The team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland – known collectively as Holland-Dozier-Holland, or HDH for short – wrote and produced some of Motown’s most beloved classics, including hits for the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. The trio left Motown due to disputes over contracts and royalties, forming their own pair of labels, Invictus and Hot Wax, in 1969. (A third, the short-lived Music Merchant, followed in 1972).
The seven-part series The Unhooked Generation: Holland-Dozier-Holland After Motown examines every single released on that trio of labels. 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.
Part 3: Invictus Records, 1972-1973
This third installment of The Unhooked Generation isn’t the last to cover Invictus Records — that will be Part 4 next week — but it is the definite end of an era. The lineup of artists had shrunken to a core group, with no new signings or even singles licensed from elsewhere to inject fresh blood into the label. And with the lone exception of Chairmen of the Board, 1972-73 marks the end of the line for all of these acts at Invictus, from onetime hit makers Freda Payne and the 8th Day; to the Barrino Brothers and the Glass House, who never quite broke through to the success they deserved; to Parliament, whose best years were yet to come. The biggest loss, however, would be the Holland-Dozier-Holland partnership itself, after Lamont Dozier’s departure at the end of 1973 to pursue a solo career.
Much of the collapse of Invictus Records has been blamed on conflicts with its original distributor, Capitol Records. But while HDH may have had trouble meeting Capitol’s quotas for single releases and album sales, the label’s commercial prospects did not improve after it switched distribution to Columbia Records at the start of 1973.
The bigger factor seems to be that the Holland-Dozier-Holland style of catchy, bouncy pop-soul, nearly unbeatable a decade earlier, had simply fallen out of fashion. To bring their sound, many of the singles released during this period find HDH and the label’s artists borrowing from newer strains of soul music, with mixed results.
In fact, the act that broke the furthest from the traditional HDH sound was Holland-Dozier themselves. “Why Can’t We Be Lovers,” “Don’t Leave Me Starving for Your Love” and “Slipping Away” are all heavily indebted to the smooth, dreamy Philly soul sound, with their languid pacing and spun-gold strings. “Why Can’t We Be Lovers” and “Don’t Leave Me Starving for Your Love” also became two of Invictus’ biggest hits of this era, both climbing to the middle of the Hot 100 and the upper reaches of R&B charts. They’re also the two best singles released under the Holland-Dozier name, especially the gorgeous “Don’t Leave Me Starving for Your Love,” which also bears the influence of Al Green in its gently loping rhythm and undercurrent of church organ.
The follow-up to “Slipping Away,” “New Breed Kinda Woman,” returns the duo to more a traditional HDH style, with a stronger pulse and more direct arrangement, though still retaining some sweeter elements in the strings and horns. The duo’s final single, however, the weirdly aggressive “I’m Gonna Hijack Ya, Kidnap Ya, Take What I Want,” fits nowhere in the Holland-Dozier(-Holland) catalogue.
The three singles released by Freda Payne in this time period are even more eclectic. The middle single, “Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right,” is steeped in the same Phillyisms that Holland-Dozier were exploring in their performing career. It’s a bit too formless to rank among her top records, but the smooth, sophisticated production fits the mature persona that HDH had carved out for her.
But what of the baffling choice to release “He’s in My Life” as the single before it, which reuses the backing track of a Glass House B-side from back in 1970, simply substituting Freda’s vocals for her sister Scherrie’s? Sure, the record dates back to a time when HDH were so swamped with great songs even the B-sides were worth hearing, but it seems out of sync with both Payne’s and Invictus’ sound in late 1972. Her last single for the label, “Mother Misery’s Favorite Child,” is her funkiest since “The Unhooked Generation,” albeit much darker and more serious than her debut.
“Mother Misery” and the Barrino Brothers’ “Born on the Wild” both owe a strong debt to Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly soundtrack, with their scratchy guitars, liberal use of wah-wah pedals and socially-conscious portraits of drug dealers and ghetto life. Like Payne’s single, “Born on the Wild” would mark the end of the Brothers’ releases for Invictus. The group’s two previous singles, “Try It You’ll Like It” and “Livin’ High Off the Goodness of Your Love,” are two of the best examples of the trademark HDH sound updated for the new decade. Perhaps the fact that they, like all other Barrino Brothers singles, sadly went nowhere contributed to HDH drawing more blatantly on outside influences.
The Glass House’s “Giving Up the Ring” is another of the classic-current spins on the HDH sound that deserved to become a hit, featuring a terrific Ty Hunter performance, a strong central metaphor, and more hooks than probably any other Invictus single of this era. Its follow-up, “Thanks I Needed That,” continues the Staples Singers gospel-funk feel of “Heaven is Here to Guide Us,” this time with Scherrie Payne on lead. It would be the last release by the Glass House, even managing to scale the R&B charts for the first time since “Look What We’ve Done to Love.”
In between these two singles, Ty Hunter’s version of Eddie Holman’s “Hey There Lonely Girl” was drawn from the Glass House’s debut LP. It was presumably released to meet Capitol’s demands for more singles, and sounds like the bit of album filler it is. After the group’s demise, both of its lead singers would flee to Motown: Hunter to join the Originals (who’d already had hits with “Baby I’m for Real” and “The Bells”), and Scherrie Payne succeeding Jean Terrell as the new lead singer for the Supremes.
The Glass House’s fellow manufactured group, the 8th Day, had but one single left in them, and it didn’t even manage the modest success of “Thanks I Needed That,” much less the million-selling success they’d had with “She’s Not Just Another Woman” just one year earlier. Nevertheless, “I Gotta Get Home (Can’t Let My Baby Get Lonely)” is one of the highlights of this set, built on a laidback galloping rhythm, swooping strings, and funky cowbell. Its storming call-and-response B-side “Good Book” offers a peek into the sort of rock-soul jams that made up much of the band’s album material.
Parliament also exited on a high note on their last Invictus release, “Come In Out of the Rain.” Like “Breakdown,” it features an uncredited Steve Mancha of Hot Wax act 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) on lead vocals, and was co-written by him with Ruth Copeland. The arrangement is straightforward by Parliament standards, but the directness feeds the intensity of its anger at the inhumanity of war. The track bursts out of the gate with a swaggering beat, punctuated by stabs of piano and Mancha’s anguished wails, culminating in an enormous chorus of cathartic power. It would be the last release under the Parliament name for two years, by which point the group would be on a different label and on their way to far greater success than a foundering Invictus would be able to offer.
Chairmen of the Board remained one of Invictus’ backbone acts, but even they hadn’t managed a US pop hit since “Chairman of the Board” in early 1971. “Let Me Down Easy,” with its breezy, Four Tops-lite style and General Johnson’s quavery vocals, seems a blatant attempt to remake their trio of initial hits (“Give Me Just a Little More Time,” “Dangling on a String,” “Everything’s Tuesday”). While “Let Me Down Easy” went nowhere, its follow-up “Finders Keepers (Losers Weepers)” rewarded the Chairmen with one final smash (#59 pop, #7 R&B). The Clavinet-driven soul-funk hybrid is very much in Stevie Wonder’s territory, but the Chairmen make it their own with Danny Woods’ gleeful vocals acrobatics and the infectious interplay between synths and live horns in the arrangement.
Danny Woods also leads the best of the Chairmen’s three solo tracks, the goofy, upbeat ode to cheating, “Everybody’s Tippin’,” though even it is a step down from “Finders Keepers.” Harrison Kennedy contributes a faithful version of The Beatles’ “Come Together” (drawn from the first Chairmen of the Board LP), while General Johnson’s pleasantly sticky “Only Time Will Tell” pulls so much from the Al Green songbook, vocal phrasing and all, that it’s a wonder Green didn’t sue for royalties.
Unlike earlier days of Invictus, where a treasure trove of material could be found on both sides of their 45s, B-sides from this era are typically instrumental versions of the A-sides, recycled flips from other singles, or so-so fillers. The ever-reliable Chairmen of the Board are the exception, contributing the gospelish “Everybody’s Got a Song to Sing” (flipside of “Working on a Building of Love,” itself a onetime B-side) and “I Can’t Find Myself,” built around a country-funk guitar riff, which manages to best “Let Me Down Easy” on the flip. The shortage of interesting B-sides, however, speaks to the overall decline in the label’s fortunes. But Invictus still had one last act left, one far removed from its former self but with its own share of interesting material — as we’ll explore next week in The Unhooked Generation, Part 4: Invictus Records, 1973-1977.