Motown Was Not Afraid

Today’s post is written by Katie Dishman, of the National Archives at Chicago.

So many songs, so many lawsuits.  As February brings a plethora of romantic tunes to the airwaves and to people’s hearts, a copyright case recalls how one of the most popular Motown creations was alleged to have been plagiarized from another source.

When Baby Love was sung by popular “girl group” The Supremes, it became a number one song in 1964.  It was written and produced by the prolific team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H), a hit-making trio at the Detroit-based studio.

Record of baby love
Record of Baby Love recorded by The Supremes in 1964, used as an exhibit in the court case.

However, in 1966, Lorenzo Pack, head of New York-based Packson Music Publishing Company, sued Motown Record Corporation, (subsidiary) Motown Sales Corporation, and the Jobete Music Company for copyright infringement.  The civil action, case number 28687, was filed in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, also located in Detroit.

Pack claimed his 1962 song I’m Afraid was copied in part by H-D-H.  Pack, a former prize fighter, was questioned in painstaking detail about how he and co-writer Harper Evans came to compose the song together, with the opposing lawyer wondering how they were able to write the melody with only one of the men being able to read music “a little bit.”  The retired pugilist explained that the two sang the song back and forth and wrote as much as they could until they were satisfied with it.  Subsequently, they took the song to a musician who was able to formally write the music on “onion skin.”

Further, in Pack’s deposition he claimed he recorded I’m Afraid around 1962-1963, but did not release it immediately because he felt it was not quite complete.  He waited a few months to go back to overdub the original.  However, Packson Music ended up never releasing the song, even though it was recorded in a studio with several instruments, a lead singer, and backup singers.  Moreover, it turns out there were 100 copies of the sheet music printed, but none were sold.

So that begs the question, if the song was not released, and the sheet music was not sold, how could H-D-H copy it?  Pack claimed he played the song for and showed the music to a couple different companies in or around the famous Brill Building in New York, where many in the music industry were located.  However, under intense questioning by one of the defendants’ attorneys, George Schiffer, Pack was unable to name most of the people who heard his song, although he was certain the wife and the sister of Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, were two of them.

The terse Schiffer finally asked Pack how I’m Afraid and Baby Love are similar.  Pack claimed the first two bars of the songs are the same, the rhythmic structure is identical, the chord changes are similar, and that “there is an infringement in the melody.”  Pack said he heard Baby Love on the radio and when he was humming it, “it struck me that ‘Baby Love’ was ‘I’m Afraid.’”

Baby love record image
Exhibit used to compare the two songs named in the court case.

In addition to a few musicians who analyzed the songs and said they were dissimilar, there were depositions from those at Motown who, too, refuted Pack’s claims.  Arranger Hank Cosby said Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier brought him the song and that they had “very specific ideas about the whole arrangement and the sound they wanted to produce.”  Cosby also said that “as an arranger of many years experience and a professional musician, it is obvious that the two songs…are very different….  The structure or form of the songs is not at all the same.  I’m Afraid is in the old fashioned thirty-two (32) bar form.  Baby Love is in the twelve (12) bar form.  This form gives an entirely different feeling than a normal thirty-two (32) bar song.  It would be much more emphatic and direct.”

Cosby concluded by stating that the only way the two songs are similar is they use a “two note theme.”  But those themes have been used in numerous popular songs such as Till the End of Time, Dancing Cheek to Cheek, and It Might As Well Be Spring.

In April 1967, depositions were given by Holland, Dozier, and Holland.  Lamont Dozier put it succinctly saying, in addition to his never having met Pack, “I had never heard the composition performed in any way and it was never sung to me by anyone.  I have never seen…sheet music or any other written form of the composition I’m Afraid….  In no way was the song Baby Love based on anyone else’s ideas or suggestions.”

Brian Holland went into more detail about the creation of Baby Love.  “When we write a song, we try to express real feelings about a real situation….  In writing the song for the Supremes it was obvious that we were writing for pretty young girls, of whom one is the so-called lead singer….  Therefore, in writing Baby Love, we pictured a simple story about a girl whose boyfriend has left her and who loves him very dearly and who would like the boy to come back.  The music…fits this simple story.”

The “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” from October 1967 by Judge Talbot Smith stated that the song entitled I’m Afraid is “dissimilar in every material respect” from Baby Love except that they each use a “two-note motive” for their melodies, and that is common in “musical literature.”  Also, “the Court further concludes that there was no evidence that the writers of Baby Love had access to the musical composition I’m Afraid.”

In the “Judgment,” from December 1967, Judge Smith ordered in favor of the defendants “dismissing the action with costs and disbursements to be taxed by the Clerk in favor of the Defendants and against the Plaintiff.”

Within a couple weeks of the dismissal, the plaintiff filed an appeal.  Whether that case uncovered any more interesting testimony remains to be seen.  But given the facts of the original case, Motown would have no cause to be afraid.

5 thoughts on “Motown Was Not Afraid

  1. Katie Dishman is a wonderful writer. I have read several of her articles. Keep’em coming Katie. You make history even more interesting.

  2. Ms. Dishman has purveyed a wonderful article on one of many lawsuits filed against Motown and Hitsville, U.S.A. Concise and laconic article, but filled with spirited information.

  3. Thank you archivist Katie! You dug up so many of my old memories of all the great lyrics H D H gave us in so many Mowtown Hits!

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