(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.*)
This single was the first release on the brand-new Mel-o-dy Records label, an imprint whose green and white labels would eventually come to represent Motown’s ill-fated first steps in the country music market – but that’s not the landmark that people remember this record for.
Where do you consider the Motown story to really begin? Is it with Marv Johnson’s Come To Me, the very first release on a Motown label? Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), the first great Motown record? The Miracles’ Shop Around, Motown’s first million seller? The Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman, Motown’s first pop Number 1 hit?
Maybe. Or maybe, it really starts right here, with the first Motown appearance of a baby-faced, frizzy-haired 20-year-old Detroit singer-songwriter-producer named Lamont Herbert Dozier, a genuine genius who’d go on to co-write and co-produce some of the biggest and most memorable hits of the label’s mid-Sixties Golden Age. Teamed with Brian Holland – with whom he shared a love of (and talent for) unusual, brilliant chord changes, and so enjoyed an almost telepathic working relationship – and later with Brian’s brother, the lyricist Edward Holland Jr., who was currently toiling away at an unsatisfying solo career as Eddie Holland, a one-hit wonder after scoring a minor chart hit with Jamie the previous November, Dozier would go on to lay legitimate claim to the title of greatest songwriter of all time.
This, we’re told, is the foundation stone for that success, not only the first time Dozier appeared on a Motown record, but the first appearance of that Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team; as though the very first time Dozier stepped through the Hitsville front door, he struck up a working relationship with the Holland brothers right there and then.
Well, “origin stories” usually suck; the truth is never so straightforward, the real story often turns out to be less poetic and more prosaic. Just as it’s difficult to pin down any one exact point where Motown took off, so then (perhaps fittingly) the role of this record in history is muddy and unclear. Whilst the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 herald this as the very first appearance of the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team, the legendary names don’t actually appear on the label – there, the song is instead credited to “Dozier, Holland, Dozier”. This could be an error, a transposition, except that (1) the B-side, Fortune Teller (Tell Me), actually does have two Doziers listed among the writers – Lamont and “Elizabeth” – and that (2) this song’s BMI database title card lists the correct writers as Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and “Elizabeth Dozier”.
Faced with such a mess, I’ve gone with the compilers of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 and marked this as the first appearance for the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. If that turns out to have been an error, I’m sure someone will be along to correct me!
In some ways, it doesn’t really matter. If this was indeed the first stirring of the great H-D-H triumvirate, it didn’t stick; for the first year or so of Lamont’s presence at Motown and his working with Brian, more often than not it was “singing mailman” Freddie Gorman or Hitsville receptionist Janie Bradford, and not Eddie Holland, who’d fill the third spot on the songwriting team’s roster. The H-D-H trio didn’t really settle down firmly until the summer of 1963, and their early efforts were hardly indicative of the greatness to come; the first batch of H-D-H songs were good, certainly, but it would be almost two years before they became acknowledged as the company’s top writing and producing team.
But that’s enough waffle about Holland-Dozier-Holland for now. (There’ll certainly be plenty of time for that later on, believe me.) What about this record? What’s it like?
HOLD THE ONIONS
The answer: It’s rather good, actually. Lamont has a fine voice, as evinced by his exceptional run of solo LPs in the mid-Seventies and early Eighties (and his recent star turn on Airpushers’ spectacularly silly Hold The Onions – oh, if you haven’t watched that video before, go and do it RIGHT NOW, then come back to Motown Junkies later on; nothing I say can possibly compare to Lamont Dozier playing a celebrity bingo caller).
Welcome back, did you enjoy that? Glad to hear it. Now, back to the summer of 1962.
Lamont Dozier was only 20 when he pitched up at Motown, but he had form already. He’d cut records as a member of the Romeos and the Voice Masters, the latter for Anna Records, the label run by Motown founder Berry Gordy’s big sister Gwen Gordy Fuqua. (Are you following this? There may be a test later.) Dozier’s voice, personality and witty creativity went down well with the bigwigs at Anna, who allowed him a solo single as “Lamont Anthony” in 1960; the result, Popeye The Sailor Man, picked up some play locally before the prospect of a copyright infringement lawsuit reared its ugly head and forced the record to be withdrawn. After another solo release as “Lamont Anthony”, I Didn’t Know, on Check-Mate in 1961, Berry Gordy decided the kid was worth hiring. Lamont was signed to Motown – under his real name this time – on separate contracts as a producer, a songwriter and an artist, something that would end up having repercussions further down the line when he and the Holland brothers left Motown in less than amicable circumstances. Despite those multiple contracts, this was Lamont Dozier’s only solo release of any kind with Motown: an underfunded, un-noticed flop on an easily-ignored new label.
Like I said, though, it’s actually rather good. Lyrically, it’s a virtual rewrite of Marvin Gaye’s Soldier’s Plea and the Valadiers’ While I’m Away, or an answer song to the Supremes’ Your Heart Belongs To Me: Lamont is a soldier stuck serving overseas, writing to his girl back home, begging her to be faithful, and the lyrics are the words of his letter. That’s it. Nothing particularly original. His vocal performance, though, brings the material to a higher level than it has any real right to be; the middle eight, where Lamont sings I know it’s hard for you / Being alo-one while I’m gone / But soon as my furlough comes / I’ll be ho-ome, it won’t be long is a particular highlight, but really it’s all good stuff; I won’t say he could certainly have had a career as a vocalist if the songwriting and production hadn’t taken off, because he actually has had a post-Motown career as a performer, but you know what I mean.
The tune is a good one, too, a midtempo number with prominent guitar breaks and floaty female backing vocals, as well as a few of those lovely chord changes. (Several sources, including the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2, claim this song served as the basis for the Elgins’ slinky 1965 H-D-H slowie Darling Baby, but I have to say I can’t really see it – beyond a few superficial similarities in structure, most noticeably in the opening bars, they’re really quite different songs). The thing that really sells it, though, is Lamont Dozier’s vocal, showcasing a strong, emotional R&B crooner voice he’d proceed to keep under wraps for a decade.
As noted, the single sold very few copies (nobody having ever heard of either Mel-o-dy Records or Lamont Dozier, and Motown not exactly pushing the boat out to promote Mel-o-dy releases), and there wouldn’t be any follow-up releases – but of course that might have been a blessing; who knows what might have happened to the course of American popular music if Lamont Dozier hadn’t been able to sit down and write with the Holland brothers because he had to go out and promote his new single? Instead, this remains a footnote; either a quiet Motown arrival for a major figure, or a low-key start for the Holland-Dozier-Holland hit-making machine, but still enjoyable all the same.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Fortune Teller (Tell Me)”