Spoofs & Satire

Soulmakers: The Story of Holland / Dozier / Amin

Through all the highs, lows, and violent overthrows, Motown was always about the music. Excerpts from a forthcoming book on the label’s heady days, when a certain Ugandan was tearing through the ranks.

In an alleged conversation from April, Lamont had expressed interest in working on the Mel-O-Dy label well after its switch to country music. He felt confident enough to put together a few arrangements and show them to rockabilly star Dorsey Burnette, who seemed impressed. Berry Gordy worried that his dream team would be too busy with the money-bleeding label to keep Motown rolling out the soul hits that had become its bread and butter.

Brian was ambivalent, but Idi was ecstatic about the idea. Brian had introduced Idi to country music in 1961, and after reportedly dropping to his knees, Idi had claimed that this music could “cure the blind.” When he heard about Mel-O-Dy, Idi had a private chat with Gordy, who relented. Now Lamont suddenly balked. He worried that Idi had revived his dreams of performing his own songs and would use Mel-O-Dy to do it.

These songs had been penned during Milton Obote’s corrupt regime at Stax, Idi having smuggled them out before the purge. The Koboko folk tunes were harmless, if repetitive, but Lamont felt the extended bagpipe solos and chants about the nature of power were draggy. Jackie Wilson was asked to sing a 12-minute ballad about Idi’s days in the infantry; the master copy has never been recovered.

Once again using his formidable charisma, Idi organized an all-night writing session for the label. It was held in his new Tudor-style house in Oakland County, the acquisition of which had happened almost overnight. (Marvin Gaye claimed there were framed pictures of the previous owners still on the walls.) The Ivory Session, so named for the ivory horns of liquor Idi served, resulted in country tunes meant for Burnette and the Hillsiders—”My Heart Never Said Goodbye,” “Ulalebe Breakdown,” and “The Bloated Dead.” As Lamont had predicted, Idi scooped up the music and booked his own time in Studio A.

At a recording session in late October, Funk Brother Wendell Garside referred to the singles as vanity projects. Naturally, the hurtful words got back to the easily perturbed Amin. Garside promptly vanished from the Detroit scene; the Funk Brothers claimed he “went to California” and would say no more on the matter, except to sing Idi’s praises. So high was Idi’s stock among the musicians that they would let him take their places behind the instruments whenever he walked in the studio.

Before the dissolution of Peachy, Alto, and Ride Records, Gordy brushed aside details, telling his staff, “Idi’s gonna handle all that.” However, Idi was stingy with production credit. He would always cite Brian and Lamont as co-writers, because, as he put it, “We are one mind. We are joined. We are each other’s father.” But Idi claimed he had done all the engineering, recording, and tech work. “Where are these engineers? Where are these men? Show them to me and I will honor them.” No one ever stepped forward to take that honor. Idi claimed he had “digested” the skills of certain producers. Gordy simply enjoyed giving out fewer paychecks.

Musicologists have long speculated over the sudden demise of Motown’s subsidiary labels. Before the dissolution of Peachy, Alto, and Ride Records, Gordy brushed aside details, telling his staff, “Idi’s gonna handle all that.” Brian and Lamont understood that Idi had been given his new job to distract him from performing. Still, not one artist from the Motown, Gordy, or Tamla labels jumped ship during this period.

Brian felt that their lyrics were suffering. Idi’s business sense was winning praise, but the singles lined up for 1965 had become more and more erratic. They had gotten lucky when Norman Whitfield edited “Sunshine Mary (You Are a Beast of the Field)” down to radio length, and Lamont had shoehorned “Colonial Yoke” into the bluesy minor hit “Ain’t Got No Queen.” But the annotations for a magical choir bridge or a guitar solo steeped in the divine were abstract at best.

“Tracks of My Blood” was the first Miracles-intended song to actually be taken away from Holland/Dozier/Amin and given to Smokey Robinson to rewrite. Lamont was livid. Idi felt put-out by Brian’s suggestion that they bring in his brother Eddie to “sweeten” some lyrics. Idi confronted his partners and reminded them whose idea “Baby Love” had been. Brian and Lamont could not deny Idi’s past wizardry with a girl-group hook. But did he still have the magic?

Gordy, for his part, would not hear of dismissing Idi. President Mobutu of Parlophone Records was rattling his sabers in London, claiming the Beatles were only the first soldiers sent to overthrow the American musical monopoly. Gordy argued that he needed someone who could play politics.

Their songwriting partnership strained, ill omens threatened the golden boys of Motown. But an unforeseen change was coming. Idi was about to make his most outrageous move yet, and he would choose New Year’s Eve to announce it:

Idi had married the Supremes.


* * *

When Diana Ross, Mary Wells, and Florence Ballard trounced the Marvelettes in the machete fight of ‘63, they had won more than just the right to perform the best songs by H/D/A. They had won the love of the big man with the infectious laugh. They just didn’t know it yet.

Idi couldn’t decide what he admired more: Diana’s bloodlust, Mary’s consummate battle skills, or Florence’s tight dance moves. Lamont and Brian assumed Idi would simply ask out the woman he finally chose. In early December, they found Idi at home attaching sapphires to his old boxing robe and asking if his partners had any spares; he was also reading a book about brainwashing, which he laughed off as a passing fancy.


TMN Contributing Writer Michael Rottman lives like a lord in Toronto. His miscellany has appeared in print in The Fiddlehead, Grain, and Opium, and online at Yankee Pot Roast, Cracked, News Groper, and McSweeney’s. More by Michael Rottman