Feel It Still
Holland/Dozier/Holland and a debt to Robert Bateman
This week in September 1963, Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” was burning up the Billboard Hot 100 and earning their first Top 10 triumph for its creators: Holland/Dozier/Holland.
Today, the place of H/D/H in music history is a given. (Hey, they even have their names cemented into the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) Soon, the trio will be seen and heard once more in a new film documentary, The Story Of Motown, while their songs continue to please the many thousands drawn to Motown The Musical in its American roadshow and its London theatrical run.
H/D/H also figure in an impressive new book, I Hear A Symphony by Andrew Flory, about Motown’s cultural crossover, while their underrated post-Motown work will gain attention in a forthcoming title by Christian Matijas-Mecca. Both authors are academics at American universities, which is yet another sign of how far and high the music of Hitsville has travelled since “Heat Wave.”
All of which encouraged me to revisit interviews conducted in 2004 for the Motown/Hip-O retrospective package, Heaven Must Have Sent You: The Holland/Dozier/Holland Story – and in particular, the recollections of Brian, Eddie and Lamont about a catalyst in that story, singer/songwriter Robert Bateman. His death last year robbed us of one of the so-called “first five” who made music with and for Berry Gordy ahead of the formal creation of Tamla/Motown. (The other four: Brian Holland, Smokey Robinson, Janie Bradford and the future Mrs. Gordy, Raynoma Liles.)
“He was a neighbour of mine,” Lamont told me, “and Robert was really the one that got started the Holland/Dozier/Holland team.” For Brian Holland, it was Bateman who explained how to shape the sound of a record. “I learned how to mix basically from Robert,” he said. “I had watched Berry do several mixes, but Robert Bateman was the real reason why I started mixing that stuff. He taught me how to engineer.”
In the beginning, Bateman was the bass foundation of the Rayber Voices, whose harmonies gave depth and colour to Gordy’s earliest productions. Then he was a member of the Satintones, Motown’s first all-male vocal group, whose “Going To The Hop” was only the seventh single release on the Tamla label. In the studio, Bateman engineered some of the company’s building blocks, including Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” And somewhere in the middle of all that, he acted as Berry and Raynoma’s chauffeur, driving the pair from Detroit to Toledo to get married.
Recognising talent was another Bateman asset. After listening to Mary Wells sing, for example, he steered the youngster into Gordy’s hearing range. Robert also auditioned the Supremes, as he cheerfully reminded the audience when Mary Wilson inducted him into the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame last year. But songwriting and producing were Bateman’s most valuable skills, and especially his contribution to “Please Mr. Postman,” the first Motown record to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
This song has since become one of the most profitable titles in the Jobete Music catalogue. After the Marvelettes, it was delivered around the world in the ’60s by the Beatles, refreshed in the ’70s by the Carpenters, and sustained in 2017 – yes, 2017 – by “Feel It Still,” a multi-format American hit for Portugal. The Man. “I used the melody for ‘Mr. Postman’ as a placeholder,” said the alt-rock band’s singer/songwriter John Gourley, “and it just stuck.”
The label copy of the original “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961 listed the writers as Bateman, Brian Holland, the Marvelettes’ Georgia Dobbins and non-Motown musician William Garrett. Variations on those credits have subsequently appeared, most notably the addition of Freddie Gorman's name. The producers of the record, Holland and Bateman, were identified as "Brianbert." The pair also created other material in 1961-62, including “Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam)” for the Valadiers and “Playboy,” a second smash for the Marvelettes.
And if you toiled together at Hitsville, you also played together. “We used to have a summer party, a picnic, and it was always at Belle Isle on the Detroit River,” recalled Barney Ales, Motown’s head of sales at the time. “We had a canoe race. There was Berry and Robert Gordy in one boat, and Bateman and me in the other – but he couldn’t paddle the darn thing.” Indeed, Bateman was born with one arm shorter than the other. “I thought I was doing all the work,” said Ales. What made it worse was that at the finish line, the boat overturned. “I fell out of the thing, and they had to take me to hospital and get stitches. There was some broken bottle down in the water. I’ve still got the scar.”
Short armed or not, Bateman was blessed with an independent spirit, and a bust-up with the boss proved inevitable. “The story was that Berry fired both of us, that’s what happened,” said Brian Holland. “He told us to report at a certain time at work that morning, and we didn’t do it, and we were very late – and he got pissed off, and he fired both of us.” Gordy subsequently recanted, but Bateman may have already been considering an exit.
“The real thing with Robert,” explained Eddie Holland, “is that he got into a conflict with one of the engineers…and Berry took the [side] of the head engineer. Robert was offended: ‘It’s either going to be him or me – which one are you going to believe?’ Berry said, ‘He’s the head engineer.’ Robert said, ‘Well then, I quit.’ He left for good.”
According to Lamont, Bateman’s goodbye gift was the suggestion of a Holland/Dozier collaboration. “[Robert] came over and said to me, ‘Lamont, you know you signed up with Motown, you should hook up with Brian Holland, because you guys got a chemistry. I know the both of you, and you guys would fit like a glove together.”
Brian’s recollection is similar. This was 1962, and Dozier was new at the company. “He was with Anna Records at first, and Berry bought them out. I was already at Motown…and Lamont’s wife was there [as a secretary]. She came to me and said, ‘Brian, my husband Lamont, he’s coming over, See if you all can get together and write some songs.’ Lamont and I clicked immediately, immediately. It was the synchronicity between the two of us, it was just there. We clicked as human beings and from a creative thing, too. We were just happy guys who liked to write songs.”
At first, the happy pair crafted tunes for the Marvelettes, the Supremes and Little Stevie Wonder, with Janie Bradford and Mickey Stevenson among their collaborators. The final synchronicity occurred when Eddie Holland suggested that Lamont and Brian would benefit if he were to join them permanently as a lyricist. “Their production and writing [of melodies] was very prolific,” said Eddie. “I stressed to them that writing the lyrics was what slowed them down. And if I were to write the lyrics, their production output would be extremely high.”
Thus, one of the most accomplished, respected songwriting teams of 20th century popular music came into being.
Robert Bateman’s achievements after Motown were far more modest, but not negligible. His co-authorship of Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me” forever binds his name to two of the most soulful performances of the era: the original version, which was Pickett’s first solo hit, and an even stronger-selling, contemporaneous cover by Solomon Burke. (“That was my ticket out of Detroit and into New York,” Bateman told Keith Hughes for the liner notes of The Satintones Sing!, an essential compilation in 2010 of the group’s Motown material.)
There was further reward in 1963 when Bateman shaped “Misty” into a pop-chart success for Lloyd Price, and made R&B hits for Lou Courtney several years later. He was also recruited to produce records for Mary Wells soon after she quit Motown, and for Florence Ballard after she was terminated from the Supremes. Even more intriguing was Bateman’s creative flirtation with the Shangri-Las, for whom he co-wrote and co-produced “Right Now And Not Later” at Red Bird Records. (The respective merits of the Shangri-Las and the Supremes were recently under animated discussion on the Motown Forum.)
Bateman must also have been gratified when his nephew, Greg Perry, became a key player for H/D/H at their Invictus/Hot Wax stable, and when Perry recruited him to help produce Mary Wells’ 1981 album, In And Out Of Love.
It was last October when Robert Bateman died, at age 80, in California. He still lived in Detroit, but had come to Los Angeles to attend the annual Heroes And Legends awards ceremony arranged by his erstwhile collaborator, Janie Bradford. There, he was among old friends and former colleagues, and would likely have felt their love. With luck, somewhere, he will Feel It Still.