War, disastrous sex and a lot of lawsuits: the chaotic aftermath of Motown’s peak years

Motown Records famously churned out songs like cars on an assembly line, and songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland (HDH) – brothers Eddie and Brian Holland, and the late Lamont Dozier – built some of the company’s most gleaming, purring models, writing smashes such as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave, the Four Tops’ Reach Out I’ll Be There, and 10 of the Supremes’ 12 US chart-toppers. But while HDH’s tenure at Motown is rightly celebrated, their subsequent work has been neglected by comparison, despite being thrillingly soulful, stylistically diverse and sharply political (as captured on a new vinyl box set).

HDH’s time at Motown ended badly. Around 1967, their attempts to renegotiate their years-old contracts on more equitable terms were repeatedly rebuffed by Motown patriarch Berry Gordy. Dozier writes in his autobiography that HDH then decided to “essentially go on strike” and “stop turning in songs” in protest.

Holland-Dozier-Holland circa 1970. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I ask Eddie Holland, now 84 and fresh from a holiday in Turkey, if this is true. “Absolutely not,” he says, explaining that he merely paused HDH activity to focus on writing stronger product. He blames Motown lawyers for stoking tensions between Gordy and HDH: “I could have explained it to Berry, but I didn’t want to. I said, to hell with it.” Things turned ugly. Motown sued HDH, the trio countersued, and it took until 1972 to be settled. “I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost all of us, but the only financial winners were the lawyers,” Gordy later wrote.

As the relationship with Motown imploded, Eddie set up two new record labels – Hot Wax and Invictus – with several ex-Motown staff, including producer and A&R man Ronald Dunbar. While Eddie was at liberty to sign and produce new talent, HDH’s contracts with Motown precluded them from writing material elsewhere, so songs would often credit Dunbar along with Edythe Wayne, an invented person named after Eddie’s then girlfriend. “We just had to put somebody’s name on the thing!” Dozier told the Guardian in 2015. “Everyone knew it was really Holland-Dozier-Holland.” (Eddie declines to discuss it further; his joint memoirs with Brian make a reference to Dunbar contributing songs, although “not as many as he was credited for”).

The first song attributed to “R Dunbar; E Wayne” was While You’re Out Looking for Sugar by Honey Cone. Hungry for a girl group to emulate HDH’s success with the Supremes, Eddie approached Edna Wright, Carolyn Willis, and Shelly Clark after watching them sing behind Andy Williams. Clark, who’d also sung with Ike Turner, wasn’t sure. “I had heard from several artists that they were not happy [at Motown] because of the lack of control they had,” she tells me, and started avoiding Eddie’s calls but “the guilt kept mounting”. With Clark’s reluctant agreement, Honey Cone formed and topped the US Hot 100 in June 1971 with the inescapably catchy Want Ads.

If Honey Cone were Hot Wax’s Supremes, the Chairmen of the Board were Invictus’s Four Tops. While Eddie designed the group so that each member could take lead vocal duties, General Norman Johnson emerged as its frontman. Founding member Harrison Kennedy opines fondly on his fellow band members: “Eddie [Custis] could sing a bird out of a tree; Danny [Woods] could make a bird fall out of the tree; and General Johnson could make trees grow!” Johnson’s halting, staccato vocals power their song Give Me Just a Little More Time a US and UK hit.

Chairmen of the Board. Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock

Invictus’s flagship female solo artist, meanwhile, was Freda Payne. After struggling to find mainstream success as a jazz vocalist, Payne looked to the likes of Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick for inspiration. Today, she recalls her thought process: “They’re singing pop and R&B … Maybe this is what I need to do,” and duly signed with Invictus.

Payne’s single Band of Gold – chosen by the Guardian as one of the greatest UK No 1s – is surely the most enduring of HDH’s post-Motown records. The song narrates a marriage that remains strangely unconsummated. Payne recalls her growing confusion when first reading the song’s lyrics: “‘But that night on our honeymoon / We stayed in separate rooms.’ What the hell is that? Here’s a bride, she’s getting married, she knows she’s on her honeymoon, they’re going to be intimate, right?” Dozier explained in his autobiography that “this guy wasn’t able to make love to his new wife because he was actually gay”. This subtext was the topic of some press speculation upon release, though Payne claimed that the song’s female narrator was “frigid”, and Eddie says the song was simply about a guy who “couldn’t get it up”. Whatever the interpretation, it was a smash.

In fact, despite lacking Motown’s promotional apparatus, Hot Wax/Invictus had amassed several hits by 1971. The material is full of HDH’s melodic genius but with a grittier texture compared with their Motown output, while new writers provided additional range. “[The sound] was very much looser than Motown,” agrees in-house arranger McKinley Jackson, whose band the Politicians played all over the catalogue. “It wasn’t as formatted, wasn’t as structured,” he continues, pointing to the “gut bucket blues” of the Chairmen of the Board’s self-titled song and country-flavoured material like Patches, which became a US and UK Top 5 hit for Clarence Carter. “I wasn’t trying to do a similar sound to Motown,” says Eddie. “I just figured, a hit record is a hit record.”

Ruth Copeland. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

So Hot Wax/Invictus diversified their roster beyond Motown archetypes, signing George Clinton’s psychedelic funk outfit Parliament, as well as white rock acts such as the Flaming Ember and English singer Ruth Copeland. Copeland’s recording, The Medal, is a heavy rock opus depicting a woman receiving an award on behalf of her husband killed in Vietnam: “A little piece of nothing to get for the life of your husband fighting in a war that’s such a crock of shit,” she tells me, with strong words reserved for president Richard Nixon. “I wanted to scream at him [in the song], which I did.”

The Medal is one of several Hot Wax/Invictus songs decrying the Vietnam war, alongside Chairmen of the Board’s ominous Men Are Getting Scarce and Payne’s anthemic Bring the Boys Home. The latter was a minor hit, though Eddie remembers how “we had a tough time promoting it”, recalling public complaints to radio stations that the song was anti-government; it was eventually banned from the Armed Forces Network in south-east Asia.

The Hot Wax/Invictus material also engaged with the women’s liberation movement, most rousingly with the gravel-toned Laura Lee. “Girls, when you cut the cake / Don’t make a big mistake,” she cautions on Wedlock is a Padlock, while voicing emancipatory demands on Love and Liberty and Women’s Love Rights. “I’m not into women’s lib,” Lee said in a 1972 interview with Blues & Soul magazine, “I’m into women’s love!” Still, tunes such as the Glass House’s bluesy Crumbs Off the Table and Honey Cone’s Are You Man Enough, Are You Strong Enough? showcased more straight-talking female voices. “It was very empowering,” Honey Cone’s Clark says of the material, crediting the cadre of young and often male writers such as Greg Perry, Angelo Bond, General Johnson, and HDH themselves. “I believe that they jumped into a female body and said: ‘If I wanted to sing to a man, what would I say?’”

Despite this successful and socially conscious songwriting, most of the artists I speak to recount issues with not being paid enough (after putting their claims to Eddie, his representative said Eddie “doesn’t have any comments on the questions presented”).

Freda Payne sued Invictus, writing in her memoir that she “wasn’t seeing any financial compensation for my work”. The suit was settled out of court; Payne recorded a final album with Invictus and her contract was bought out by her new label ABC/Dunhill. She tells me that her dispute with Invictus was complicated by her romantic involvement with Eddie. “I thought I was in love with him; it only exacerbated my feelings of anger and disrespect,” she says, while clarifying that “we’re OK now, we’re friends”.

Honey Cone eventually buckled, too. “We were tired all the time,” Clark says, feeling justified in her initial cynicism about forming the group. “I wanted to say [to my bandmates]: ‘Look, I told you bitches before we started what this was gonna be like!’” she laughs.

Dozier’s enthusiasm for the projects also waned, despite releasing his own material on Invictus. “When you’re in a partnership with two brothers, you’re always going to feel like the odd man out,” he later wrote. Dozier signed to ABC/Dunhill in 1973 to pursue his solo recording career and covertly relocated to LA, precipitating yet more legal disputes, now between himself, ABC and the Hollands.

“Lamont, for years, had always wanted to be by himself,” Eddie says, noting the particular “deference” that Gordy gave to Brian. Eddie calls Brian the “real melody man … It kind of grated on Lamont a little bit,” and describes how the subsequent dispute between the Hollands and Dozier “bothered me emotionally. I told [my lawyers] this: ‘Lamont is like a brother to us … We don’t have the heart to be fighting him. Find out what he wants and let it go.’” Dozier writes that he was eventually freed of his contracts with Hot Wax/Invictus at the cost of relinquishing his ownership share of those companies, but the trio would reunite to work with the Four Tops in the 1980s after the iconic group returned to Motown. Eddie remembers how Dozier contacted him roughly two years before his death, keen to reconvene the HDH partnership once again. “If you want to do Holland-Dozier-Holland, I’ll be glad to,” Eddie told Lamont. “But he just got ill.” Dozier died in August 2022.

After Dozier left in 1973, Hot Wax and Invictus’s hits eventually dried up, while new label Music Merchant failed to get off the ground. Eddie claims that at the time Capitol did not understand Black audiences and that he set up a whole department to market Invictus records in Black neighbourhoods himself, “spending $250,000 out of my budget every year”.

Though short-lived, HDH’s post-Motown projects leave behind an impressive catalogue. This article alone cannot do justice to the breadth and richness of the wider roster – artists including the Barrino Brothers, Melvin Davis, Eloise Laws, Tyrone Edwards, 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) and more. Eddie’s own favourite tune remains Give Me Just a Little More Time. “I don’t really enjoy listening to most of the records that I’ve done,” he admits, “but I’ll put the radio back on to hear that!”

The Guardian

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