Tuesday, January 15, 2019

William "Smokey" Robinson, Jr (The Miracles)




William Robinson, Jr was born in 1940 in Detroit. He grew up in a poor neighborhood, and was brought up by his elder sister after his mother died when William was young. His uncle Claude gave him the nickname "Smokey Joe" when he was a kid and it stuck. William was a clever child who loved music and sport. His early musical influences included Nolan Strong & the Diablos, Billy Ward and his Dominoes and Barrett Strong, a Detroit native, as a strong vocal influence.


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Smokey formed a doo-wop group called the Five Chimes while he was still at Northern High School in 1955. The line-up included childhood friend, Ronald White and classmate Pete Moore. He became a prolific song writer and in 1957, the group was renamed the Matadors and included Bobby Rogers. Another member, Emerson Rogers, was replaced by Bobby's cousin Claudette Rogers. The group's guitarist, Marv Tarplin, joined them sometime in 1958. The Matadors began touring Detroit venues around this time. They later changed their name to the Miracles.


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A chance meeting with record producer Berry Gordy Jr. in 1957, after a failed audition for Brunswick Records led to a contract with Motown Records as well as an important working relationship. Gordy was impressed with Robinson's vocals and his ambitions to be a songwriter. The group released their first single, "Got a Job" (1960), an answer song to the Silhouettes' hit single "Get a Job" on End Records.


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Gordy formed Tamla Records which later became Motown and The Miracles were one of the first acts to be signed to the label. In late 1960, the group recorded their first hit single, "Shop Around", which became Motown's first million-selling hit record.


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More top ten hits followed including: You've Really Got a Hold on Me" (1962),"Mickey's Monkey" (1963 ), Going to a Go Go (1965) , "I Second That Emotion" (1967 ), and "Baby Baby Don't Cry" (1968)


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Then in 1970, The Miracles went to become top of the charts in UK and US with a somg which had been previously on their Make It Happen (1967), "The Tears of a Clown", became a number one hit in the UK before it was re-released in the USA.


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Smokey Robinson was also one of the major songwriters and producers for Motown, penning several hit singles for Mary Wells’, "My Guy"; The Temptations’, "The Way You Do The Things You Do", ‘My Girl” and "Get Ready"; Brenda Holloway’s "When I'm Gone" and "Operator"; The Marvelettes’ "My Baby Must Be a Magician" ; Marvin Gaye’s "I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Peculiar".


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Smokey stayed with the group as lead singer until 1972. Since 1960 he produced 26 top forty hits. After he went solo he created a more mellow sound for himself,often associated with romantic soul music. Smokey released many successful albums including A Quiet Storm (1974) and Touch the Sky (1983).


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Initially, Smokey Robinson's solo career suffered from his work as Motown's vice president, and his own music took the backseat. He did return to success with "Cruisin'" and "Let Me Be the Clock". In 1981, he was back in the charts with "Being with You".


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By the mid-1980s, Smokey was battling drug addiction but made a comeback album, One Heartbeat (1988) which contained the successful singles, "Just to See Her" and "One Heartbeat".


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When Motown was sold off to MCA in 1988, Smokey relinquished his position as vice president and left the label for a deal with SBK Records in 1991. He released several albums on different labels but was unable to achieve his previous successes. The man who was once described by Bob Dylan, as America’s “greatest living poet.” took his work in a new direction in 2004, releasing a collection of music that reflected his spiritual beliefs entitled Food for the Spirit. Smokey & Friends was released in mid-August 2014. It was an album of duets, including with Elton John, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. It reached number 12 on the Billboard album chart.


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Further Reading



Robinson S and Ritz D (1989) Smokey: Inside My Life McGraw-Hill, Blacklick, Ohio, U.S.A

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Supremes (1961 - 2000)



Florence Ballard was a student at junior high school in the Detroit housing projects and became friends with Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, (two members of The Primes, later to become the Temptations). The boys encouraged her to form a sister group called the Primettes (1959). Flo recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who recruited classmate Diana Ross; and Paul Williams added his girlfriend, Betty McGlown and the quartet were complete. Flo had the biggest voice and could sing soulfully so she was considered the lead singer. In 1960 they signed to the Lupine label but their first single, "Tears of Sorrow" flopped.


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Betty McGlown left the group and was replaced by Barbara Martin in 1961 when they signed for Motown Records and became the Supremes. Flo sang lead in most of the early recordings but the group had no success. They were known as “the no hit Supremes,” and busied themselves as session singers. Then came their breakthrough with "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," (1963) it got into the charts and Diana Ross took over as the lead singing and Barbara had left the group to bring up a family.


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Berry Gordy Jnr's patience paid off and the Supremes started to record Holland-Dozier-Holland’s compositions beginning with "Where Did Our Love Go" . The song went to the US number one in 1964 and was also their first song to reach the UK pop charts. The song was originally written for The Marvelettes, but they did not like it. Neither did the Supremes but they felt obliged to record it anyway.


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Now the trio could do no wrong and under the direction of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s production and song writing, the group had a series of number one hits including "Baby Love," (1964) "Come See About Me,"(1964) "Stop! In the Name of Love," (1965) and "Back in My Arms Again" (1965).


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By 1965, the Supremes were international stars and toured the globe. Not all of their songs were chart toppers however, but all did reasonably well and were disco favourites, spearheading the Motown Sound. By the end of 1966, their number-one hits included "I Hear a Symphony", "You Can't Hurry Love", and my own favourite, the uncharacteristic "You Keep Me Hangin' On".


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Despite success there were problems brewing in the Motown stable. Benny Gordy Jnr had favoured the Supremes and Diana in particular, not because she was the best singer and performer, but simply because she had the crossover appeal that would sell more records to both black and white audiences. Gordy was ever the businessman but he and Diana also had a romantic assignation which frustrated the other Supremes and his attention to Diana caused other artists to become disgruntled (Martha Reeves in particular). Flo Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong (from Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and Flo look-a-like) in 1967 and the group became Diana Ross & the Supremes. Gordy was adamant however the name change was a rouse to charge more appearance money, because the punters were getting to see two acts. Meantime Flo later fell on very hard times and tragically died in 1976. Although there is no actual association with the musical Dream Girls, the story is unmistakably based loosely around these events. (Mary Wilson loved the musical, but Diana Ross was reportedly angered by it and refused to see it).


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Diana Ross and the Supremes scored another hit in 1967, with the psychedelic influenced, "Reflections."


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By this time Holland-Dozier-Holland, had left Motown after a dispute over the quality of music Motown was producing. Despite having a hit with Love child, The Supremes were middle of the road now, and soul music had overtaken Motown, the group was considered more white than black and that affected their credibility in a politically sensitive US.


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Gordy came up with a brilliant idea and matched his super groups in studio collaborations marrying those with a white fan base with those with a black fan base. The Supremes and The Temptations joined forces to produce “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." (1968).


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When “Someday We'll Be Together", the Supremes last major chart success, was recorded neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong featured and The Andantes provided backup vocals.


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Diana Ross left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Jean Terrell. Mary Wilson continued as the only original while other personnel line ups took place. The (New or 70s) Supremes continued to make some cracking records and proved themselves capable of continuing after the departure of their popular lead singer. After 1972, the lineup of the Supremes changed frequently, with Lynda Laurence, Scherrie Payne (Freda Payne sister) and Susaye Greene all becoming members before the group ended its eighteen-year existence in 1977. In 2000, Diana Ross announced a Supremes reunion tour with Wilson and Birdsong. Both Supremes declined the tour and were replaced with Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne. The tour was cancelled after nine dates, because of lackluster ticket sales.

Worth a listen:
When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes (1963)
Baby Love (1965)
I hear a symphony (1966)
You keep me hangin’ on (1966).
Reflections (1967)
I’m gonna make you love me Supremes with the Temptations (1968), Someday we will be together again (1969)
Stoned Love New Supremes (1970)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Funk Brothers (Tamla Motown) (1959 -1971)





What really stopped me in my tracks as a teenager was when I first heard Tamla Motown. This music was so different and heralded the beginning of Disco. It all started in 1959 when Berry Gordy Jr. assembled a studio band, recruited from Detroit's club scene. The players came from a jazz, blues or R&B backgrounds and so the sound was bound to be different. Gordy was determined to keep the Motown Sound a distinctive brand name and signed most of the musicians to exclusive, highly restrictive contracts during their tenure. Individual musicians were rarely credited on the records which downplayed their importance to the label but none the less won the respect of all and the band was nicknamed The Funk Brothers.



The Funk Bros were the backbone of early Motown (1959 to 1972). In entirety the Funk Bros recorded more hits than the Beatles. Elvis and the Rolling Stones combined. The original members of the Funk Bros included bandleader Joe Haunter and Earl Van Dyke, Uriel Jones (piano); James Jamerson (bass guitar); William "Benny" Benjamin and Richard "Pistol" Allen (drums); Robert White, Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina (guitar); Jack Ashford (tambourine, percussion, vibes, marimba); Jack Brokensha (vibes, marimba);and Eddie "Bongo" Brown (percussion). The band used a number of innovative techniques for performing the backing tracks for many Motown songs. Most Motown recordings featured two drummers, either playing together or one overdubbing each another. Except for some of the earliest recordings, songs were recorded using at least two-track recorders which gave Tamla Motown a most distinctive sound. The rhythm section of "Where Did Our Love Go" comprises primarily of foot stomps. The sound effect was created by someone stomping down on two wooden boards suspended by strings. This created the audio illusion of a group of foot-stompers. Later when technology allowed over dubbing, the same song had hand-clapping added. The main song writers were Holland-Dozier-Holland, and they wrote the Supremes hit "Where Did Our Love Go," which went to the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also the first of five Supremes songs in a row to reach number one (the others were "Baby Love", "Come See About Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love", and "Back in My Arms Again").


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Gordy cleverly made his singles for the mono market, and Motown albums were recorded in stereo. Intriguingly this meant two versions of many of the earlier hits were available which encouraged enthusiasts to have both in their collection. The Isley Bros had previous been successful before they joined Motown and recorded Shout (later covered by Lulu and Johnnie O’Keefe in Australia) and Twist and Shout (The Beatles) but they were unsatisfied with their career progress and switched record labels in 1965. A year later, they would score their biggest hit to date when the Holland-Dozier-Holland-produced "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)."


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Motown had a policy, the producer who had the biggest hits with a particular artist was assigned as the main producer for that artist, By 1966, Smokey Robinson oversaw The Temptations, after a string of hits such as "The Way You Do the Things You Do", "My Girl", and "Since I Lost My Baby".


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Up and coming Norman Whitfield, songwriter and producer put together an instrumental track and convinced Edward Holland, Jr. (of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame) to write the lyrics to "Ain't Too Proud to Beg". David Ruffin was encouraged to sing lead on the song, and Whitfield submitted the mix to Motown's Quality Control department. "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" failed twice to make it, then third time lucky and after a grueling re-recording the song was earmarked for the group’s next release.


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Smokey Robinson had an incredible work rate and although he and the Miracles were not the most successful Tamla act, he was often involved behind the scenes in many of the labels successes, Bob Dylan, no less, dubbed him "America's greatest living poet" because he was impressed with the songwriter’s facility for imaginative wordplay. Things began to change at Motown 1967-1968 as the hit factory tried to reinvent its sound to fit changing trends. Norman Whitfield introduced psychedelic soul and introduced guitarists Dennis Coffey and Wah Wah Watson to The Funk Brothers. With a few more lineup changes the core group remained together until 1972, when Gordy moved the Motown offices to Los Angeles. The last all together effort came in 1971 with Marvin Gaye's masterpiece What's Going On, which made full use of the band's jazz training (and listed full musician credits).


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Some of the group went to LA but most stayed and worked in Detroit. Like the Bona Vista Club musicians, the history of the Funk Bros might have been lost had it not have been for Allan Slutsky's biography of the band, and then later Paul Justman's brilliant documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was released in 2002.


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Worth a listen:
Bye, bye baby by Mary Wells (1960)
Where did our love go The Supremes (1964)
This old heart of mine by The Isley Bros (1966)
Ain't Too Proud to Beg by The Temptations (1966)
The tracks of my tears by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1965)
Standing in the Shadows of Love by the Four Tops (1966)
What’s going on by Marvin Gaye (1971)

Harry Nillson (1941 -1994)




Harry Edward Nilsson III was born in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 1941. His father, Harry Edward Nilsson Jr., abandoned the family when Harry was three years old, harry grew up with his mother Bette and his younger half-sister although there was an extended family of half brother and sister siblings. Harry’s maternal grandparents were the cornerstone of his young life and supported the family. Harry moved to Los Angeles when he was a teenager. He enjoyed listening popular music and in particular, Ray Charles.


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Harry left school after 9th grade and to support the family had varies jobs. After he was given a plastic ukulele and learned to play it, he soon mastered guitar and piano. His natural tenor voice had a three-and-a-half octave range, and his Uncle John taught him how to use it. In 1960, he falsely claimed he had finished High School and got a job in a bank. Fortunately, Harry had an aptitude for computers, and worked nightshift at the bank leaving him time during the day to pursue his song writing and singing career. Briefly he and his friend Jerry Smith worked as a duo, singing Everly Brothers harmonies. Then in 1962, Nilsson got a job singing demos for A&M Records, songwriter Scott Turner. A year later, now working with John Marascalco, he made his first recordings., under the pseudonym "Bo Pete." Not commercially successful but Mercury Records did offer Nilsson a contract, and released Donna (I understand), under the name "Johnny Niles."


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‘64, saw Harry Nilsson song writing with Phil Spector, and songwriter and publisher Perry Botkin, Jr. The latter introduced him to George Tipton who became so impressed with Nilsson’s work he invested his life savings to finance the recording of four Nilsson songs, which he then arranged. His recording contract was picked up by Tower Records Sadly, none of Tower’s four releases charted or gained critical attention. The singles were however, in his own name, and both A and B sides appeared on his first album . Spotlight on Nilsson (Tower).


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RCA Victor Nilsson signed Nilsson in 1966 and released Pandemonium Shadow Show, to critical acclaim. Whilst it did not sell well, enough people heard it and were sufficiently impressed for Derek Taylor, the Beatles' publicist, to share it with the Fab Four. The album included two Beatles covers, ‘You can’t do that,’ and She’s leaving home.’ In his version of Lennon’s "You Can't Do That", Nilsson worked 20 references to other Beatles songs in the lyrics .


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Both Lennon and McCartney loved what they heard and later Nilsson formed close friendships with John Lennon and Ringo Starr. When the Monkees version of “Cuddly Toy," which was on the album, became a hit it helped establish Nilsson as a professional musician and songwriter. He left his job as a bank clerk.


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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Let it Be



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Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland




Three names most closely associated with Motown music are Brian Holland (b.1941), Lamont Dozier (b. 1941) and Eddie Holland (b. 1939). Together they wrote and produced many of the labels’ classic hit songs. Detroit born, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s had a decade of output as staff producers and songwriters and wrote and co-wrote 145 hits in US and 78 in the UK. Their relationship with Motown founder, Berry Gordy Jr. started in 1958, before Motown was a label.


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Brian Holland started as a performer in 1958, and appeared as Briant Holland and Benny Gordy Jnr produced some his early sessions.



Unfortunately, Briant failed to impact on the charts. He briefly joined Freddie Gorman in a group called the Fidalatones, however, commercial success still alluded them.


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Holland carried on briefly with The Satintones singing backous when Motown started in 1958. Later , he became one of the Rayber Voices, singing back-ups on several early Motown recording acts.


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In 1961 , he partnered Robert Bateman, and they wrote as "Brianbert". Together with Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, they wrote "Please Mr. Postman" which became a hit for The Marvelettes and was the first Motown song to reach the number-one position on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart.


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Brian worked with producer Norman Whitfield on lyrics for the songs he produced for the Marvelettes ,"Too Many Fish in the Sea" (1961) ; and the Temptations’. "Beauty's Only Skin Deep" (1967) .


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He also woked with Lamont Dozier and under the name "Holland–Dozier", released a lone single for Motown in 1963,



Older brother, Edward "Eddie" Holland Jr. was born in 1939 in Detroit, Michigan. He started as singer in 1958 and recorded for several labels before joining Motown. Eddie’s 1958 Mercury single, “You,” was one of Gordy’s earliest productions. Eddie scored a minor hit with "Jamie" (1961). Behind the scenes, the performer suffered from stage fright and found it easier to work behind the scenes. He did however, continue to release singles as a solo performer until 1964, with moderate success.




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Lamont Dozier was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1941. He joined the Romeos when he was sixteen, and released a couple of unsuccessful singles in 1957.


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Dozier later joined The Voice Masters and they became one of the first session groups to be used by Berry Gordy Jnr. The group backed several leads but without much commercial success. Occasionally, Lamont would take lead and appear on the credits.


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He started a solo career as Lamont Anthony in 1961 and signed for Anna Records, owned by Berry Gordy Jnr’s sister. He released several singles but before his solo career could take off the company folded, and Lamont moved over to work with Gordy Jnr.


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Berry Gordy Jnr had taken an interest in him when he was singing with the Romeos but later asked him to become a producer, writer, and artist with the embryonic Motown. There he joined Brian and Eddie Holland and launched their writing and production collaboration as Holland–Dozier–Holland, with the single “Dearest One,” released under Dozier’s name on the Mel-O-Dy label, a Motown subsidiary.


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During their tenure at Motown from 1962 to 1967, Dozier and Brian Holland were the composers and producers for each song, and Eddie Holland wrote the lyrics and arranged the vocals. They first made their mark with Martha and The Vandellas' early hits, "Come And Get These Memories" , "Heatwave", and "Quicksand" .


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In 1963, they also wrote and produced Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness,” the Marvelettes’ “Locking Up My Heart, ” and the Miracles’ “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying” and “Mickey’s Monkey,” among others.


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Their first #1 in the US came with "Where Did Our Love Go" by the Supremes in 1964. Holland–Dozier–Holland wrote and produced for the Supremes for the next three years. Berry Gordy Jnr liked to stick to winning formulae, and he was right because Holland, Dozier and Holland had six consecutive Number One singles for the Supremes.


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Their compositions epitomized the 60s Motown sound with a fluid, up-tempo style that combined catchy lyrics with the fervour of gospel, the groove of R&B and the polish of pop. The lyrics often captured perfectly the mood of the time and the music was ideal for clubs and the emerging Discothèques. Over their tenure, they wrote and produced scores of songs for Motown artists, with many becoming chart his both in the US and elsewhere.


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Holland, Dozier and Holland had the perfect ability to write for both female and male performers.


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In 1967, Holland–Dozier–Holland (H-D-H) fell out with Berry Gordy Jr. over profit-sharing and royalties. When matters could not be resolved amicably, they eventually left Motown in 1968 and formed the Invictus and Hot Wax labels. For legal reasons could not carryon as H-D-H, and from 1969 through to 1972 they adopted the collective pseudonym, "Edythe Wayne". Eddie Holland was added to the producer credits. Lamont Dozier continued to release several songs including “Why Can't We Be Lovers," which made the Top Ten on the Billboard R&B Charts in 1972.


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They continued to make hits for The Honey Cones with "Want Ads" and “Everything good is bad” for 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) in 1969. Then a year later, Freda Payne’s "Band of Gold" and Chairman of the Board‘s "Give Me Just a Little More Time") were chart successes.


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Eventually in the mid-seventies Lamond decided to leave the production team and was replaced by Harold Beatty. The Hollands wrote and produced songs for a number of artists including The Supremes and Michael Jackson. Invictus/Hot Wax eventually folded in 1973. Lamont Dozier continued to write and record in his own right. His biggest hit was "Trying to Hold On to My Woman" (1974), which reached #15 pop, #4 R&B and in 1981, he scored a beach music hit with "Cool Me Out."


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In the eighties, he wrote "Invisible" for Alison Moyet which became a U.S. top 40 hit in 1984, then a few years later, he co-wrote "Two Hearts" with Phil Collins (1988), to give him another number 1 hit.


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In 1987, his song "Without You", was recorded by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle, which was a minor hit in both the UK and US.


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The trio reformed briefly, to composed the score for the musical production of The First Wives Club (1996). This was based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith and later made into a film. The musical included twenty-two new songs from the song writing trio. The musical has subsequently been revised several times. The music and lyrics of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland featured in both the stage and film productions of First Wives Club.


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Standing in the shadow of motown (Trailer)



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