The Motown Confidence Man

[The events in this essay took place in June 2012. I'm reposting the new, edited version at Middleform. Enjoy!]

Clearly San Francisco knows that I’m not a fan of it, and reciprocates in kind, particularly when flying into SFO.

It’s a nice enough airport, but it consistently ranks as one of the worst for delays in departures and arrivals. So, when I had a work related day trip to San Francisco, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the incrementally drawn out but ultimately 4 hour weather delay I endured.

For a dreaded work/day trip to attend a conference – flying out in the morning, flying back the same night – this made an already challenging turnaround even more annoying.

But I tried a new tact for me, positivity, and though during some weak moments I fumed and dreamed of putting the heads of a certain airline’s employees on spikes, I somehow managed to still make it to the Forrester Research panel in downtown San Francisco right before it started.

After it was over, I walked to meet my friend Jared nearby at the Palace Hotel bar (otherwise known as the Pied Piper Bar & Grill) for a drink. He worked across the street, and as we rarely get to see each other we decided to meet up for a few pops before my flight.

I entered the very nice bar – it had a Washington, D.C., feel with lots of historic looking wood – and plopped down on the last stand up table available, ordered a glass of red wine and since there wasn’t much in the way of televisions, began reading a book on my Kindle.

One of the few good things about work-related day trips is the ability to travel light, which meant I had a single messenger bag on one of the 2 other chairs in front of me.

A few minutes later, an older black man walks towards me wearing a white fedora with a pressed shirt, tie and dark jacket. He asks me if anyone was using the seat across of me. I told him that, yes, I was waiting for my friend to join me. He said “okay” and began to walk away.

My mood was poor from the delay and the fact that the panel was a waste of time, so I mentally kicked myself with: “WTF, man. Don’t be such an asshole” while also accusing my internal subconscious of institutional racism. Though not a racist, I was exceedingly anti-social, especially with book in hand. Yet, my mind, after a short but brutal fight, changed.

So instead of letting him walk away I called out to the man: “Sir, yes, you can use one of these seats.”

“Thank you,” he replied. But instead of taking the seat to another location, he sat down next to me.

I looked around and noticed that there wasn’t really a place to sit, so of course it made sense he would sit down next me.

Another internal monologue complete with requisite tongue lashing occurred.

He began looking around for the drink waitress, and I finally asked him: “So, how’s it going, man?”

“Today is the best day of my life,” he said smiling. While speaking he was still searching for the cocktailer. “I just found out I am cancer free. I came in here to buy a drink and to celebrate. I’m from out of state, so I’m just here myself.”

As you can imagine, my internal guilt cup really ranneth over about initially denying this man a seat!

“Shit, man! That’s awesome news. Let me get us some drinks.”

He patted his pocket and said: “I left my wallet in my room. I’m staying right up stairs here at The Palace, so let me go get it.”

“Don’t worry about it I’m buying,” was my reply. “What a day you are having!”

I’m not a fully formed idiot (partial, yes) so I did have a little tickling of suspicion in the the back of my head. But thus far, my skepticism had been met with embarrassment and internal beratement, so what was the harm of one drink with an old man who just beat cancer while I waited for a friend?

I was also two glasses of wine in. So any alarm in my head transmitted a muted, school bell with a pad between the bell and ringer sound. Basically, there was a soft “thud” sound but nothing to penetrate my pysche enough to change it.

The drinks finally arrived, along with my third glass of red wine.

And my new friend introduced himself as Lamont.

He proceeded to explain his pancreatic cancer, and how he couldn’t wait to get back to his wife – the love of his life – back in NYC who was holding down their condo in Manhattan. Apparently he had been at the medical center at Stanford, and they used some experimental drugs that for some reason his body responded to. Him being 71 years old, the doctors seemed to be mostly shocked with the remission, using words like “miracle” to describe it. He seemed on cloud nine. And deservedly so.

My friend was late, so the conversation continued and so did the next round of drinks. I was living out the old adage about martinis: one is not enough, two is too many, three is not enough…

Lamont told me he was originally from Detroit, and since I was from Ohio we talked about the Midwest. (People from the heartland are good folks we both agreed.)

He asked me what I did, and I told him. (Digital bullshitter).

I asked what he did and with a sly smile he replied: “Entertainment.”

At this point let me stop and say the dude was like a cool grandpa. He was super bright, very nice – asked me all about myself and my family and seemed genuinely interested in the response. You know how some people just wait for their turn to speak when you are in a conversation with them? The opposite of that. I was very comfortable around him. And was really enjoying his company.

Now was time for me to find out about him, so I dug deeper.

“What sort of entertainment you in Lamont?”

“I’m a songwriter.”

“You are a songwriter from Detroit?”

“Yes. But most of my best songwriting was 50 years ago,” he said with a laugh.

Now, I’m a huge fan of music. I love it. I may not know the details of every song, or every new hipster artist. But I truly love music of all shapes and sizes – and like those who are passionate about music it has been the soundtrack for m my life. (You want to make me cry on cue? Play the song “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was” from Radiohead – it was the theme to my disastrous love life my junior year of college. And yes, okay, senior year too.)

So, songwriter. Detroit. 50 years ago. My still mildly sober head put it together – Motown!

“Wait Lamont, did you write for Motown??” I breathlessly asked.

“Go to Wikipedia and type in Holland-Dozier-Holland,” Lamont said.

So I pulled out my iPhone, went to Wikipedia and this was the first sentence for the entry:

“Holland–Dozier–Holland is a songwriting and production team made up of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr. The trio wrote, arranged and produced many songs that helped define the Motown sound in the 1960s.”

I quickly clicked on “Lamont Dozier” (but didn’t read the entry) and there was a picture on Wikipedia of the very man sitting next to me.

While I had my phone in hand I texted my friend Jared who I was supposed to be meeting: “WTF are you? You must come here now!!!!!!!!!”

So Lamont began to tell his tale, and after my friend showed up shortly afterward he showed Jared his website: which featured more pictures of the man and also featured many of the songs he wrote including: “Baby Love”, “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and lots of other songs that I’ve heard of (and many that started with “Baby”).

More drinks flowed. And we learned a good many super interesting things from Lamont:

  • He wrote the song “My Girl” and it gets played around 10,000 times a day on the radio. He makes 2.3 cents every time it is played. Cool!
  • He along with other Motown artists sued Berry Gordy in the 80s for the money they had been owed during that time in the 60s. Wow!
  • He flew to get his treatment at Standford on a private jet (his “G4” he called it). He owned three, but leased from a holding company he owned due to depreciation and tax advantages. Smart!
  • He is building low income housing in Detroit for people who need help getting on their feet. And while he is floating a year’s rent as part of the agreement, it’s not all in a row – they still have to pay rent every other month. Super smart!
  • His daughter lives in Pasadena, in a house he bought for her. It’s really hot in Pasadena. Yes it is!

He worked with Jack White, Kid Rock and a lot of other Detroit artists. He actually had been recently to Tennessee to visit Jack White’s new recording studio. (I had just heard a podcast with Jack White and he had mentioned him jamming with a bunch of old timers at his new studio).

And on and on.

Jared took a picture of Lamont and me:

Mindful of all the drinks we were buying, Lamont mentioned a bag he had upstairs full of Motown records and paraphernalia that was worth six grand he was going to give me. He said he had plenty of them back in NYC. But something more exclusive he would share would be a pass that could get Jared and I into most of the main music shows in Vegas!

Holy shit, this was one of those instances you read about. A normal person (me!) running across a celebrity and a crazy night ensuing with amazing stories to wow friends and family about for years and years afterwards.

But I had to leave to the airport and catch my flight back to LA in 30 minutes. The following day was my son August’s second birthday.

Luckily, Lamont was flying out around 7am the next morning on his jet to get back to his family in NYC. And he was actually stopping off in Ontario, California to pick up a friend who was going to come and celebrate with him in New York. The friend: Smokey Robinson. Holy shit x 100!

Even through the haze of alcohol I never forgot my son’s birthday which was the next day. But Lamont – ever the concerned grandfatherly figure – said he promised to get me home. And to help the situation even more, we called my wife together and he told her personally he would get me home in the morning. They agreed on a plan!

And so, the crazy night continued.

We went to another bar. This one called “The House of Shields.” Jared kept buying me something called a “Dark and Stormy” in a copper cup. (I wasn’t sure what was in it, but it was delicious.) A few times Lamont needed our assistance to walk to the restroom – due to effects of the chemo and his extended age. So we faithfully walked him to the bathroom. We had to do this many times that night. And we did it happily.

Later, we took a cab to a restaurant my friend Jared recommended. It was very high end and also very booked up. No way to get a table, right? Lamont walked up to the hostess stand and got us a table. Throughout dinner he signed a number of autographs and multiple folks came up to him to take pictures with him. It was so cool to see how celebrities lived. But he was very gracious with his fans.

At one point I even almost left my work bag at the restaurant, but my new pal Lamont held it up to me and reminded me to keep it with me and not to lose it.

It got even later, but we still went to another bar – and Lamont was hoping it would be one where people didn’t know him this time. The great stories continued. The drinks flowed stronger. My brain got foggier and foggier.

There was a back room – speakeasy style – to the bar we were at. It was the exclusive part of the bar not open to the public.

Lamont said the word and got us in.

As it neared midnight, Lamont wanted to call a few friends for a few more drinks before heading back to the hotel. He said we would “know” his friends. Jared and I giggled excitedly. He borrowed Jared’s iPhone and called them…but the bar was really loud and Lamont couldn’t hear what his friends were saying, so he stepped outside.

After a few minutes Jared and I went outside as well to meet up with him. And immediately the bouncer excitedly told us that he just got a picture taken with Lamont Dozier. He gushed about how Lamont was “the man” and wrote “My Girl” and “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” How he was a true legend (he was reading his bio on the phone while chattering on).

“Where did Lamont go?” I slurred towards the bouncer.

“He got picked up and left in a car. Seriously man! Can you believe all the songs he wrote?”

It was a bummer that Lamont left without us, but he did have an early flight – and so did I, with him.

So, we Ubered it back to Jared’s house and after sleeping only a few hours we got up very, hurtfully early. And we woke up with the intention of going to the Palace Hotel to meet up with Lamont so I could get back to LA.

Before we left however, Jared’s wife asked us to explain what happened the night before.

We did, and once verbalized it sounded ridiculous.

Through the fog Jared did something we should have done the night before – Googled: “Lamont Dozier scam.” And sure enough, the search results included warnings from the SFPD on the con man impersonating a Motown legend. Posts on SF blogs titled: “This Man is Not a Motown Celebrity” and “Don’t be fooled by Oakland’s Alan Young – Here’s a Guide to the Motown Stars He Impersonates” and “Wait a minute mister con man“…pages and pages of it. Personal stories of others about a man (from Oakland) named Alan Young who is a clever con man who convinces people and business owners to give him free drinks, hotel rooms and wine and dine him.

We learned that “Alan” is in his late 50s, BTW – he’s not 71. And he’s been conning people since at least 2002.

With dread I slowly looked in my messenger bag – and my iPad was gone. We also remembered that “Lamont” was last seen with Jared’s iPhone.

We’d been had.

I guess it could have been worse. Something really, really bad could have happened to my friend and I – we lost an iPhone and an iPad, but nothing else. And it was testament to the man’s powers of persuasion that I wasn’t angry at him and that I still felt that he was probably a good dude all things considered.

The lowest point was that morning going to the airport, desperately hung over (or still drunk) and hoping to get a flight home for my son’s birthday and thinking how ridiculous it was that I thought that I would be taking a private plane, with a Motown legend, who was going to pick up Smokey Robinson.

And having to call my wife and tell her I may or may not be able to catch an early flight was one of the worst moments of my life.

Luckily, I ended up getting the last seat on an 8 O’Clock flight home and somehow managed to make it to Disneyland for my son’s birthday by 11am. And though I ultimately gained a pretty interesting story, I lost a bit more of the trust I have in people. And my iPad, of course.

It all seemed so real. Explaining it and writing it down doesn’t do justice to the details (people were getting his autograph!) and the stories. But this wasn’t just some common con man – this was a true Confidence Man. And I was drinking. And I wanted it to be real.

Which I guess made me the perfect mark.

[Postscript: A few months later “Alan” was arrested for a similar incident. So at the very least gullible morons like myself who think people are going to take them on planes to pick up Smokey Robinson are once again safe to drink too much in downtown San Francisco.]

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