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Lamont Dozier, who helped define the Motown sound, dies at 81

Lamont Dozier, left, with singer Diana Ross and songwriting partners Brian and Eddie Holland, after the songwriting team was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. (Ron Frehm/AP)

Lamont Dozier, a Motown songwriter who was part of a hit-making trio that helped define the Detroit record label’s signature sound with an astonishing run of singles that included chart-topping hits for the Four Tops and the Supremes, died Aug. 8 at his home near Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 81.

His death was announced by Los Angeles-based publicist Jo-Ann Geffen, who did not share additional details.

Mr. Dozier and his songwriting partners, brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, formed a powerhouse collaboration that churned out hit after hit — “Heat Wave,” “Baby Love” and many more — and helped propel the careers of Motown legends such as Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers.

The team, known as H-D-H, so thoroughly put their stamp on Motown that dozens of major artists from the era have at least one H-D-H song in their hit catalogue, including 10 of 12 No. 1 recordings by the Supremes, such as “Stop! In the Name of Love” (1965) and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1966). In a six-decade career, Mr. Dozier had credits on more than 100 Top 40 hits.

Mr. Dozier said much of his inspiration for melodies and lyrics came from his boyhood in Detroit, listening to adults gab about the ups and down of love and relationships. He was often told to leave the room when the conversation moved to “grown-up talk” about sex. “But I’d still listen,” he recalled in a 2015 interview.

“All of this stuff stayed in my head for many years,” he added.

Mr. Dozier and the Holland brothers left the Motown label of impresario Berry Gordy in 1968 to start their own home for artists, Invictus Records and Hot Wax Records. Later, Mr. Dozier carved out a solo career that included writing back-to-back hits in 1970, “Give Me Just a Little More Time” performed by Chairmen of the Board, and Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold.”

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In 1988, Mr. Dozier worked with British rocker Phil Collins on “Two Hearts” for the film “Buster,” with the song earning a Grammy and an Academy Award nomination. The H-D-H team was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Mr. Dozier never learned to fully read music or write scores. “I was too busy,” he once said. But he believed he developed a sense of chord structure and power from listening to his aunt, a classical pianist, practice in Detroit when he was young. He called the Motown sound, at its best, a mix of the chord progressions of classical music and the soulful energy of gospel.

“Torchy but not torchy, fun but not overproduced,” he said in a 2018 interview. “We wanted to get the same feeling of a ballad, without it being a ballad.”

Lamont Herbert Dozier was born June 16, 1941, and raised in Detroit’s Black Bottom district, which had swelled in the 1920s during the migration of Southern Blacks to northern cities in search of factory jobs and other work.

“Whatever you called it, it was the ghetto,” Mr. Dozier recalled this year after the 1966 H-D-H song “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” made famous by the Four Tops, became part of the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Watch Eddie and Brian Holland recount the songwriting years with Lamont Dozier

He began writing songs while still a teen, turning some lyrics into love letters he sold to friends, Cyrano de Bergerac-style, for 50 cents, according to the music website Songfacts. Mr. Dozier got a foot in the Motown door — first sweeping floors, and then in 1960 as a singer under the name Lamont Anthony. On 1961’s bluesy “Benny the Skinny Man,” he sang for the label Anna Records, owned by Gordy’s sister.

Two years later, he partnered with the Holland brothers, who were already making their mark in Gordy’s Motown empire. Eddie had a Top 30 hit as singer in 1961 with “Jamie,” but turned to writing lyrics because of crippling stage fright; Brian was co-writer on the Marvelettes’ No. 1 “Please Mr. Postman.” Mr. Dozier contributed both music and lyrics to the team.

H-D-H scored their first notable successes with “Heat Wave” in 1963 by Martha and the Vandellas and, a year later, “Where Did Our Love Go,” performed by the Supremes. A remarkable run was underway. The team’s body of work reads like a showcase of Motown’s greatest hits: 1964 with “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” 1965 with “It’s The Same old Song,” 1966 with “I Hear a Symphony,” and 1967 with “Jimmy Mack,” “Bernadette,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and more.

Mr. Dozier said he found inspiration from his own life.

For 1965’s “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” he recalled his grandfather flirting, “a twinkle in his eye,” with local ladies in their Detroit neighborhood. “Bernadette” was the name of his preteen crush and “muse.” “Heat Wave” came from his memory of a sticky Detroit summer. “But it was always about love though — hot, cold or whatever,” he said.

Mr. Dozier liked to watch “The Honeymooners,” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” is ripped right from a catch line of star Jackie Gleason: “How sweet it is.” When H-D-H was crafting the song for Gaye, they deliberately put it in a key slightly higher than Gaye’s comfort zone.

“If it was too easy, he’d get lazy,” Mr. Dozier said.

H-D-H continued to contribute to Motown into the early 1970s, but under the collective pseudonym Edythe Wayne or sometimes Edith Wayne because of legal disputes with Gordy over royalties. For their own labels, the trio’s most successful work was “Why Can’t We Be Lovers” in 1972. Mr. Dozier left the team in 1973 to pursue solo projects. He eventually settled in the Encino section of Los Angeles with his family.

His 1977 album “Peddlin’ Music on the Side” contained “Going Back to My Roots,” which was later rerecorded by the band Odyssey. H-D-H reunited for one last collaboration, writing the score for a 2009 stage production of “The First Wives Club,” a musical adapted from the 1996 movie comedy. The theater reviews were mixed, and the producers swapped the H-D-H score for another.

Mr. Dozier moved to Arizona after the death last year of Barbara Ullman Dozier, his wife of 41 years. Survivors include six children and three grandchildren.

During Gordy’s reign at Motown, the record label was run like an auto plant because that was the only other work environment the boss knew, Mr. Dozier said. The songwriters, session musicians and others had to punch a clock. As part of “quality control” each Friday, H-D-H and other songwriters had to write down their songs from the week, and Gordy and other executives would vote on the ones they liked.

The H-D-H songs were usually the winners, Mr. Dozier said.

“It was a fun time, like kids playing in a playground,” he said this year. “Everything we touched turned to gold.”