Martha and the Vandellas – Heatwave (1963)
The intensity of Heatwave never ages, and its message of love as an inescapable blend of agony and ecstasy would be repeated on many of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s greatest recordings. It proved too raw for British ears in 1963, though the Who covered it early on. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian thought it was so good he simply played the backing track at double speed and came up with his own classic, Do You Believe In Magic?
The Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There (1966)
More popular in Britain than the US, where the Temptations were always Motown’s premier male group, the Four Tops cut HDH’s most groundbreaking material. After the galloping hooves and piccolos on the intro, singer Levi Stubbs let fly with a vocal that mixed Bob Dylan and black pride. The edgy minor chords never relent, which makes its joyousness all the more powerful. It was an instant classic, and transatlantic No 1.
R Dean Taylor – There’s a Ghost in My House (1967)
The self-mythologising northern soul scene tended to ignore some of its most popular spins – like this – once they went thoroughly overground. Motown, and HDH in particular, effectively created not just the sound but also some of its rarest singles. White singer R Dean Taylor’s eerie top three hit from 1974, driven by a dark fuzz bassline, had initially been a 1967 flop that didn’t get beyond the test pressing stage. That says a lot for HDH’s productivity – it’s hard to believe no one at Motown thought this was a hit. “Sitting in my easy chair, I feel your fingers running through my hair” was maybe the uneasiest lyric they ever wrote.
Diana Ross and the Supremes – Reflections (1967)
Loneliness (the Vandellas’ In My Lonely Room, Marvin Gaye’s Lonely Lover) was key to many of Dozier’s most bruising songs. Here it spills over into paranoia. The Supremes had always received HDH’s A-grade material – too many all-time classics to list here – but when they incorporated psychedelia in to their palette in 1967, they drew this chillingly powerful performance from Diana Ross. Backed by sinister electronic swoops, morse code bleeps and dark, unexpected chords, Reflections was also the first Supremes single to give Ross star billing, unwittingly marking the end of the label’s freewheeling golden age.
Chairmen of the Board – Give Me Just a Little More Time (1970)
After falling out with Motown, HDH had to work under pseudonyms at their newly formed Invictus label, where Freda Payne’s Band of Gold gave them their biggest ever UK hit. The powerful “General” Norman Johnson was the singer with COTB, and a new, Levi Stubbs-like cipher for the team, with an acute, pleading voice that never sounded less than tearful. Give Me Just a Little More Time’s tongue-rolling hook was enough for Kevin Rowland to build a career and a philosophy around.
Lamont Dozier – Going Back to My Roots (1977)
His solo career may never have got close to replicating his success as a songwriter but it’s full of lesser known gems like the slow-burning groove of Fish Ain’t Bitin’ and the original, proto-house recording of Going Back to My Roots, which would become a club standard in the hands of Odyssey in 1981. It’s an ebullient anthem of awareness, and “zipping up my boots” was an opening line to match any of his 60s classics.