The Unhooked Generation: Holland-Dozier-Holland After Motown – Part 1

Introduction

The songwriters/producers/singers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland only actively collaborated at Motown from 1962 to 1967. Yet, in those five years or so, the team known as Holland-Dozier-Holland (or HDH for short) helped create the “Sound of Young America” with a mind-boggling number of classic singles: “Heat Wave” and “Nowhere to Run” for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas; “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” for Marvin Gaye; “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” for the Four Tops; and 10 #1 pop hits for the Supremes, including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — among dozens of others.

Despite the fact that the Holland-Dozier-Holland name had become nearly synonymous with that of Motown, the trio sued label founder Berry Gordy in 1967 for withholding royalties and profits. HDH left the Motown stable shortly afterward, but it wouldn’t be until 1969 that their own labels would be up and running: Invictus (distributed by major label Capitol Records) and Hot Wax (distributed by prominent indie Buddah Records). A third, the short-lived, independently-distributed Music Merchant, would be created in 1972.

The Unhooked Generation: Holland-Dozier-Holland After Motown is a seven-part series examining every single released on that trio of labels before they folded in 1977. The series follows the format of the 14-disc box set Holland-Dozier-Holland: The Complete 45s Collection, released this year by Harmless Records to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the formation of Invictus and Hot Wax.

The first four parts of this series will cover Invictus Records in chronological order; Parts five and six will examine Hot Wax Records; and the final installment will survey the 16 singles put out by Music Merchant, along with the handful of previously unreleased recordings collected on the Harmless box set.

Note on credits: due to the ongoing litigation between HDH and Motown, the trio was contractually forbidden to use their own names on their early releases. Production was often credited to “Stagecoach Productions” or “Staff,” while “Edythe Wayne” was HDH’s collective songwriting pseudonym (usually credited alongside Ronald Dunbar, a fellow writer/producer).

Beyond that, however, credits are often murky, with rumors that HDH used the names of other Invictus/Hot Wax staffers as fronts for their own contributions, or that certain producers/songwriters signed to Motown appeared on HDH releases anonymously. Even decades on, it can be difficult to ascertain the extent that HDH contributed to their only labels’ releases. The series assumes the trio took an active role in most of what Invictus/Hot Wax put out; however, it will also take most writing credits at face value (or, as much as possible, avoid the topic altogether).

Part 1: Invictus Records, 1969-1971

Many of the earliest Invictus releases sound like leftovers from HDH’s Motown era, though whether this is actually the case, or if the trio was just writing and producing new material in its trademark style, is a mystery. At the same time, several of these early singles are markedly funkier and tackle more risque subject matter than their Motown hits, indicating that perhaps HDH were enjoying their newfound freedom to write and produce outside the tightly-controlled Hitsville USA system.

The Glass House’s “Crumbs Off the Table,” the very first single released by Invictus, falls into the latter category. Its tale of a lover frustrated by her partner’s negligence seems suspiciously like a jab at the lack of support from HDH’s former employers, while the harmonica- and horn-driven groove pointedly contrasts with the trio’s tauter, more compressed productions for Motown. Likewise, lead singer Scherrie Payne’s full-throated voice and commanding attitude couldn’t be further from Diana Ross’s little-girl tones. The more plaintive but equally-good B-side “Bad Bill of Goods” reinforces its flipside’s allusions, with a metaphorical contract between lovers hinting at actual legal disputes between HDH and Motown.

“Crumbs Off the Table” was only a minor pop hit, but did manage to rank in the Top 10 of the R&B charts. Unfortunately, none of the Glass House’s other singles replicated this modest success, at least partially because Invictus oddly sabotaged their momentum. Seven months elapsed before the label released the group’s second single, “I Can’t Be You (You Can’t Be Me),” a driving self-empowerment anthem that’s one of the standouts on the disc, even if it barely scraped onto the charts. Its follow-up, the midtempo groover “If It Ain’t Love (It Don’t Matter),” failed to make the Hot 100; the next, “Touch Me Jesus,” didn’t even feature the group at all. The joyous gospel workout was actually recorded by Darlene Love’s group The Blossoms, but released
under the Glass House name after contract negotiations with the former act fell through.

Invictus had considerably more success with another group assembled by HDH, Chairmen of the Board. The act was originally intended to comprise four co-frontmen. Once the General Johnson-led “Give Me Just a Little More Time” became the label’s first Top 10 pop single, however, he quickly emerged as the voice of the group. “Give Me Just a Little More Time” is so in keeping with the classic HDH sound that, while listening to it, you can almost hear the Four Tops hit it should have been.

The Chairmen likewise ably carry follow-ups“You’ve Got Me Dangling on a String” and “Everything’s Tuesday,” even if they do suffer from a slight secondhandedness. The saving grace of these records (other than the bulletproof songwriting) is that Johnson’s melodic, precise tenor couldn’t be further from Levi Stubbs’s heartwrenching bellows – thus avoiding an apples-to-apples comparison that would surely find Stubbs on top.

The Chairman really came into their own with the following single, “Pay to the Piper” – their first not to feature the tell-tale “Edythe Wayne” credit. Instead, General Johnson is listed as a co-writer, but it’s his bandmate Danny Woods who commands the lead vocal. The lyrics are a bit creepy – “I bought you dinner, now you owe me something in return” – but musically, it’s a barnstormer, chock-full of horns and hooks, capped by Woods’ deliciously frustrated performance. It deservedly became the band’s biggest hit since “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” and even bested their debut on the R&B chart.

Near-eponymous follow-up “Chairman of the Board” is a great bluesy shuffle enlivened by flourishes of acid guitar, (fake?) crowd noise and Harrison Kennedy’s gritty delivery. The psych-rock influences were dialed up even further for “Hanging on a Memory,” which is reminiscent of the paranoid singles like “Bernadette” and “7-Rooms of Gloom” that HDH crafted for the Four Tops late in their tenure at Motown – even if none of those singles were quite as trippy (or funky) as this one.

Unfortunately, it missed the Hot 100 entirely, and earned the Chairmen their lowest ranking on the R&B chart yet. Meanwhile, General Johnson delivered a solo single, the HDH-do-Smokey-ish “I’m in Love Darling,” that plays into his perpetually anguished sob of a voice. Likewise, it went nowhere.

While Chairmen of the Board may have suffered some chart slippage, their early hits were enough to make them one of Invictus’s star acts. The other was Freda Payne, sister of The Glass House’s Scherrie and childhood friend of HDH. Her first single for the label, “The Unhooked Generation,” follows on the theme of “Crumbs Off the Table” – only even brassier, as the narrator has finally discovered how wonderful freedom feels.

While “The Unhooked Generation” was only a minor R&B hit, its follow-up “Band of Gold” tied “Give Me Just a Little More Time” for pop chart placement (#3) and, appropriately enough, earned Invictus its second gold record. The beat anchoring “Band of Gold” is the same one beneath most of HDH’s hits for The Supremes, yet the subject matter (an unconsummated marriage) and non-gimmicky use of sitar (an aural representation of the narrator’s alienation) place it in a decidedly more adult sphere than that of the Motown girl group.

Payne held on to some of the success of “Band of Gold” with the middling (by HDH standards, anyway) ballad “Deeper and Deeper,” followed by the better (but lower charting), sweetly upbeat “Cherish What is Dear to You.” Invictus was now clearly aiming at a more mainstream sound with Payne, yet it was her somewhat controversial anti-war single “Bring the Boys Home” that became her second-biggest hit (#12 pop, #3 R&B) and the label’s third gold record.

The fourth and final gold platter for Invictus came courtesy of a group that didn’t even exist when the song was produced. Like they had with The Glass House and Chairmen of the Board previously, Holland-Dozier-Holland came up with the group’s name long before recruiting musicians to fill its ranks. But “She’s Not Just Another Woman” wasn’t even recorded by the band that would become 8th Day – instead, it was cut by the group 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) on sister label Hot Wax.

At the time, 100 Proof was riding the success of the Top 10 hit “Somebody’s Been Sleeping” (to be covered in Part Five of this series), and HDH feared that a follow-up released too soon would cannibalize its sales. Why Hot Wax didn’t just delay “She’s Not Just Another Woman” until the previous single had run its course is a mystery, but the trio was right to recognize the bluesy R&B track had major hit potential.

The Barrino Brothers, unlike the other Invictus groups covered so far in this installment, were together long before they signed to the label (as the name indicates). The group’s first pair of singles are, along with Chairmen of the Board’s early work, the closest HDH come to rehashing their Motown days. “Trapped in a Love” is essentially the trio pastiching themselves, with its “got nowhere to run, got nowhere to hide” harmony lyrics and very Four Tops-like vocal arrangement. 

“I Shall Not Be Moved” continues HDH’s tradition of smuggling references to specific gospel songs into their secular recordings, as they had before with “Come See About Me” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Unfortunately, the too-familiar sound of the material leaves little room for The Barrino Brothers to develop a compelling group persona, while Freda Payne’s take on “I Shall Not Be Moved” (cut as the B-side for “Bring the Boys Home”) renders the Brothers’ version redundant.

While much of Invictus’s early lineup was built on commercial soul acts, the label allotted itself room for detours down stranger roads. Invictus released the very first LP by ParliamentOsmium, in July 1970, the same month the very same musicians released Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow for Westbound Records under the name Funkadelic. The semi-differentiation in style between Parliament and Funkadelic hadn’t yet occurred; at this point, the two groups are playing essentially the same type of music with two different label contracts.

Incidentally, both singles pulled from Osmium would go on to be re-recorded by Funkadelic later in the decade. The first, “I Call My Baby Pussycat” (credited to “A Parliament Thang”), seems an astonishing choice for a label as mainstream as Invictus – not just for the “P-U-S-S-Y” refrain, but also for its jam-packed production style and harder funk/psych-rock sound. “Red Hot Mama” is a relatively safer choice, but nor is it remotely a contender for pop chart success. (Note: for some reason, the box set compiles “I Call My Baby Pussycat” on Disc 2 with the B-sides, while “Little Ole Country Boy” – the flipside of every 45 that Parliament would release on Invictus – turns up among the A-sides on Disc 1.)

The production credit for Osmium is split between P-Funk ringleader George Clinton and – rather surprisingly – a young white Englishwoman named Ruth Copeland. As part of the short-lived, HDH-assembled group New Play, Copeland had sung lead on “The Music Box,” the second single ever released on the Invictus label. “The Music Box” isn’t for everyone – it features maudlin lyrics, a children’s choir, and Copeland wordlessly sobbing over the coda for roughly 45 seconds – but it’s fascinating for how it takes the bones of a fairly standard soul ballad and assembles them into an exquisite corpse.

“The Music Box” also makes best use of Copeland’s fragile (read: pitchy) vocals by tying them to a narrative where she’s struggling to fight back tears. Later tracks, including debut solo single “Hare Krishna,” often cast her more in the mold of a Janis-like belter, with often cringe-inducing results. Copeland’s solo work finds her backed by members of Parliament, but even a George Clinton co-write can’t save “Hare Krishna” from its trite lyrics and shallow social commentary (“what I’m trying to say is that we’re all the same”).

Yet for all their quirks, Parliament and Ruth Copeland are at least working within a recognizable soul framework. Not so for Canadian rock band Lucifer, almost certainly the strangest act attached to the Invictus label. The group was founded by Eugene Smith, who, like the members of classic-rock staple The Band, once backed Ronnie Hawkins. But while Lucifer’s musical style is fairly conventional country-tinged rock – an odd choice for a mainstream soul label, but perhaps they were looking to diversify their portfolio – Smith’s grating, nasal, warbly voice, replete with a hillbilly accent so over-the-top that it makes “Cotton Eye Joe” sound like a field recording of Southern farmers, scuppers any hope of a breakout a la “The Weight.” Still, you could almost hear “Old Mother Nature” working… except that the chorus is “I’m getting it on with Old Mother Nature.”

Despite the presence of a dud track or two, though, what’s remarkable about the first two dozen Invictus singles is how truly great most of them are – even the ones glossed over in this installment are catchy and well-constructed. The level of quality extends to the B-sides of this era, most of which equal or even outdo their A-sides. “Patches,” the B-side to Chairmen of the Board’s “You’ve Got Me Dangling on a String,” would be covered soon after by Clarence Carter, whose version would earn him a Top 5 pop hit and a Grammy award.

HDH would recycle a Glass House flip, the great “He’s in My Life,” as an A-side for Freda Payne a couple of years later, albeit with much less success (see Part 3 of this series). Other standouts include Payne’s “The Easiest Way to Fall,” which features a more memorable chorus than half the A-sides in this installment; Chairmen of the Board’s “Since the Days of Pigtails (And Fairy Tales),” a pulsing floor-filler that outdoes even “Pay to the Piper”; and 8th Day’s soul weeper “I Can’t Fool Myself, the first appearance of Melvin Davis on lead.

Really, though, every B-side here (with the exception of The Barrino Brothers’ forgettable doo-wop exercise “When Love Was a Child”and Ruth Copeland’s mawkish “A Gift of Me” and “No Commitment”) is an essential part of the HDH story. (Even Lucifer’s “What I Am” improves on its A-side, though not quite enough to earn a recommendation.) Would HDH be able to maintain this degree of quality as time progressed? To find out, check back next week for The Unhooked Generation, Part 2: Invictus Records, 1971-1972.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.
  • Gretchen Unico

    So much great information here! I knew Holland-Dozier-Holland were amazing songwriters for Motown, but this is a side of their careers I’ve never heard much about before. I love learning about the history of Motown and the people who worked there, so I’m very excited for the future installments of the series. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together!