Motown trio still in groove

Savvy songwriters keep spotlight on hit-making art

HOLLYWOOD — The music that defined Motown during its Detroit years never really fades from earshot.

Artisan’s doc on the Funk Brothers, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” started bringing focus late last year to the label’s instrumentalists; now the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland is reclaiming its place in the musical landscape.

Lamont Dozier, one-third of the team, appeared on the current edition of “American Idol” as contestants rocked through the trio’s Motown classics.

“That system of pairing performers with songwriters and producers worked for us, it works for Puffy (Sean Combs), it worked for Gamble and Huff at Philly Intl. There’s always a lot of talent out there, but they just don’t know where to go,” Dozier says.

“Shows like ‘American Idol’ help keep songwriters in public view and older songs on people’s minds. This will stimulate business.”

Dozier was nominated for a Grammy this year, too, for his renditions of HDH classics — all done as ballads — on the album “American Original.”

“It started with me trying to revive the catalog — showing different ways for future artists to approach the HDH catalog,” says Dozier, who has released more than a dozen albums over the last three decades.

The first tune he worked out for the album was “My World Is Empty Without You,” a No. 5 hit for the Supremes in 1966. “It made me realize how strong the melodies and the words are, and I figured I could construct a whole album.”

His comment makes his partner Eddie Holland laugh: “I had to wait 30 years to hear that I did a good job. Thirty years later! And he’s finally listening to the lyrics.”

Dozier has hit pay dirt at least once already: Teen thrush Charlotte Church has done a version of “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and Rod Stewart settled on the idea of an all-standards album for his J Records debut after hearing “American Original.”

The trio, who wrote nearly every Supremes and Four Tops smash, has been based in Los Angeles since 1968, when they left Motown on the heels of a lawsuit against label founder Berry Gordy that, to this day, has not been fully settled.

Motown, too, came to L.A. in the early 1970s as the label’s performers began taking over more aspects of their careers, and Eddie and Brian Holland were running the Invictus and Gold Wax labels.

The Hollands and Dozier will reunite May 13 at the 51st annual BMI Pop Awards dinner in Beverly Hills to receive the music publishing rights org’s Icon award.

The award arrives at a time when the music business has been reviving the Motown model of a label handling the whole ball of wax for a performer, beginning with aligning young singing talent with songwriters and producers and then shaping the performers — Kelly Clarkson, for example.

“It’s like life — it’s cyclical,” says Dozier, a major supporter of “amateur hour”-style shows such as “American Idol.”

Holland, Dozier and Holland, perhaps more than any other songwriters in history, have shown considerable business acumen.

They set up a bond offering with David Pullman, maestro of the so-called “Bowie Bonds” with David Bowie, though, Brian Holland notes, “that’s a tricky situation. You could almost write a James Bond novel from those documents.”

And they have not been afraid to head to court to protect their interests.

Their legal squabbles with Gordy are well known, but all three say they have a cordial relationship with him and royalty statements always appear aboveboard. They say they do have problems with the accounting practices of EMI, which owns 80% of Jobette, the publishing concern Gordy established in Motown’s early days. (He still owns 20%).

Dozier, who has spoken against file-sharing services on the Internet, and his partners have gone after everyone they find nicking an HDH riff.

They popped Len Barry for drawing on “Ask Any Girl,” the B-side of “Baby Love,” for his “1-2-3”; Steve Winwood caught their legal wrath when “Roll With It” was exposed as a “Roadrunner” ripoff; and Brian Holland slapped the “Mashed Potato Time” writers for borrowing from “Please Mr. Postman.”

“Fingers go in the cookie jar — they’re gonna get caught,” Dozier promises.

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