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There's Just Something About the Four Tops
Taking the measure of Motown's Quixotic romantics
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Just recently I wrote about Motown—Marvin Gaye, in particular—and here I am writing about the label again. No group in the label’s heyday in the sixties reached as deep as the Four Tops. In particular, their recordings from 1964 to 1967 with the writing and production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland are justifiably celebrated and beloved, and it’s this time period I focus on in the below essay. I hope you enjoy it.
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In the beginning, there were the Temptations and the Four Tops. Well, not exactly, but no two groups did more to evolve the male singing group from the doo wop of the fifties to the soul of the sixties and beyond. In so doing, they built a prototype that endured well into nineties, begetting everyone from the Delfonics to Boyz II Men.
Within the group dynamic, the Temptations and the Four Tops were distinct in many ways, but the most important point of differentiation was whereas the former boasted, in the lineup in which they initially gained fame, three great lead singers: David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, the latter was built around the sound of Levi Stubbs Jr. Yet, unlike other groups in the Motown fold in which one member slowly began to usurp the others—how the Miracles and the Supremes eventually began to be respectively billed Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Diana Ross and the Supremes—the Four Tops always remained the Four Tops. Levi Stubbs Jr. perpetually on equal footing with his musical colleagues: Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton. They were in high school when they first sang together in Detroit in 1953. First known as the Four Aims, they shifted their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers. A series of singles on a variety of labels brought little attention but one person who was taking notice was the impresario of what was becoming the biggest independent record label of the sixties, Berry Gordy, Jr. of Motown, who signed the Four Tops in 1963.
That year, Motown was beginning to cement its position as the leading exponent of what was to be labelled soul music. Its’ roster of artists boasted of reliable hit makers like the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder (then billed as Little Stevie Wonder). The following year, 12 months that heralded the true beginning of what we now commonly think of as “the Sixties,” not the least of which in terms of music, Motown became indomitable. The Supremes had the first three of their 12 chart toppers after three years of nary a hit save for ‘When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.’ The Temptations broke a drought almost as long with ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do.’ The Four Tops, on the other hand, struck gold instantly.
‘Baby, I Need Your Loving’ was written and produced by the in-house juggernaut of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. The song existed initially as just an instrumental track cut by the Funk Brothers, the legendary collection of studio musicians as responsible as anyone for creating the Motown sound or as Al Abrams, the publicist that was Gordy Jr.’s first hire for the label, coined it, “The Sound of Young America,” a sonic representation of the ideals of American society, and culture in particular, exposed by Ralph Ellison. He once noted, forgiving the gendered specificity of his point, “I think that we’re polarized by the very fact that we keep talking about ‘black awareness’ when we really should be talking about black American awareness, an awareness of where we fit into the total American scheme, where our influence is. I tell white kids that instead of talking about black men in a white world or black men in white society, they should ask themselves how black they are because black men have been influencing the values of the society and the art forms of the society. How many of their parents fell in love listening to Nat King Cole?”
The label, a pioneering example of Black entrepreneurship within the music industry, made records that were centered on Black identity but made accessible to and meant for all.
Like Ronnie Spector, who sang what many longed to hear someone say to them—“Be My Baby” for the most iconic example—Levi Stubbs Jr. channeled the yearnings of the American teenager—albeit usually in the aftermath of a relationship launched and crashed after “Be My Baby” is reciprocated. With the lyrics Holland-Dozier-Holland added to ‘Baby I Need Your Loving,’ Stubbs Jr. relays both their text of romantic yearning seizing the mind, body and soul as well as their subtext. When he sings “cause I’m so lonely” at the end of the first verse or the desperation he imparts to the word “sleep” in “but lately, I’ve been losing sleep” at the end of the second verse, he provides the back story only hinted at in the lyrics. The loneliness is existential. The lack of sleep a manifestation of heartache that has cut him to the core.
In the song’s memorable middle section in which the rest of the Four Tops plus Motown backup singers extraordinaire the Andantes, who often appeared on the Four Tops’ records to further sweeten their sound, intone “I need you and I love you, baby / I need you and I want you, baby” with growing intensity as Stubbs Jr. continues to plead his case to the love who has spurned him, love and lust comingle into all-encompassing desire. ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ makes clear that the Four Tops were Motown’s Quixotic romantics.
There is a fervor to the best of their music, a feeling of intensity—an emotion whose potency rests primarily on the force of Stubbs Jr.’s delivery. No one else at Motown brought quite the same mixture of melancholic bravado as he did to something like ‘Ask the Lonely,’ the Four Tops’ third Motown single and written by William “Mickey” Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, as Stubbs Jr. delivers, cushioned by the sound of Fakir, Benson and Payton as well as the Andantes, the crushing reveal that “the loneliest one is me” with full-throated vibrato. It may well be the finest Motown recording of the first half of the sixties.
1965 brought two Holland-Dozier-Holland smashes: the chart-topping ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’ and the top five hit ‘It’s the Same Old Song,’ as well as ‘Something About You’ which is a collaborative tour de force. Stubbs Jr. carries the lead with the vocal arrangement including frequent, forceful punctuations by the full group, emphasizing the danceability baked into the song, both for listeners as well as for Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins, a key part of the label’s so-called “finishing school,” to develop steps for the group’s stage show.
‘Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over),’ released in February 1966, is a particularly fervent exercise in emotionalism, especially in the build from the verse, in which the drums sit out, into the driving chorus in which the Four Tops shout out the main refrain and Stubbs Jr. steps out, in full cry, to deliver couplets of despondent devastation like “they say our love ain’t what it used to be / and everyone knows but me.” It sets the table for the dominant mood of their 1967 LP, Reach Out.
Motown had not yet made the shift that many of their competitors had at the time of prioritizing the album over, or at least placing it on equal footing as, the single (it would come soon enough for Motown). Consequently, Reach Out is driven by the Four Tops’ singles—six of the twelve tracks on the album hit the Billboard Top 20 with ‘I’ll Turn to Stone,’ the b-side of ‘7 Rooms of Gloom,’ circling the outreaches of the Hot 100. Above all, it’s a trilogy of Holland-Dozier-Holland heartbreaks that form the heart of Reach Out and the apex of the Four Tops’ music in the sixties.
The first to be to released and the group’s second and final number one was ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There.’ From the haunting opening dominated by a piercing, repeating line doubled on piccolo and flute, the hollow percussive sound of a tambourine being struck by a timpani mallet and the rolling bass of James Jamerson to the opening rush of sound by the Four Tops just after Stubbs Jr. begins, singing as if his very life was on the line (Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote the melody line for the outer point of Stubbs Jr.’s range primarily inspired by Bob Dylan’s habit of singing his songs as it proclaiming from the town square during rush hour) to the short bass and tambourine break before the iconic chorus, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ was new territory for the Four Tops. A three-minute dramatic production, full of operatic grandeur, grabbing the listener by the scruff of the neck, commanding one’s full attention.
The group’s follow-up, ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’ is on its surface a carbon copy but in its replication, manages to plumb even deeper levels of devastation. Here, heartache is faced with a fatalistic outlook (“getting ready for the heartaches to come”). Its’ signature piece of musical invention is when Stubbs Jr. tries to shame his lover, offering a confession of just how much he brought to the relationship (“gave you all the love I had now, didn't I? / when you needed me I always there now, wasn't I?”) backed by a hypnotic blend of conga, tambourine and bass. It’s both a condemnation of his undeserved fate and an expression of pure hopelessness—if this relationship didn’t work, none will.
‘Bernadette’ completes the trilogy. Stubbs Jr.’s straining at the end of several lines again suggest the stakes at play in these songs. For the Four Tops, love is a matter of life and death. And yet, as much as these songs demand of the listener—passively listen to ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love,’ for example, and you’ll miss everything good about it—they remain profoundly listenable.
The precision of the backing by the Funk Brothers, the multiple textures of the productions by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the use of Fakir, Benson and Payton along with the Andantes to form a Greek chorus to Stubbs Jr.’s soliloquies of pain all remind that Motown has been a success story of the collective.
‘7 Rooms of Gloom,’ the single following ‘Bernadette’ takes things to the breaking point. The opening rhythm in the verses is harsh to the point of violence, the resolution rushing by at a too-fast tempo even as Stubbs Jr. intones a line like “all the rooms are painted black” with chilling force. Its’ flip side, ‘I’ll Turn to Stone,’ leavens its message, the idea that the song’s protagonist will cease to be a feeling human being if his intended leaves him, with a more traditional soulful groove. When one is listening to the Four Tops, one needs to occasionally catch one’s breath. The album closer, ‘What Else is There to Do (But Think of You)’ permits that as well, coming off the castanet-fueled ‘Wonderful Baby,’ a rare Four Tops side written by Smokey Robinson with a beautiful B section that is pure Smokey.
As was the practice with many long players of the era, Reach Out’s program is completed with a series of covers, only two of which coalesce into anything beyond filler. The recasting of the Left Banke’s Baroque pop touchstone ‘Walk Away Renee’ hits deepest in the refrain, everyone concerned singing it as a shout, a reminder that it is this very point in the song that has permitted it to endure for 56 years and counting. Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ proves less of a fit even as Stubbs Jr.’s vocal brings a true blue-collar sheen to the song.
The cover of the Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ is a fun diversion while ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ and ‘Cherish’ sound half-finished with Fakir, Benson and Payton along with the Andantes taking the lead on both.
Soon after Reach Out was released, Holland-Dozier-Holland departed from Motown and with their leaving, some of the feeling that was embedded into the music of the Four Tops left Hitsville as well. That’s not to say that there isn't much to recommend in their output post-Holland-Dozier-Holland (1970’s Still Waters Run Deep immediately comes to mind), but that the music they made between 1964 and 1967 stands as their most significant body of work.
In our present time, beset by isolation, loneliness and confusion, music can be a comforter, a healer. Reach out for it. The Four Tops will be there.