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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

All good things must end some day

What’s that pop culture superstition about celebrities dying in threes? It’s pretty much nonsense, is what it is. How close together must their death dates be for it to qualify as a hat trick of celebrity deaths, anyway?

Three notable people in the rock music world died within a few days of each other at the end of May, but then this week, there was a fourth… Or was it the first of the next group of three? I think you see my point. Regardless, four very different but similarly influential musicians have just passed away, and Hack’s Back Pages has decided to pay a modest tribute to each of them. Their individual careers, backgrounds and preferred musical genres had little to do with each other, but they all operated under the broad umbrella of classic rock music, and are consequently deserving of our attention here.

The Spotify playlist at the end includes a batch of songs from each honoree’s catalog. These are songs that typically wouldn’t ever be on the same playlist, but they do show the diversity to be found in the music of the classic rock era…

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Ronnie Hawkins

Referred to in a New York Times obituary as a “rockabilly road warrior,” Ronnie Hawkins was actually much more than that. Though he was born and raised in Arkansas, he relocated to Ontario, Canada, and is credited with kickstarting the Canadian rock music scene in the mid-’60s, bringing his infectious blend of gregarious rock ‘n’ roll and R&B.

Hawkins died May 29th of cancer at age 87.

Born in 1932, Hawkins came from a musical family that included his father, two uncles and a few cousins who played the honky-tonk circuit in Arkansas and Oklahoma in the ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s, cousin Dale Hawkins wrote and recorded “Suzie-Q” (later made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rendition in 1968). While serving in the Army, Hawkins was astounded when he heard a black group perform “a cross between the blues and rockabilly,” and ended up joining them for a while as the Blackhawks. “Instead of doing a kind of rockabilly that was closer to country music, I was doing rockabilly that was closer to soul music, which was exactly what I liked,” he recalled.

Hawkins (second from left) with The Hawks (Helm at far left)

In 1958, he formed a band of Arkansas-based players called The Hawks that included a young drummer named Levon Helm, still in high school. Country singer Conway Twitty urged Hawkins and his band to tour in Ontario, Canada, where rockabilly music was becoming popular at the time, so Hawkins and The Hawks split their time between Arkansas and Ontario, eventually releasing their first album there on Roulette Records. The album failed to chart, but the first single from it, “Forty Days” (a version of Chuck Berry’s 1955 hit “Thirty Days”), peaked at #4 on the Canadian charts and made it as far as #45 on the US pop charts. The follow-up, “Mary Lou,” was a Hawkins original that reached #26 in the US and was later covered by ’70s stars Steve Miller and Bob Seger, among others.

Once Hawkins moved permanently to Ontario and became a Canadian citizen, the rest of The Hawks dropped out, and their ranks were filled by guitarist Robbie Robertson, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko, who would go on to international fame as The Band, one of the most influential groups of the ’70s.

Ronnie Hawkins with Robbie Robertson circa 1964

Hawkins nurtured a reputation as a startling showman on stage, doing backflips and handstands, and something he called the “camel walk,” which some say was the progenitor of Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” move in the ’80s. The raw energy of his musical output made him a big draw in the Toronto club scene, playing a repertoire that included scorching renditions of classics like Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” Dion’s “Ruby Baby” and Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.”

You may recall seeing Hawkins as a featured performer in The Band’s celebrated concert film, “The Last Waltz,” or playing the role of Bob Dylan in Dylan’s 1976 experimental film “Renaldo and Clara,” or in Michael Cimino’s 1980 box-office bomb “Heaven’s Gate.”

Danko with Hawkins in “The Last Waltz”

In his later years, he became something of a respected “elder statesman” of Canadian rock music and, having made shrewd investments, lived handsomely and owned several prosperous businesses.

But he remained a devilish rascal at heart, chuckling as he summed up his life: “Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.”

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Jimmy Seals

With their precise high harmonies and deft use of guitars, mandolin and fiddle, Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts crafted some really gorgeous melodies that earned them mainstream success in 1972-73 and made them the darlings of the New Age crowd, thanks to lyrics that often emphasized a spiritual approach.

Seals, who died Monday at age 80, was a gentle soul from small-town Texas who learned fiddle and sax at a young age and began collaborating with the like-minded Crofts while they were still teenagers. By the early ’60s, they had moved to California and met session guitarist Glen Campbell, with whom they performed as part of The Champs and in other configurations. Seals and Crofts eventually became part of a band called The Dawnbreakers, named after a book chronicling the evolution of the Persian religion known as Baha’i, and soon became strong devotees of that faith.

“I think our music is a combination of the Eastern part of the world and the Western,” Seals said in 1971. “We’ve had people from Greece, Israel, England, France, China, everywhere, listen to our music and say, ‘Oh, it’s music from the old country.’ It really seemed strange to us because we didn’t realize it ourselves until we started comparing our work with, for example, Persian music, which, when you listen to it, is really very close to ours. We had no knowledge of this at all beforehand. So it’s just something that happened.”

Their first two LPs received little notice, but beginning with 1972’s “Summer Breeze,” they enjoyed a run of four Top 20 hits and two Top Ten albums that put them right up there with James Taylor and Cat Stevens in the singer-songwriter sweepstakes that dominated the early ’70s. “Hummingbird,” “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” each offering sunny, positive messages, received heavy airplay. These albums included an impressive diversity of styles and instrumentation on deeper tracks like “It’s Gonna Come Down on You,” “The Euphrates, “Wisdom” and “Say.”

Then Seals and Crofts let their fiercely held beliefs get the better of them. They took a calculated risk in 1974 when they released “Unborn Child,” which took a strong anti-abortion stance in the wake of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision a few months earlier. “Warner Brothers warned us against it,” said Seals. “They said, ‘This is a highly controversial subject, we advise that you don’t do this.’ But we said, ‘You’re in the business to make money; we’re doing it to save lives. We don’t care about the money.” The duo insisted the song’s message was simply “don’t take life too lightly,” and to reconsider abortion as an option. Conservative fans applauded their brave stance, but critics were merciless, and the controversy severely impeded their commercial momentum. The song stalled at #66, although the album of the same name did reasonably well at #14, thanks to other fine tunes like “Desert People” and “The Story of Her Love.”

“I figured either it (‘Unborn Child’) would be very much accepted on the strength of the song itself, or that it would be the biggest bomb that we ever had. But it was incidental by that point, because the music was gone. I was out of gas already,” Seals revealed years later.

Actually, Seals and Crofts continued making music throughout the ’70s, changing their style to match changing tastes. Singles like “I’ll Play For You” (1975), “Get Closer” (1976), “My Fair Share” (1977) and the disco-flavored “You’re the Love” (1978) kept them in the public eye, but the bloom seemed to be off the rose by 1980 when Warners dropped them and they called it quits.

Seals and his family subsequently split their time between their Tennessee home and their coffee farm in Costa Rica, only occasionally reuniting with Crofts for one-off shows, and one album in 2004 (“Traces”). A stroke in 2017 ended Seals’s public appearances.

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Alan White

In 1972, Yes was the biggest progressive rock band in the world. Riding high on the strength of “The Yes Album,” “Fragile” and the then-new opus “Close to the Edge,” the group was about to embark on a major U.S. tour when they found themselves in a serious quandary.

Bill Bruford, Yes’s brilliant drummer from the very beginning, had grown frustrated and impatient with the group’s internal squabbles and drawn-out songwriting/recording process. He decided to take a leap of faith and accept an invitation to become the drummer for prog rock pioneers King Crimson.

Yes needed a capable drummer, and fast. They turned to the most logical choice: Alan White, a prolific London session musician who had just completed a European tour in support of Joe Cocker. White had, in fact, been present during a Yes recording session a few months earlier for the track “Siberian Khatru,” filling in when Bruford had to leave early. White eagerly accepted, spent five intensive days learning the band’s concert setlist, including the dense, 20-minute “Close to the Edge,” and off he went.

Yes in 1973, with Alan White at lower right

White never looked back, holding on to the slot as Yes’s drummer for more than 40 years, through numerous personnel changes and reunions, more than 15 albums and nearly 30 tours.

White died May 26th at age 72 after a brief illness. He had already begged off participating in the upcoming Close to the Edge 50th Anniversary Tour.

As early as age 17, White was getting gigs with London area bands like Griffin and the Alan Price Set, and was called on to be the drummer in numerous studio sessions as well. Seemingly out of nowhere, in September 1969, White was approached by John Lennon to join him, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman for a quickly arranged trip to Toronto to perform as the Plastic Ono Band at a festival there. The appearance was captured and released as a live LP called “Live Peace in Toronto 1969.” Recalled White, “I thought for sure it was one of my mates pranking me, pretending to be Lennon, but it was the real deal. It was all very exciting for me.”

That experience brought about further collaborations between White and Lennon, including the early 1970 session for Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” single, and also some of the tracks for his #1 LP “Imagine” in 1971.

White in 2014

Following the death of bassist Chris Squire, one of Yes’s founders, in 2015, White became the band’s longest reigning member.

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Andy Fletcher

Despite being a founding member of Depeche Mode, one of the most successful and influential electronic music bands of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, Andy Fletcher is not a widely recognized name, even among fans of rock music. He was not the lead singer or the main songwriter, and even he would have admitted that his instrumental and vocal contributions were relatively inconsequential.

Indeed, in a scene from a 1989 documentary about the band, Fletcher had this to say: “Martin (Gore) is the songwriter, Alan (Wilder) is the good musician, Dave (Gahan) is the vocalist, and I bum around.”

Depeche Mode, L-R: Andy Fletcher, Gahan, Gore, Wilder, circa 1988

Upon the band’s founding in the early ’80s, Fletcher played bass, synth bass and synthesizer, and supervised the use of sampling. By his own design, he took a supportive role in Depeche Mode, sometimes serving as a tiebreaker in group discussions. Fletcher was typically described as the group’s figurehead, playing a mostly managerial role, taking care of the business affairs of this entity that has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. “I’m the tall guy in the background, without whom this international corporation called Depeche Mode would never work.”

Fletcher died on May 26 at age 60. Cause of death has yet to be officially announced.

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