Fred Mollin & Lamont Dozier at Royal Studios
Going in to this, I knew that Lamont Dozier was nothing short of a pop music icon – a true legend. After all, the man’s resume is undeniable. As a member of the Motown songwriting and production trio Holland-Dozier-Holland, he is responsible for well over 30 top ten hit singles, including 13 number ones. He also had an often overlooked but influential career as a performing artist, and his music has been sampled by everyone from Tupac Shakur to Linkin Park. Go ahead and tack on another number one co-written with Phil Collins and more awards than I could possibly list. Simply stated, the man knows his way around a song.
Earlier this week, when I received the invitation to meet Lamont Dozier and his producer, Fred Mollin (who has had an impressive career in his own right, working with folks like Miley Cyrus, Billy Joel, and the late Chris Cornell), I was a bit nervous, but also excited. Interviewing musicians, much less famous ones, is always a bit of a hit-and-miss proposition – they aren’t always patient, cooperative subjects or even nice people in some cases. However, none of that was true of Lamont or Fred. In our time together, they were introspective, generous with stories and information, and generally just good guys to hang out and share a meal with. Here are some of the highlights of our lengthy conversation:
The Memphis Flyer: For starters, what brings you to town?
: We’re here to work on a new album at Royal Studios singing old songs that were iconic back in the day and putting a new slant on it vocally and arrangement-wise.
: It’s very intimate and stripped down. Don’t look for big production. It’s the first time Lamont has recorded them in this way, in his own voice, very acoustic and intimate. Essentially, you’re going to get to hear these songs again for the first time, at the genesis of where they came from.
Why did you decide on the stripped down approach?
: As a producer, I’ve done several records with great songwriters this way. Lamont was one of the first ones I wanted to do, but it’s taken 20 years to get it actually started. It was always my dream to do it like this because it becomes a timeless album. These are just incredible songs, and he’s an incredible singer. It’s a real chance to hear him sing these songs in a way that is really soulful and heartfelt.
: We’re giving the songs a new approach, a face lift, a new idea to give the fans an opportunity to hear these songs in a new light but still bring back memories. Really, it will give everybody insight as to what it was like to hear them as they were being written – just very sparse and intimate.
Do you see this as an opportunity to re-claim these songs as your own?
: There were a few that I had put in my back pocket that I had always hoped to record myself. But when Barry Gordy comes in saying, “Hey, you’ve got to come up with something in a hurry. Marvin Gaye is going out of town and we need something to put in the can,” you have to come up with something. So, for instance, I had stashed “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” I always had this comeback idea in my head, so I was holding it back. I had a feeling that it could bring me back to the forefront as an artist. But we were in a hurry and couldn’t really come up with anything special, so I went ahead and pulled it out of my back pocket and gave it to Marvin to do. It became a big hit for him.
And for James Taylor
: Oh, yeah (laughs) – and a lot of other people too.
: We’re hoping to have James come in and sing with Lamont on that one for the album.
Are there any other songs you wish you could have back?
: I guess “Little Darling.” That was Marvin, too. It was a personal song for me because I wrote it for my grandmother, who was very ill at the time. I came over to her house when she was ill and played her this song when we had just recorded it. And this is one song, personally, that I wished I had sung myself, to her. But Marvin didn’t do a bad job with it either. And it became a hit for the Doobie Brothers and Michael McDonald later on.
Why did you decide to record in Memphis?
: Most of the album was actually done in Nashville, because that’s where I’m based out of. But we wanted to pay homage to Memphis. Because I know Boo Mitchell and work at Royal when I’m here, I wanted to bring Lamont down for a day of vocals. It was literally like a pilgrimage day for us.
What songs did you work on at Royal?
: I think we did “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” and “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).” These are unbelievable songs, the soundtrack to people’s lives.
What did the guys at Motown think of the music coming out of Memphis back in the day? Did you view it as a rivalry?
: No, we didn’t view it as a rivalry. A hit song is a hit song. I loved Stax. Stax had its own iconic sound. There was stuff coming out of there that we respected as songwriters and producers. Their sound was more blues-based. Their house was full of blues, I’ll put it that way. We respected that sound, because we knew the blues started it all, and I think they respected us.
How long have the two of you worked together?
: We’ve worked on a few things together. We worked together here on a Cliff Richard record at Royal back in 2011. To be honest, this is the first chance that I’ve had to make this particular dream come true.
: If there’s anyone I trust enough to work with as my producer, it’s him.
Do you feel your immense success as a songwriter and producer has overshadowed your career as an artist?
: No, I think it added to it. They always say Motown was like a college for music writers and producers. Sometimes if you wait, and study hard on your skills, you’ll just be better at something. When the time came for me to sing again, I was better because I had written and produced for other artists.
Did you ever tailor songs for particular artists?
: Oh, no. A hit song is a hit song, anybody can sing it. The song is king always. If it’s good, anybody with half a voice can do it. That’s how it was done, cut the tracks first and then bring in whoever was going to sing it and teach them the song.
My favorite song of yours from the Motown era is “Bernadette.” What do you remember about writing that one?
: (laughs) Everybody asks about that one.
: The version we have on the new record is so gorgeous.
: This particular song is a girl’s name, which is something we would never do because then all the other girls would want their names in a song. But in this particular case, the name just fit the music so well, and we all at one time had girlfriends called Bernadette. All three of us – different girls, though. She was my first puppy love thing was when I was 11 or 12. My Bernadette was like Venus de Milo. What does an 11 year old know? (laughs) She was this little Italian girl that just made my heart sing. And she was my muse, I used that feeling that I had for her to write songs up in to my 20s. Whenever I was writing a love song about someone I had feelings for, she would always be the picture in my mind’s eye.
For more information on Lamont Dozier, visit www.lamontdozier.com