This week’s songwriting expert, Lamont Dozier, teamed with brothers Eddie and Brian Holland in the 60’s, creating a seemingly endless litany of Top 10 hits that helped Motown become, as its PR team professed, the “Sound of Young America.” As with all the artists in this series, picking only three representative songs is tough, but you can’t go wrong with the Supremes’ “Come See about Me”; the Four Tops’ “Baby, I Need Your Loving”; or “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” by Marvin Gaye . . . and that was in 1964 alone! Of the Supremes’ 12 #1 hits, H-D-H wrote 10 of them.
Last week Carole King talked about the importance of adding perspiration to your songwriting inspiration. Dozier agrees, calling the effort a “twenty-four job”:
That’s one thing I got out of Motown that was very productive for me. We got up early and worked late. We started by punching a clock. That sort of working regimen stayed with me over the years. I still get up quite early. That’s what I do: write songs. It’s a full day of work every day. . . . It’s a constant work thing for me. It’s my relaxation, my fun, my everything. Outside of my kids, of course. It’s therapeutic as well. When I’m down, I can work. That’s what brings me out of it. And when I’m up, I even work better.
A few questions later, however, Dozier backs off the songwriting-is-life motif just a bit when he credits God for the strength of his career (though I like that he takes credit for his less-glorious work himself):
I can’t take credit for this stuff. I’ve been too successful too long. I’m only human, and these things are the makings of God. I feel that I’ve been thoroughly blessed over the years with an abundance of songs and material. I’d be stupid to say that there is no force other than my own that is guiding me through all of this. There is definitely God behind this thing that I do. Everything I do–that’s good, at least–is a reflection of His hand.
The question thus begged, Paul Zollo, author of Songwriters on Songwriting, from whence comes this series, asks whether a writer must “be a righteous person to be worthy of that source,” to which Dozier replies in the affirmative, preaching from Phil. 4:8 in the process:
I believe so. It’s possible to connect with the creative source by thinking right and being right. That’s the secret to having a successful life, no matter what it is. Thinking right and being right. And you’ll tap into all these positive forces. If you walk around negative-thinking, nothing but negative things will come up. I think about the good things, in spite of all the bad things that are all around us. I’m always looking for that ray of sunshine. And it’s always there for those who have eyes to see.
Zollo then asks if Dozier feels melody is as important as it once was. Though this interview is 30+ years old, some of the same concerns apply:
Melodies in songs are not as prominent as I’d like them to be. But I think melodies are more on a surge now than they used to be. We’ve run the gamut. It comes and goes in cycles. I think it’s coming back. The nature of people is to walk down a street and whistle a tune. So with that in mind, I think we’re going to have melody. People will buy a good melody if it’s there. When writing, if I get a gut reaction from a melody, if it moves me, then I know it’s good. I never pick a melody unless I’ve slept on it, so to speak. I may write a melody today and then I’ll let it sit by itself for two or three days. I’ll put it down, ignore it, come back to it, in two or three days, and if it still hits me, I know it’s good. It’s like hearing it for the first time. If a melody comes back to me, if I start humming it, if it’s made a mark on my unconscious in some way, then I’ll know it’s melodic and I’ll continue.
I came across some related thoughts from theologian N.T. Wright last week in Worship Leader magazine’s current issue. Notice his contention that a song’s melody, not the lyrics alone, contributes to the narrative:
Quite a lot of the contemporary worship songs don’t actually have tunes in the proper sense. They have two or three notes, which they go to-and-fro on and then maybe they have a chorus, which lifts it a bit, but it’s still often not a tune. . . . And the point about a tune is that it’s telling a story. It’s going somewhere. And I am very anxious about worship songs which have deconstructed the tune–the idea of a tune–and that’s the radical nature of post-modernity to reconstruct the narrative. That’s where our culture is. But we ought to be discerning how to do fresh actual tunes, not sort of past issues, copying what was done [earlier], but actual refreshed new creation tunes rather than simply a scattering of random notes. You can feel the diffrerence in the congregation when they’re given a real tune to sing.
All the best, songwriters, for your efforts, especially those of you writing for the Church. The Lord be with you!