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GOING BACK TO MY ROOTS
I was born in Detroit, but my family roots are in the South. Both my mother's people and my father's people were part of the first Great Migration of more than a million and a half African Americans who left the South between 1916 and 1940 in search of better jobs, better opportunities, and fewer racial prejudices in places like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Detroit, in particular, experienced a significant influx of Southern migrants — both white and black — who flocked to the auto industry factories to work for Ford, General Motors, Dodge, Packard, and Chrysler.
My first family members to settle in Detroit were my mother's parents, Rossie and Melvalean Waters. They were from Alabama, but were already living in Detroit when my mom, Ethel Jeannette Waters, was born in 1926. My grandfather used to brag that the singer and actress Ethel Waters was his third cousin. That was his pride and joy to know that he was part of a star's bloodline, so that's why he gave my mother the same name. I don't know exactly what brought my mom's folks to Michigan, but I know my grandfather only completed the second grade. There really weren't a lot of opportunities for a black man in Alabama at that time, so I suspect it was the common hope for a better life and better job prospects that drew them north. My grandmother was about sixteen when my mom was born. It would be more than three years before she and Rossie actually married, in 1929. After that, they had three more daughters, my aunts Angela, Jennie, and Eula.
Next came my dad's people, Georgia natives Charlie and Zelma Dozier. Zelma was of mixed race, born in 1903 to a black father and a white mother. Can you imagine a white woman marrying a black man in the South at the turn of the twentieth century? It was unheard of! My great-grandmother's family completely disowned her, but she and her husband remained in Georgia anyway. Some of the stories I used to hear about how they were treated were heartbreaking, but they stayed together and stayed in Atlanta. That was their home, and they weren't going to be intimidated into leaving.
I guess it would have been pretty hard to shock anyone in a racially mixed family in that era, so I suspect nobody batted an eye when Zelma and Charlie got together at a pretty young age. People got married much younger back then anyway. My father's brother, Charles, was two years older than him, but my grandparents were still just teenagers when my dad, Willie Lee Dozier, came along in 1919. My Aunt Carrie arrived a few short years later. During the 1930s, with the Depression making everyone's life more difficult, Charlie, Zelma, and their three children left Georgia and headed for Michigan.
Before Detroit earned a reputation as the Motor City, it was the Stove Capital of the World. Thanks to Michigan's iron ore resources, stove production was a big business going all the way back to the 1870s. It was actually the stoves, and not the cars, that brought my dad's family to Detroit from Atlanta. My grandfather went to work in the Detroit-Michigan Stove Company factory, which built Garland Stoves. For years there was a monstrous fifteen ton, twenty-five foot high wooden replica of a Garland Stove that sat outside the company's headquarters on Jefferson Boulevard. I later found out the thing had been built for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, then brought back to Detroit and put on display. I remember driving by that huge stove as a kid and just being mesmerized by it. I was the kind of child who loved to imagine the details of historical events. I was fascinated by human potential and what motivated people to strive for greatness. I was a daydreamer who thought about how I might be able to do something great myself one day. There was just something in me, a natural curiosity about the world, that I guess was pretty unique for someone that age.
I was never told how my parents, Willie and Ethel, met and fell in love. I don't even know if they actually fell in love or not. What I do know is they slipped across the state line and got married in Toledo, Ohio, on November 15, 1940. My father and mother listed their ages on the marriage license application as twenty-two and twenty-one, respectively. In reality, he was twenty-one, and she was just fourteen. Why would an out-of-work laborer and a teenage girl sneak into a neighboring state to get married on a chilly November day? I was born exactly seven months later on June 16, 1941, so I'll let you do the math!
Before I was born, my father would build little knick-knack shelves to display collectibles and that sort of thing. He'd sell them to help bring in a little extra money, and he always had a project table in the corner where he would work on his shelves and jot down little notes and ideas that would come to him. He was sitting there one Sunday night in 1941, working on a new shelf, while my mother, eight months pregnant, was in the kitchen cleaning up the dinner dishes. They had the radio on when the announcer said, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" It was the opening of my dad's favorite radio program, The Shadow. He listened every week to escape into the adventures of the main character, whose name was Lamont Cranston.
Something about that name caught his ear that evening. "Lamont," he muttered aloud. "Hmm, Lamont Lamont." He reached for his notepad that already had a list of a dozen names that had each been crossed out. He wrote "Lamont" and looked at it for a moment. Then he wrote "Dozier" next to it. "That's it," he shouted. "I've got it, Ethel!" My mother turned off the sink and came into the room, brushing her hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist. "What have you got, Willie?" He stood up and put his hands on her bulging stomach. "I've got our son's name. Lamont Dozier. It sounds like somebody important, don't it?" She gave him a half smile. "How do you know it's going to be a boy?" He broke into a broad grin. "Oh, it's going to be a boy alright. He's going to be Lamont Dozier, and he's going to do great things. That much I know."
Not too long after I was born, my mother got pregnant again with my brother, Reggie. He and I were the oldest of the siblings and the only boys. Then came my sisters, Laretta, Zel, and Norma. Zel was short for Zelmalean, which my folks got by combining the names of each of their mothers, Zelma and Melvalean. People don't use that method of coming up with names very often these days, but it was kind of a common thing back then.
We grew up on the east side of Detroit in a neighborhood called Black Bottom. They originally called it that because of the fertile soil in the area, but by the time we were living there, it had a double meaning. Though originally settled by European immigrants, by the 1940s Black Bottom was a predominantly black neighborhood — specifically the black folks who were living at the bottom of the social ranking. We were all poor, and our neighborhood was considered what people would later call a "ghetto" area.
We rented a house on Congress Street that must have been more than a hundred years old at the time. It was a shabby, rundown kind of place that badly needed painting and a bunch of repairs that the landlord was never going to address. I have no idea how many families might have lived in that house before us, but the owners kept renting it out to poor people. While it might have been a drafty ramshackle old place, at least we had a little space. There were three bedrooms: one for my folks, one for my three sisters, and one for me and Reggie. There was a big table in the kitchen that was a family gathering place. My mother was a great cook, and she worked hard to keep the house clean. She took pride in her own home, but keeping it neat was always an uphill battle.
We lived downstairs, and the family that lived above us would throw their trash out the windows. The house was pretty well rat-infested anyway, but that trash would attract more of them. My parents would get so frustrated. I can remember they'd take turns going up and banging on our upstairs neighbors' door. "What are you people doing? Don't you see what a mess you're making? You've got to be more considerate!" But then the neighbors would just do it again. The only opponents we had to fight harder than the neighbors were those damn rats. I remember my mother waking us up in the middle of the night, kicking rats off the bed. She'd turn on the light, and there'd be rats scurrying everywhere. It drove her crazy because she was a good housekeeper, and she didn't want her kids to have to be exposed to that kind of thing. To this day I can't stand the thought of rats.
My mother bore most of the responsibility of raising us. My dad had been drafted into the army during World War II when I was just a baby. There was some sort of accident where he fell off a truck and injured his back and neck. He was discharged and returned home with chronic pain, which made it difficult for him to hold a job. I don't know if it was the physical pain of his injury, or the inner pain of feeling like he was letting down his family, but he wasn't really the same after he got back. He was often emotionally disengaged and started turning to the bottle to self-medicate. Of course that only made things worse. As his drinking got heavier, my mom had to do more to keep the family functioning. Over time, my dad became an absentee father, and my mother practically became a single mom.
Since my dad often had a hard time finding or keeping a job, my mom worked to earn a living as far back as I can remember. Because she was so good at it, she found plenty of work cleaning houses and cooking for other families out in the suburbs. It was hard on her to come home and do all that for our family after she'd already been doing it all day for other people. I remember when I was about three years old, my mother would give me and Reggie a bath on Saturday, get us all cleaned up, put fresh clothes on us, and then set us out on the porch while she finished cooking and cleaning the house. Keeping us out of her hair was probably the only way she'd ever get it done!
If my mother needed to go to the store or run an errand, she'd have to bring us along with her. Though we lived in a city famous for manufacturing cars, that wasn't a luxury our family could afford. We had to ride the bus or the streetcars that were common in Detroit then. One winter day when I was about three years old and Reggie was two, we were coming back from the grocery store on a streetcar with my mother. She was juggling her shopping bags and had the two of us sitting next to her on the bench, all bundled up in our winter jackets. At one of the stops, a large woman with matted hair boarded the car and sat across from us. She was dirty and was carrying several bags. I didn't know what homelessness was at that age, but I'd heard people use the term "bag lady." Being as young as I was, I was a little scared by her appearance. She kept staring at us, which made me even more frightened. Suddenly, she pointed straight at me and locked eyes with my mother. "Are those your children?" My mom shifted in her seat, nodded her head, and offered an uneasy smile. "That boy there, the one with the big head. He's going to make you really proud one day, and he's going to take you out of poverty." The woman's eyes got wide. Then the street car suddenly stopped. She gathered up her bags, got off the car, and disappeared into the gray winter afternoon.
Though it was a bizarre encounter, my mother never forgot what that woman said. She considered it a prediction or prophecy that I was going to do something significant one day. When people are living in the ghetto with very little money and even less optimism for the future, they're eager to get a good word or a glimmer of hope for something better around the bend. There was a lot of palm reading and that kind of thing going on in Black Bottom. People were just trying to get a handle on what their future might bring, and they wanted to hear that something good was ahead. They wanted to believe that things were going to get better.
I already mentioned that I was a daydreamer as a kid, but I was also a people watcher. A big part of my daydreaming was focused on why people do things the way they do. I was always looking for little lessons that I could apply to my own life. I sensed that there was a way out of the ghetto, and I was determined to crack the code on how I might make my escape one day. Man, I was like a little sociologist from the time I was small. I used to love to go down to the Grand Trunk railroad tracks in Black Bottom. I would lie on one of the slopes of tall grass on either side of the rail lines and watch the passenger trains go by. I'd see the people in there being served food and drinks and living the good life. We used to call them the swells. They looked like they didn't have a care in the world. I'd fantasize about those rich people coming through the Detroit ghetto on their way to New York City and just get lost in my imagination about what their lives must be like.
Around the same time, I started getting interested in celebrities. I attended Barstow Elementary School, which is long gone now, but it was well known for its playground where world heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis used to train. My mother and father would tell stories about how he'd be out running around the Barstow playground. They'd talk about how he was a champion and how he was changing things for black people in America with his fame. I remember really meditating on those words, famous and champion. Why were some people famous? What made them famous? How did somebody get to be a champion? I started getting this feeling inside. It was a sense of wanting something more. Something greater.
You might think that analyzing fame or watching the swells live the "good life" on those passing trains would discourage me, but it didn't. In fact, it gave me a sense of determination. I didn't feel bad or ashamed that we didn't have much, but I did have a drive to get out of my circumstances and find something better. The poverty we lived in gave me the strength to dream. The experience taught me what I did and didn't want to take from my parents' lives when I became an adult.
When my mother had to work on Saturdays, she'd drop me and my siblings off at the Rupert Theater for the triple feature from eleven in the morning until six in the evening. I was obsessed with the movies because they were yet another window into a world that was very different from mine. There were some horrible things you'd see in the neighborhood. People would get stabbed or shot for one reason or another. People would be drinking too much, and you'd see these awful car wrecks and shit. When I'd go to the movies, all I'd see were all these wonderful things about how people lived, and I'd be sitting up there daydreaming away. The movies themselves were like a dream of how people might live. They were a teacher to me in terms of putting thoughts and dreams in my head to want something better than life in the ghetto. But going to the movies also served a practical purpose. We'd save our ticket stubs because if we had so many, we could trade them in for dishes or plates. All our plates came from the Rupert Theater. My mother would say, "Don't forget to save your ticket stubs. I just need two more to get that serving bowl."
While I knew I wanted something different for myself from a material standpoint, there were some great values I learned from my mother and father that I planted deep in my heart in my younger years. One of those important life lessons I learned early on was the value of honesty. When I was about seven or eight years old, my dad was still building those knickknack shelves. One day he ran out of glue, and he gave me some money to go down to the hobby shop to get some more for him. I felt like an important young man as I pulled open the door to the shop with actual cash in my pocket. I took my time walking up and down the aisles in search of that familiar-looking bottle. I enjoyed turning the money over in my pocket and imagining what it would be like to have enough to buy anything I wanted in the store. When I finally located the glue I realized they had a whole bunch of bottles of it. Maybe because he was emotionally distant, I was always looking for ways to get my father's approval. I thought, Boy, wouldn't Dad be happy if I came home with two bottles of glue? I could give him an extra one as a gift. So I slipped one bottle in my pocket and took the other up to the counter where I had to stand on my tip toes to hand the shop owner the money.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How Sweet It Is"
Copyright © 2019 Lamont Dozier.
Excerpted by permission of BMG Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: TRYING TO GET AROUND MYSELF,
Chapter One: GOING BACK TO MY ROOTS,
Chapter Two: NOWHERE TO RUN,
Chapter Three: BERNADETTE,
Chapter Four: I CAN'T HELP MYSELF,
Chapter Five: SOMEDAY, SOMEWAY,
Chapter Six: FOREVER CAME TODAY,
Chapter Seven: COME AND GET THESE MEMORIES,
Chapter Eight: DEEPER & DEEPER,
Chapter Nine: YOU KEEP ME HANGIN' ON,
Chapter Ten: RUN, RUN, RUN,
Chapter Eleven: I CREATED A MONSTER,
Chapter Twelve: WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO?,
Chapter Thirteen: GIVE ME JUST A LITTLE MORE TIME,
Chapter Fourteen: IN MY LONELY ROOM,
Chapter Fifteen: SLIPPING AWAY,
Chapter Sixteen: I'M IN A DIFFERENT WORLD,
Chapter Seventeen: HEAVEN MUST HAVE SENT YOU,
Chapter Eighteen: I JUST CAN'T WALK AWAY,
Chapter Nineteen: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE,
Chapter Twenty: REFLECTIONS,
Afterword: LAMONT'S GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF SONGWRITING,
Appendix A: LIST OF LAMONT'S CHARTING SINGLES AS A SONGWRITER,
Appendix B: LIST OF LAMONT DOZIER SOLO ALBUMS,