Probably the most prolific and successful song writing team in history was Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Motown was headquartered in Detroit, and so the Motown metaphors are industrial: the record label was a machine, a factory, an assembly line fitting songs together, part by part. But the heart of the company was human, and much of the art it produced can be traced to the exertions of two brothers, Brian and Eddie Holland, and their friend Lamont Dozier. With all due respect to Smokey Robinson, the Motown Sound as we know it was created by Holland-Dozier-Holland. “Heat Wave,” “Baby Love,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” and all the others: looking over a list of their best songs is like reading a snatch of pages from the American Songbook.
In the eighth or ninth grade, when I decided to be the kind of person who “knew about music,” I listened to those songs over and over—and developed a reputation for singing them, too loudly, in student lounges and on playing fields and in hallways between classes. I filled my Discman with greatest-hits compilations and my notebook with hand-drawn charts, trying to glean what I could from these songwriters, whose names I didn’t yet know. Sometimes, I learned, you start a major-key piece with a blaringly gloomy minor chord, as in “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Part of love’s allure is its capacity—its threat, its guarantee—to someday let you down. Maybe I picked up more about love than I did about songcraft.
Between 1963 and 1967, almost fifty of H-D-H’s singles topped the pop or R. & B. chart, and occasionally both. In their hits, they found a way to express, through the subtleties of song structure, a strange vision of love. All three of them were church boys, and that vision has a faintly religious cast—a union of two lovers, one praising and pleading with the same fervent breath, the other mysteriously mute. H-D-H always wrote and arranged the music first, and even without lyrics their compositions speak of romance that is wrenching and helpless, though not always sexual. There’s certainly little foreplay to be found: the chorus often leads an H-D-H song, a bit of anti-magic that reveals the big trick at the outset but somehow manages to build on that foundation a structure for suspense. This is another thing I learned: to “show your cards,” in art or in life, isn’t always an act of total honesty.
My parents met in a church choir, and I was always enthralled with the voice. But through these songs I came to see how a good band, artfully choreographed, could surround a singer like a circle of friends, working to assure her success before she ever entered the scene. The arrangements are intricate but restrained—low, husky horns; strict drums; a daydreaming underlay of Hammond organ—leaving a surprising amount of space between instrumental layers. There’s enough for the melody and its accompanying harmony parts, and also for a curious interplay between grandeur (often pushed, chromatically, toward joy by James Jamerson, the bassist for the Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary backing band) and a sweet sadness, framed cursively by strings or a chorus of flutes.
Then came the words. Eddie Holland used to go around asking women for the secrets of their relationships—inner thoughts, hidden hopes, deepest fears. “I always thought that females were the most interesting subjects,” he once said. This goes some way toward explaining why, although H-D-H wrote for almost every classic male Motown act, their most riveting work came with the Supremes, and through the odd instrument that is Diana Ross’s voice. That voice: it had little range or depth, none of the outright power of Martha Reeves’s or the athletic movement of Marvin Gaye’s, but there was something literary—a quiet clarity and a way of delivering phrases that made them sound half-remembered, as if they’d been plucked right out of a dream. Eddie’s lyrics had the same partly precise, partly mystified quality: “Where did our love go?” he had Diana ask, and the question made you turn your head and join the effort to locate that lost jewel.
The resulting mood—an unlikely alloy of experience and naïveté, innocence and fatigue—is what drew me to Motown. Even today, as I try to fit the parts of my own work together—paragraph after unwilling paragraph; always failing to make of myself a machine—I am in some way striving to describe the kind of love that Holland-Dozier-Holland conveyed, the kind that lavishes its object with overwhelming light, then swings and bops away, impossible to keep for long.