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Eddie And Brian Holland Interview

Love's Travel Stop

Union City, Oklahoma

November 7, 2022

Thanks to Anna for making me aware of this interview that appeared in the WSJ.

The fact that these men turned out so well even though their father left when they were small got me thinking. What if we built on the success of Big Brothers/Big Sisters and for every child from an urban one parent family we assigned a mentor. A one or two year mandatory social outreach for every 20 something. The mentors would have to be vetted of course. We are not going to solve the issue of why fathers leave their family. But we can give each child a role model.

Courtney has done this with a young woman, Raven, in Charlottesville. The relationship is so strong and close that Raven came to Courtney and Julie's wedding.

We are not going to save every kid from slipping away, but we can do better than we are doing.

To the interview:

Brothers Eddie Holland and Brian Holland are songwriters who, with Lamont Dozier, helped create the Motown sound. Eddie, 83, and Brian, 81, are co-authors of “Come and Get These Memories” (Omnibus), a memoir. Their Four Tops musical, “I’ll Be There,” with 10 newly composed songs, will premiere in the spring. They spoke with Marc Myers.

Eddie Holland: I was kidnapped when I was six months old. My mother had put my stroller in front of our house unattended for a few minutes so I could get some sun. When she checked on me and discovered I was gone, she started screaming.   Mom later told me she thought I was lost forever. And that nightmare would have come true if it wasn’t for a man sitting on a stoop across the street. He pointed to where the woman who took me lived.My mother went storming over and got me back. Going forward, she was extra protective of me and my younger brother, Brian, which made us both more sensitive.At the time, we were living in a house my mother, Evelyn, shared with her mother, Ola, in Detroit. My mother worked on a Ford assembly line. She and my father had separated. The first thing I can remember, at age 3, is waiting at home for my father to pick me up, but he never showed. I wouldn’t leave that window. Tears rolled down my face and my feelings shut down.  Brian and I shared a bed with my Uncle James. Brian slept in the middle. Our younger sister Carole slept in our mother’s bed.Women played a big role in my childhood. I don’t know how I would have developed the way I did if it wasn’t for our mother and grandmother. Ola was the matriarch. She took us to church many times a week and kept us in line.

Brian Holland: I was so close to Ola that I called her Mama. At church, I was captivated by the lady playing piano. I wondered how she knew when to play the black or white keys. After everybody left, I’d go to the piano and pick out notes. 

Eddie: We moved out with my mother for a short time. Then Brian and I returned to live with my grandmother and Uncle James so we could attend a better school. Eventually, my mother joined us and we lived upstairs.Growing up, I was very quiet and observant. I didn’t have many friends. While my mother worked, Ola kept me from hanging out. She believed nothing good came from that. When my mother was home, she loved to sing. She was a star soloist in church and was on the radio. I beamed listening to her. In high school, my music teacher told me I had a great voice, that I had a natural tone quality, like my mother. Brian had a different gift. He had my grandfather’s ear. Brian could hear a song just once and play it back immediately on the piano.

Brian: I never had any musical training other than what I figured out myself. I learned how to play a song by ear. It was a creative evolution.

Eddie: In school, Brian joined the choir. He could hear notes and complex chords. I didn’t have that ability. I joined a vocal harmony group. Uncle James also was a huge influence. He had records by every artist imaginable.

Brian: Uncle James allowed us to play his 78s, warning us not to break them, but sometimes we did. They were fragile. Those pop singers told stories that made me feel happy and awakened my imagination. Eddie: I related to the music’s emotional quality. I’d go into our tile bathroom to sing with the big echo. When my uncle heard me, he said I sounded just like the records. 

After I graduated from high school at 17, I wanted to be an accountant. I wasn’t good at math, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I had watched people returning home from factory work tired and worn out.When I read in the paper that Jackie Wilson made $250,000 a year, music became my focus. But becoming a singer was accidental. I accompanied a friend, Teddy, to an audition at a management agency. They thought I was there to audition, too, so they had me sing. Teddy didn’t get the gig, but I did. 

The manager, Mr. Jones, gave me a contract on the spot for my mother to sign. On the bus home, Teddy didn’t say much. He was so disappointed. I felt bad.

Brian: I fully expected to work for Ford. My mother told me the factory was hiring. So I got up, dressed and went. But when I got there, they had just closed the gate. They had all the workers they needed. 

Eddie: At some point, Mr. Jones had me go see Berry Gordy to ask him to write a song for me. This was before Berry founded Motown. He was known as a manager-songwriter then.When Berry heard me sing, he realized I sounded like Jackie Wilson. He said he only wrote songs for singers he managed, so he got me out of my contract with Mr. Jones. Berry took me to New York where I recorded for Mercury. Then he had me tour. I didn’t like being on stage. I was shy. But I wanted to make money. Surprisingly, when I received my royalty statements, I owed thousands of dollars. My touring expenses came out of my pay.

Brian: Eddie introduced me to Berry and told him I loved to fool around with songs. Berry had me write with Janie Bradford, his collaborator. Berry liked what he heard.

Eddie: I noticed Brian would have a smile on his face when his royalty statements arrived. As a songwriter, he didn’t have expenses to deduct from his pay. In 1961, a couple of years after Berry started Motown, Brian co-wrote the music for the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” Motown’s first No. 1 hit.I knew I wanted to write lyrics, but I didn’t know how. I took two years off to figure it out by studying hits. Then Brian brought one of my songs to Berry and he liked it. I went to Motown’s studios and listened to Brian and Lamont write melodies. I convinced them that the three of us could become a songwriting team. Our first big hit was “Heat Wave” for Martha and the Vandellas. It went to No. 4 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1963. Our first No. 1 hit was “Where Did Our Love Go” for the Supremes the following year. Nine more of our songs went to No. 1 for them.

Brian: Today, my wife, Cassandra, and I live in a condo near the Santa Monica Mountains. I also just bought a house in a gated community outside of Dallas, Texas, where my wife’s family lives.

Eddie: I live in a condo near Brian. Our mom was proud of both of us. One day in 1964, I was with her in my car in Detroit when “Where Did Our Love Go” came on the radio. She said, “Edward, I really, really like that song. Who’s singing?” I told her it was Diana Ross, but I never said Brian and I had written the song. That would have been boasting. The fact that she was glowing about the song was enough for me.

Eddie’s Words

First records? Songs by Enrico Caruso and then Mario Lanza. I learned later that Jackie Wilson also studied operatic singers.

Division of labor? Typically, Lamont Dozier came up with the melody idea, Brian took over and developed it and then I wrote the lyrics.

Mom’s reward? When I started making real money as a songwriter in 1963, I had my mother quit her job and paid her more than what she was making at Ford. Home? I also bought her a house in Detroit and got her a car and driver. Brian was generous as well.

Brian’s Music

Favorite music? Pop songs. I love the melodies and stories.Favorite singers? Dinah Washington, Doris Day and Karen Carpenter.

Best advice? Focus on the opening bars. That’s where you grab the listener.

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