Magazine article The New Yorker

Holland-Dozier-Holland

Magazine article The New Yorker

Holland-Dozier-Holland

Article excerpt

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. …

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