Lamont Dozier, legendary Motown songwriter and producer, dead at 81

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Even as a child, Lamont Dozier was drawn to words and how those words connected to music.

At 11, the Detroit native, who grew up with his strict grandmother, a choir director, wrote a poem, called "A Song," about how music affects the human psyche, that his teacher, Edith Burke, posted it on a classroom bulletin board at his school, Edgar Allan Poe Elementary. It stayed there for six months and he credited Burke with sparking his creativity.

“That stimulated me a lot to continue my writing. That lady did a lot for me," said Dozier.

And Dozier did a lot for the music world. The legendary songwriter and producer was one-third of the iconic Motown songwriting and producing trio, Holland-Dozier-Holland, considered one of the most accomplished music writing groups in modern popular music. Together, they put Motown's sound on the musical map in the 1960s, writing hits such as "Baby Love" and "Stop! In the Name of Love." Dozier died Monday at the age of 81.

“As part of the unmatched song writing and production team of Holland Dozier Holland, Lamont Dozier is largely responsible for shaping the Motown Sound," said Robin Terry, chairwoman and CEO of the Motown Museum.

Dozier's son, Lamont Dozier Jr., confirmed his father's death on social media early Tuesday morning. The cause of death was unclear.

Eddie Holland, center, formed a songwriting team with Lamont Dozier, left, and Brian Holland that wrote, arranged and produced many songs that helped define the Motown sound in the 1960s.

Dozier and the Holland brothers wrote and produced songs for nearly all of Motown's biggest acts, including the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations. They wrote more than 400 songs together  — including "Where Did Our Love Go," "(Reach Out) I'll Be There," and "Bernadette" — 130 of which scored on the Pop Charts and more than 70 that were Top 10 Hits, according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And more than 40 reached the number one chart position.

In 1987, the National Academy of Songwriters awarded the trio its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Born in Detroit on June 16, 1941, Dozier started writing songs and lyrics before he was even a teenager, according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

At 13, he founded a group called the Romeos and was signed to Atco Records in 1957. The band had a charting R&B record with the song, "Fine Fine Baby." After the Romeos broke up, Dozier joined the Voicemasters, a doo-wop band on Anna Records.

He dropped out of Northwestern High School, a decision he later regretted, but said he was the friend who others would approach to write for them.

"I was the guy my friends would come to when they needed something written," he told The Detroit News for a story in 1999. "They'd say, 'I want to write a note to my girlfriend telling her I love her, but I don't know quite what to say.' So I'd be the guy who would figure it out for them."

In 1962, Dozier signed exclusively to Motown Records as an artist, producer and songwriter.

Legendary Motown producer/songwriter Lamont Dozier sings along with Freda Payne's song "Betcha By Golly Wow" during a recording session by Soul Renaissance Records at Studio A in Dearborn Heights in 2006.

With the Holland brothers, of whom Dozier had been aware from their time hanging around the 20 Grand and the Graystone Ballroom, bastions of R&B and jazz during the 1950s and 1960s in Detroit, the three wrote hit after hit. Eddie Holland handled the lyrics while Brian Holland and Dozier wrote the music.

"Come and Get These Memories" and "Heat Wave," for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were their first hits in 1963. Then they hit with the Four Tops' "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch" and "Standing in the Shadows of Love." They had a total of 25 Top Ten singles from 1963-67, including a dozen that reached the number one spot.

Dozier later said one of the things he had in common with the Holland brothers is that had very similar Detroit childhoods: a church upbringing, lots of music around and a strict grandmother.

"Thank God for both our grandmothers, the Hollands' grandmother was very seminal, and mine was the head of the choir at my church," Dozier told The News for a story in 2005. "I had to be at church on Thursday, Saturday and Sundays rehearsing. I couldn't do anything else until I got that business taken care of."

Dozier's death fell on the same day that the Motown Museum celebrated the completion of two phases of an ambitious expansion plan, including a new outdoor plaza in front of Hitsville U.S.A., the home where Motown Records started, and the four surrounding houses on West Grand Boulevard.

Motown alumni, many of whom Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote hits for, gathered from all over the country to celebrate the expansion. Some of the songs Dozier helped write played in the background, including "Heat Wave."

Singer Diana Ross, second from left, joins songwriters, from left, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland after the writing team was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York on Jan. 17, 1990.

"Everything we are doing at Motown Museum is inspired by the legacy that they created," said Terry, Berry Gordy Jr.'s niece, referring to Motown alumni.

After an acrimonious split with Motown Records in the late 1960s in which Holland-Dozier-Holland sued founder Berry Gordy Jr., accusing him of cheating them out of money related to the songs they wrote — Dozier called the fracas with Gordy, at one point, "just business" and said they would still hug one another when they saw each other — Dozier left Motown for Los Angeles and a solo career in 1972. He struggled with tax debts in California later in his life.

In 2015, the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting and production team got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

On social media Tuesday, Motown fans mourned Dozier's passing, calling him "a musical genius" and a "gracious human being."

Special writer Susan Whitall contributed to this report.