for my rock and roll tastes, although she did adopt a more aggressive, uptempo approach for a while. To be fair, I haven’t really been a part of her demographic, so my opinion matters not at all to her millions of fans. I can say that I have enormous respect for her, both as an entertainer who gave her audience what they wanted, and as a strong woman of integrity who showed uncommon dedication to important health and environmental causes. By all accounts, she was a kind-hearted soul who embraced life.

She is most widely known as the goody-goody exchange student Sandy in the 1978 film version of the Broadway musical “Grease,” who radically transforms herself into a sexy vixen in order to win the heart of Danny, her erstwhile love interest played by John Travolta.

“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” said Travolta this week in an Instagram post. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you, and forever! Your Danny, your John!”

Born in Cambridge, England, Newton-John was just 6 when her family moved to Melbourne, Australia. She was 14 when she formed her first group, Sol Four, with three girls from school. Program directors at local Australian TV stations, enamored by her voice and charisma, began featuring her in solo performances under the name “Lovely Livvy.” At 18, she came in first in a talent contest and won a trip to Britain, where she recorded her first single, “’Til You Say You’ll Be Mine” (although it failed to chart).

Her first chart appearance came in 1971 with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You,” which reached #7 in the UK, #25 on the US pop chart and her first #1 on the US “adult contemporary” (read: easy listening) chart. This kicked off a run of five pristine, quasi-country singles that established her presence on Top 40 radio through the mid-’70s: “I Will Be There,” “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please.” This was all pretty featherweight stuff, a Record of the Year Grammy notwithstanding.

That all changed in 1978 when Newton-John was cast in “Grease.” Critics couldn’t ignore the fact that she not only turned in a winning acting performance but also gave the mega-platinum soundtrack album its biggest hits: “Summer Nights,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and especially “You’re the One That I Want,” her duet with Travolta that served as the film’s finale after she’d morphed into the tough chick. That new image — big hair, skintight black pants, off-the-shoulder black top, red stiletto heels, vamped-up makeup — was the one that adorned many a teenage bedroom wall.

Applying the evolution of her “Grease” character to her singing career, Newton-John titled her next album “Totally Hot,” complete with an album cover clad in shoulder-to-toe leather. The singles “A Little More love” and “Deeper Than the Night,” which peaked at #3 and #11 respectively, offered more aggressive rock flavorings than in the past, and her fan base went along for the ride.

In 1980, her next film, the musical fantasy “Xanadu,” was a box-office disaster (although it did great business when revived on Broadway years later). The soundtrack album, though, was another big success, thanks to the #1 single “Magic” and her collaboration with Electric Light Orchestra on the title track.

Her savvy management should get credit for her next move, which was to position her as a sort of exercise fitness queen in the Jane Fonda Aerobics mold on the cover of her 1981 LP “Physical.” She gave the music video industry and MTV a shot in the arm with a suggestive video often depicting buff hardbodies in Speedos working out around Newton-John’s instructor as she sang the double entendre lyrics.

Hank Stuever, in a commentary in The Washington Post this week, wrote: “You can hear ‘Physical’ a hundred times, maybe a thousand, before you really hear what it’s about, and it’s not exercise. It’s a woman taking control of seduction, claiming for herself the tactics usually deployed by men: the flirtation, the dinner, the movie, the horny insistence. ‘There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally… /I’ve been patient, I’ve been good, tried to keep my hands on the table, /It’s gettin’ hard, this holdin’ back, you know what I mean… /You gotta know that you’re bringin’ out the animal in me, /Let’s get physical, physical…‘ Although Newton-John would not survive a coming onslaught of the far more suggestive pop hits of Prince and Madonna and beyond, she showed us a door to a kind of forbidden zone, if you chose to go through it, and naturally, we did.”

The song, of course, went through the roof, setting records by remaining in the #1 slot for a ridiculous 10 weeks in 1981. An international tour, a greatest hits package with a hot new single (“Heart Attack”) and an HBO special all followed in rapid succession. It seemed the world couldn’t get enough of The New Olivia. Reuniting her with Travolta in the 1983 film “Two Of a Kind” proved to be a misfire, although the single “Twist of Fate” was yet another Top Five single.

By 1985, she was a wife and a mom, and consequently put her career on hiatus for a while. When she re-emerged in 1989 with “Warm and Tender,” an album of lullabies for parents and their children, few people bought it, with fans deciding they preferred the new pop sensations like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany.

At age 44, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her life took on a whole new mission. She threw herself headlong into advocacy work for cancer research and self-examination, which augmented the efforts she had already been making on behalf of other health and environmental concerns. She established the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund that remains active to this day.

It gave me pause this week to see a quote attributed to her from a 2019 interview with Rolling Stone regarding her audience-friendly approach to music: “It annoys me when people think because it’s commercial, it’s bad,” she said. “I think it’s completely the opposite. If people like it, that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Fair enough. Rest in peace, Olivia.


I have compiled two Spotify lists below, one featuring the songs written by Lamont Dozier, and another that highlights Olivia Newton-John’s biggest hits.

Get ready, ’cause here I come

Henry Ford gets credit for inventing the mass-produced automobile, but in a way, he is also partly responsible for Detroit’s second-most important product:  Motown.

A young man named Berry Gordy emerged from the Army in 1953 at age 24 and began working at a Ford assembly plant, while putting in time at a jazz record store on the side. The monotony of the job gave him the freedom for his mind to wander and think about his passion:  Music.  Rhythm and blues, mostly.  And he thought about how the way a car was made — empty shell moving along the assembly line, brakes fastened on, motor hooked up, upholstery installed, finishing touches added  — could be a template for how a song might be made.

Five years later, he founded a record label and publishing company, named after the city he lived in and loved:  The Motor City.  Motor Town.  MoTown.  Additional subsidiary labels and corporations sprang up — Tamla, Gordy, Jobete — but that was just window dressing. The public will always know and define the wondrous, infectious, sexy, soulful music that came from there as Motown.

I should say right here that, as a 9-year-old in 1964, I wouldn’t have been as aware of Motown music without the considerable influence of my then-12-year-old sister Carrie, who was a fanatic for the contagious, danceable, singable music of Motown artists.  I am forever grateful that she exposed me to the irresistible melodies, harmonies, bass lines and lyrics of the iconic stable of musicians that, collectively, will forever be known as The Motown Sound.

And what a stable it was:  Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.  Marvin Gaye.  The Temptations.  Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.  Little Stevie Wonder.  The Four Tops. Mary Wells.  The Marvalettes.  Gladys Knight and the Pips.  And, of course, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Motown’s greatest success, who rivaled The Beatles on the US singles charts with five consecutive #1 hits in 1964.

Gordy never played an instrument and wasn’t a singer, but he had an uncanny ear for what could be a hit, and he could even compose a great song now and then.  In 1960, he co-wrote “Money (That’s What I Want),” which became Motown Records’ first hit, sung by Barrett Strong and later covered by The Beatles, among others.

It was the beginning of a spectacularly successful, even revolutionary company — and a sound and approach that shook the popular music scene to its core just as it was evolving from a safe, white-bread confection into the multi-headed juggernaut that redefined pop culture forever.  An exaggeration?  I don’t think so.  Every wedding reception band you’ve ever danced to still plays Motown.  Satellite radio stations still play Motown incessantly.   Retail stores play it through their sound systems.  It’s intrinsic.  And in my view, that’s a good thing, because it’s just so damn great.

Gordy’s mission was simple.  As the Fifties became the Sixties, he was tired of watching as black artists wrote, recorded and released great music, only to have it ignored or sidelined on mainstream pop radio in favor of inferior cover versions by white artists who bleached the soul and emotion out of it.  Witness Pat Boone’s lame take of “Tutti Frutti” compared to Little Richard’s incendiary original.  “It drove me crazy,” said Berry.

He strove to create an environment where black artists could write, produce, sing and record great songs that black AND white American audiences could enjoy.  Gordy made it very clear:  He wanted tracks that were catchy, memorable, easy to digest, and sounded great on a transistor radio or through tinny car radio speakers. Early on, he bought property in Detroit that became the “Hitsville U.S.A.” studio, eventually buying several adjacent properties as the business grew.

Berry Gordy in front of the Hitsville U.S.A. property in 1964

He put together the assembly line he had envisioned:  He hired songwriters and producers like Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, and William “Smokey” Robinson, and Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, to come up with the great material and give it the compelling sound that would make the songs burst through the radio.  He brought in a band of largely unheralded studio wizards known loosely as The Funk Brothers —  Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson (bass), Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen (drums), Robert White and Joe Messina (guitar), Jack Ashford (percussion), among others — to provide the all-important accompaniment.  And most prominently, he cultivated the vocalists who would be the very visible “face” of Motown.

“The Funk Brothers” accompanying Stevie Wonder

A crucial part of that plan was the presentation.  When the Supremes, the Tempts and others appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other mainstream venues, they were polished.  They were impeccably dressed.  They were choreographed to the hilt.  This was no accident.  Gordy knew that if they were to be accepted by white audiences back then, they would have to be charming and delightful, not even remotely edgy or threatening.  He even brought in some charm school people to give the artists etiquette lessons.  This all translated into major chart success and packed houses at their ever-broadening live appearance opportunities.

The Supremes with Ed Sullivan (L-R): Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross

This acquiescence to a “safe” approach had its detractors, particularly among blacks.  Stax Records, operating out of Memphis with acts like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, offered what many felt was a much more authentic “soul music” experience — grittier guitar parts, horns instead of strings, vocals far more passionate.  The lyrics of the Stax songs were more suggestive, more sexual, more genuine, and the records of these artists sold better in black communities, and, in hindsight, they’re arguably the more vibrant recordings (“Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin; “Shake” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding; “In the Midnight Hour” and “Funky Broadway,” Wilson Pickett; “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” Sam and Dave).

But Motown ruled the roost, in the broader public eye, from the early ’60s into the 1970s. Beginning with Barrett Strong’s “Money” in 1960, Motown started slowly but strongly, with moderate chart hits like “Shop Around” (The Miracles), “Please Mister Postman” by The Marvalettes (the first #1 Motown hit), “Do You Love Me” (The Contours), “You Beat Me to the Punch” (Mary Wells), “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” (Marvin Gaye), “Fingertips” (Stevie Wonder) and “Heat Wave” (Martha Reeves).

Smokey Robinson

Robinson recalled how Motown’s approach allowed acts to tour all over the country and internationally, even into segregated cities and venues that were reluctant to host Black artists. “We were not only making music, we were making history. Acts were going all over the world. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized it, because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back, and now the audiences were integrated, and the kids were dancing together and holding hands. ”

In response to the British Invasion, The Beach Boys and other mainstream pop artists of that period, Gordy cranked up his assembly-line hit machine with The Supremes and the Temptations and others, and for five years or so, it seemed that no one could touch Motown.  From 1964 through 1969, Motown artists had an incredible 65 Top Ten singles.  In 1966 alone, 75% of the songs they released reached the Top 40. In the first week of 1969, five of the top seven hits on the Top 40 were by Motown artists.

The Four Tops

I mean, come on.  It’s a ridiculous embarrassment of riches:  “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” “Baby I Need Your Loving.”  “Get Ready.”  “For Once In My Life.”  “You Can’t Hurry Love.” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  “My Guy.”  “The Tracks of My Tears.”  “Baby Love.” “Nowhere to Run.”  “I Can’t Help Myself.”  “Uptight.”  “My World Is Empty Without You.” “Ain’t That Peculiar.”  “My Girl.”  “More Love.”  “Dancing in the Streets.”  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.”  “I Was Made to Love Her.”

Sure, the Motown labels had struggling artists who never reached the chart success of their peers.  Have you heard of The Velvelettes?  Shorty Long?  Marv Johnson?  Choker Campbell?  Debbie Dean?  Didn’t think so.  But mostly, Motown had a superlative track record.  A few had just one or two hits — The Contours (“Do You Love Me”), Junior Walker and the All-Stars (“Shotgun,” “What Does It Take”), Edwin Starr (Agent Double-O-Soul,” “War”) — but they were HUGE hits.

Gordy and his team were remarkably good at listening to a song in production and identifying it as a hit single.  As legend has it, every Friday there would be a staff meeting, at which everyone was asked to listen to the latest songs in the works and ask themselves: “If you have a dollar and you’re really hungry, would you buy a hot dog, or would you buy this record?”  In most cases, if they wanted the record, it ended up as a million seller.

But his Midas touch was not without its missteps.  My favorite anecdote involves his inexplicable refusal to fully appreciate “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  Written by Whitfield and Strong in 1966, the song was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, but Gordy was unenthused, and sent it back for re-tooling. Then Marvin Gaye took a stab at it, but that too was rejected.  Finally Gladys Knight and the Pips tried a faster, upbeat arrangement, and Gordy approved, and it went on to reach #2 on the charts in late 1967. But it was in the summer of 1968 when Gaye re-recorded it, and although Gordy was hesitant to release it as a single in the wake of Knight’s successful version, he finally relented, and it not only went to #1 but became the definitive version. Creedence and other bands went on to do credible cover versions based on Gaye’s rendition.

L-R: Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, Eddie Holland

Ultimately, like all empires, Motown began to crumble.  Holland-Dozier-Holland, the trio that wrote and produced dozens of major hits for the Supremes and others but didn’t own their songs, felt slighted by their pitiable royalty payments and defected in 1967.   By 1968, the country had become a different place, between the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and the Motown artists insisted that their songs should comment on what was going on, despite Gordy’s preference for sunny songs about love and heartache.  He resisted, but Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, in particular, won the right to compose and produce their own material, and the result was a radical shift from boy-girl love songs to diatribes about the state of society, reflected in songs like The Supremes’ “Love Child” (1968), The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” (1970), Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (1971) and Wonder’s “Living For The City” (1973).

Gordy was not blameless for Motown’s fall from grace.  He had his own share of personal dalliances, most notably a relationship with Diana Ross that produced a child and ended up bringing about her departure from The Supremes in 1970 for a successful solo career (and she ultimately left Gordy and Motown a decade later).

Stevie Wonder in 1971

Still, Motown remained a powerful force in the ’70s and ’80s.  Wonder’s extraordinary string of self-produced records (“Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” “Songs in the Key of Life”), three of which won Album of the Year Grammys, and the emergence of The Jackson 5, who showed up in 1969 and dominated the charts in the early ’70s, kept Motown profitable and in good stead.  (Of course, Michael Jackson the solo artist was a Motown thoroughbred, and he eventually became the biggest star in the universe in the ’80s, but he’d left for Columbia Records by then.)  And new sensations like The Commodores and Thelma Houston helped the label navigate the evolution from soul to funk and disco.  Even into the ’90s and beyond, artists like Boys II Men, The Dazz Band, and Tony! Toni! Tone! kept the Motown boat afloat, but Gordy had sold his interests at that point.

The Jackson 5 in 1971

Gordy was rightfully inducted early into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Non-Performers category in 1988, and his 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved: The Music, Magic and Memories of Motown” is definitely worth reading, if a bit too self-aggrandizing. In 2013, “Motown The Musical” made a big splash on Broadway and in various touring versions nationwide.

If you want to learn more about the Motown story from an entertaining perspective, I strongly recommend the 2002 documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which tells the tale from the viewpoint of The Funk Brothers, whose musical stylings played a crucial role in the Motown Sound’s widespread popularity.

Berry Gordy in 1988

Gordy deserves a world of praise for the results of his “Hitsville USA” efforts back in that long-ago era.  It was truly a magical time, the mid-’60s…  Magical music that still resonates passionately today.  As the 1967 song lyric goes, “Reflections of the way life used to be…”


This Spotify playlist of Motown songs runs long (80 selections!) because it offers a cross section of most of the label’s best artists and includes huge hits and lesser-known gems as well. Press “play” and enjoy!