b/w Call On Me
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
b/w Call On Me
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Stateside Records)
The belated arrival of the Four Tops here on Motown Junkies feels somehow like the completion of a collection, and in more ways than one. All the players are now in place for a Golden Age: we’ve met all of the big protagonists of the drama that’s beginning to unfold as we sail on into the summer of 1964, and they’ve nearly all had hit records. But there’s more to it than that – the Tops bring a missing ingredient, something warm and fresh that Motown hadn’t quite mastered until now.
The Four Tops and the Temptations, the two great Sixties Motown male vocal groups, seem to have existed in a permanent state of yin/yang. I don’t know anything about the relationship between the two groups beyond what’s on the albums – were they friends? Rivals? Did they respect each other, did they have anything much to do with each other? Did they even listen to each other’s records? Can you profess to be a fan of one without admiring the other?
I’ve seen them referred to as the Beatles and Stones of Motown, the Ali and Foreman, with nobody quite sure who’s supposed to be who in that analogy, and yet that seems too simple when both groups so often readily and skilfully occupied what had previously been considered the other’s supposed turf, and when they so easily swapped right back again. A listener in 1970 might say the Tops were sweet and the Tempts were hot and loud, but a listener in 1966 might make the exact opposite observation. What of a listener in 1964?
The debate could rumble on forever. The Tempts were five Southerners who’d relocated to the North, the Tops were four Detroit natives. The Tops had their sound sweetened by the Andantes, giving them a unique vocal blend unmatched anywhere else in the Motown stable, and yet it’s hard to deny that, say, Standing In The Shadows Of Love sounds rather tougher than, say, My Girl, or that Levi Stubbs is pound for pound a rougher and harder singer than David Ruffin. The Tempts went down an aggressive, politicised, funk-influenced “psychedelic soul” path at the turn of the decade; the Tops covered the Left Banke and It’s All In The Game as they moved into more radio-friendly balladeering territory. The Tempts came back to their soft sound with Just My Imagination, at the exact same time the Tops started to cut some harder numbers. The two groups’ various albums of duets with the Supremes are endless food for debate. Who was best? They both were, obviously.
THE STORY OF THE FOUR TOPS
“The Four Tops”… a name from a bygone age. Contemporaries of the Drifters, the Platters, Phil Phillips, maybe, not Love or Hendrix or Sam and Dave. It sounds like something a group of amateur doo-wop wannabes might have called themselves as they got together to sing at a local party circa 1954. Which is, of course, exactly what they were.
When Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton, Duke Fakir and Obie Benson got up to sing at that party, they called themselves the “Four Aims” – because we’re aiming for the top!, they later told an unimpressed Roquel Davis, who gave them a new name that stuck for 43 years. Perhaps, if things had shaken out a little differently, the newly-christened Four Tops might have hit those heights right there in the Fifties, the nation’s newest teenage doo-wop sensation.
In 1956, after the boys had served a long apprenticeship, honing their craft and their harmonies through two years of increasingly well-received live shows and sock hops, Davis – by now their mentor and manager – got them a deal with no less a power than Chess Records. Congratulations, lads – it’s been a hard slog getting here, but you’ve finally reached the big time. But the single, the wholly excellent Could It Be You – Levi Stubbs sounding way older than his eighteen years, with more of a hint of both Elvis and Ray in his delivery – somehow failed to find an audience, and died an ignominious commercial death. Leonard Chess, not known for his patience, kicked the Tops to the kerb.
That setback was the start of a near-decade of thankless toil for the group. They were already as tight and professional a male vocal quartet as you were going to find, and so live bookings weren’t hard to come by – but taking that elusive next step, turning that success into a record deal and some real money, was always just out of reach. Instead, they spent the best part of eight years playing live shows, occasionally finding their way into a studio at the behest of some impressed A&R man (Lonely Summer, 1960; Pennies From Heaven, 1962) in between endless engagements the length and breadth of the country. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Landover. But they were left waiting in vain for the call that would change everything.
The call finally came in 1963. The boys, coming off the back of a tour backing Billy Eckstine, arrived in New York City for a supper club slot and ended up chatting backstage to one of the producers of The Tonight Show, recently taken over by Johnny Carson and looking for new acts to feature. The Tops were thus somehow able to parlay a good show in front of a few dozen diners into a live appearance on national television within the space of a few days, at which point Berry Gordy decided he had to have them for Motown.
Unlike any of their Motown contemporaries, the Four Tops were now seasoned veterans of the showbiz circuit, having impeccable stage credentials – almost ten years’ worth of shows in every possible kind of venue, including the sorts of places Berry Gordy wanted his acts to belong. They’d never gotten themselves in trouble, always carried themselves with dignity, kept their noses clean – and they were a tightly-knit unit, each of the original members remaining in the line-up for the rest of their lives. There’d be no trouble from these guys. And they sounded amazing.
Just a couple of months before I wrote this piece, Duke Fakir – the only surviving member from the original line-up – gave the secret of the Tops’ remarkable longevity and stability in an interview with the Holbrook Sun: “We learned at an early age that if we stuck together we could be as good as any other group. We had arguments and dealt with various tensions over the years, but we still always kept our pact to stay together. We had seen almost every group pull apart, usually because lead singers would leave. We always kept our vow to stay together. Levi would get offers to do things on his own, but he wouldn’t accept them.” Compare and contrast the Temptations, who – even with the Tops having a seven-year head start – have managed to feature 23 different full members in the same time.
But Gordy ran into the same problem every other label had run into when signing the Four Tops: they sounded good together, but they had no sound of their own, and no direction. He had them cut a version of Marvin Gaye’s Get My Hands On Some Lovin’ from the That Stubborn Kinda Fellow LP (Youtube sadly doesn’t have the Tops’ version available for your listening pleasure), but decided that though it sounded good, it still wasn’t the sound he was looking for. Like the Supremes over in the girls’ camp, Motown wanted to keep them on the books, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.
A&R director Mickey Stevenson eventually decided that since they’d done a lot of jazz gigs, and since they’d previously recorded for Riverside, then Gordy should assign them to his floundering Workshop Jazz Records subsidiary, and have them cut an LP of light-listening “jazz” numbers – show tunes, old standards, Stein and Van Stock pseudo-standards. Even that plan didn’t work out; having spent most of the autumn of 1963 in recording sessions with Stevenson at the Greystone Ballroom cutting tracks for the proposed album, they then had to watch as Workshop Jazz Records was shut down due to commercial irrelevance before the LP could hit the shops, meaning the luckless Tops were yet again almost back to square one. (Most of the material, with one exception, eventually surfaced on CD as Breaking Through in 1999.)
It was around this time that Brian Holland, long a fan of the group from their early days performing at local parties and functions, took the opportunity to use them as backing singers on a few records he was producing. Brian brought the Tops to see his production and songwriting partner Lamont Dozier, who turned out to be a big boyhood Tops fan too (“they were the top of the heap as far as vocal groups go”, Dozier later said), and both agreed the group had a different sound to the company’s usual male session singers, the Love-Tones. Whether by design or happy accident, Holland and Dozier also quickly noticed how beautifully the Four Tops’ voices blended with those of the Andantes, the female backing vocalists of choice at Hitsville, creating a wonderful sound that simply hadn’t been heard before, something between a heavenly gospel choir and a chanted mantra; sensuous, heavily secular, and yet somehow seeming to verge on the religious. They had to have that sound.
Doubtless they’d have liked to cut a Four Tops record right away, but the Tops were still assigned to Mickey Stevenson, and HDH had no permission – or funding – to pull them away. So it came to pass that the Tops were put to use on a variety of experiments, sketches and other ephemera Holland and Dozier were working on, matters reaching a head with the duo’s one and only Motown single as performers – the spectacularly daffy What Goes Up, Must Come Down – which is really just a workout for the Tops and Andantes to provide a lovely harmony bed behind Lamont Dozier performing a bizarre character skit.
Unlike some of their labelmates, the Tops were no callow teens – they were all in their late twenties by this point, and moreover they were used to waiting it out. So there was no rebellion, no angry demand Motown release the Breaking Through sessions; they went along with the plan, continuing to rack up live appearances in between Hitsville sessions. And so we come to May 1964, when finally, finally, the Four Tops caught their break.
THAT LUCKY BREAK IN FULL
It’s not mentioned much now, but Baby I Need Your Loving was not written specially for the Four Tops. Or, rather, it was meant to have the Four Tops on it, but the artist credit would be Holland-Dozier, a potential follow-up to What Goes Up, Must Come Down, Brian and Lamont perhaps planning to use the Holland-Dozier name as an outlet for their ideas, or a generic “brand name” for unassigned internal demos (see also Lead Me And Guide Me from A Cellarful of Motown Volume 4) – a plan which could never really have been viable once the Motown hit machine got cranked up to full speed and HDH were set to working on an almost 24-hour production line of new material.
The complete indifference with which What Goes Up, Must Come Down had been received by everyone – DJs, the public, Motown staffers, everyone – meant that Gordy wasn’t enormously keen on his hottest up-and-coming songwriting/production team wasting any more time, money and creative juices on pointless vanity projects. As a result, when Brian, Lamont and the Andantes – and possibly the Tops themselves, too, though nobody seems to know for sure – convened in April to record a largely instrumental backing track for a new “song” – as yet without a title, but conceived by Brian as a love song for his little-mentioned first wife, Sharon – that mainly consisted of a series of Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh harmonies over a surprisingly tough rhythm bed of horns, strings, guitars and piano, all coming together for a beautiful, soaring choral refrain of Baby, I need your loving! / Got to have all your loving, nobody at Motown took much notice.
Holland and Dozier originally appear to have intended to record it themselves, but then instead put it forward as a possible Motown début for Johnny Nash, who was allegedly close to joining the company at the time. When Nash decided to stay where he was in Chicago, the half-finished track went back on the shelf. But then fate intervened; Berry Gordy, declining to issue the already-recorded Breaking Through LP on one of the main Motown labels, instead tasked the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, who were currently on a hot streak, with “doing something on the Four Tops”. Brian Holland, giddy with excitement at finally getting the green light to cut an actual Four Tops single, knew just what that “something” would be; he got together with Lamont and his brother Eddie, and they picked up the track, finished some proper lyrics, started bouncing some ideas around, and got more and more excited. Brian hurried down to the Twenty Grand, where the Tops were watching – what else? – a show by the Temptations, to unveil the plan. The Four Tops were in the studio by 3am recording their new vocals over the track.
AND NOW, AN ACTUAL REVIEW
It would have been a crime had this song been left unused, but I doubt that could ever have happened; surely HDH must have known, just as with Where Did Our Love Go, that they’d stumbled across a great tune. (And it is a great tune, certainly the best they’d yet come up with, arguably the best they’d ever come up with.) As with so many of HDH’s top tunes, there’s more than one killer hook you could plausibly call the song’s best moment – is it the opening ooh-ooh-ooh riff, the amazing call-and-response interplay between seven different people in the verses, Levi’s semi-barked interjections, or that operatic leap up the scale in the chorus? – and they’re all so deceptively simple that you can whistle them in the shower. This one could never have been kept under wraps for long.
The song is so strong as to be bulletproof, even Tom Clay’s wavering stentorian karaoke rendition in 1971 not enough to ruin it, but the vocals – and their brilliant arrangement – take everything to a whole new level here. The six backing singers – Obie, Duke and Lawrence joined by Marlene, Jackie and Louvain – form a bond so beautiful and all-enveloping that you could listen all day, but all six don’t always appear together at once, instead each taking different parts (the Tops the opening riff and the calm, subdued first verse, the Andantes the high notes and reverb in the chorus, all six at the start of the second verse in hypnotic fashion, building to an incredibly complex exchange of vocal lines in the last verse with mantra-like chanting, whispers, soft cooing, harmonising and all sorts of other things going on under Levi’s lead)… and then dovetailing them all together, quite seamlessly, to provide something we’ve not heard before on a Motown record – traditional in its inspiration, sure, but beautifully executed, and as fresh and new in its way as Where Did Our Love Go.
Levi, too, is on the form of his life, every inch the star frontman here. Those Breaking Through sessions all sound good, Stubbs in his comfort zone showing off his fine, rich tone, but they’re not really the Levi we’ve since come to know. But Baby I Need Your Loving was never intended for him to sing the lead, and consequently it’s pitched quite some way outside his natural range, leading him to do what would become his trademark delivery, a sort of sing-shout-bark capable of conveying more sheer passion than any other Motown vocalist while still somehow coming across as sweet and harmonious, just because he’s such a fucking amazing singer.
I’ve no hesitation at all in declaring Levi Stubbs to be the best lead singer Motown would ever sign. Just listen to him here, and tell me anyone else could do the things he does on this record. I could quote any part of it, but the exceptional section at the one and a half minute mark is perhaps my favourite bit of any Motown single so far, Levi out-Brenda Hollowaying Brenda Holloway by shifting effortlessly from raw-throated pain and anguish (that WHOA! verging on a James Brown scream) to the softest, warmest, most heartfelt quiet asides (you can almost hear the tears on his face), all without missing a beat:
ECHO YOUR NA-AME
WHOA! SOMETIMES I WONDER
WILL I EVER BE THE SAME?
When you see me smile, you know
Thi-i-i-i-ings have gotten worse
Any smile you might see
Has a-a-all been rehearsed
DARLIN’, I can’t go on without you
This EMP-ti-ness won’t let me live without you
Thise LONE-li-ness inside me, darling
Makes me feel half alive…
There aren’t many Motown singles you wish were twice as long, but I always find part of myself wishing that this one was, just because I want to hear more of it. That’s the wrong reaction, though. The real brilliance of the whole thing is that it’s structured to be a 2:45 pop song, not a rambling End of Side One epic – it’s built for the radio, and it’s all built around that phenomenal chorus. The energy starts up right from the beginning of the record, with a crashing drum fill and the Tops’ blending with first the horns and then the strings to provide that opening riff, but then it all becomes very sparse, chugging along with handclaps, tinkling piano, subdued rhythm guitar and the Tops chanting like a Polynesian mantra in the background while Levi takes the first verse head-on.
But it’s all building and building to that chorus, picking up steam, getting louder and fuller and faster, Levi stoking things up shovelling in more and more coal, and then it’s upon us, that chorus, good God that chorus, exploding out of the song with the biggest sound we’ve ever heard on a Motown sngle, the Tops anchoring it to the ground, reverberating with bass, the Andantes’ incredible soprano “bounce” soaring up to the clouds, and Levi calling on all this sonic splendour as his allies to persuade us just how much he means what he says – it’s all about making sure we know Levi doesn’t just need your loving, he needs it more urgently and and more sincerely than any man has ever needed anyone’s loving since the world began.
Everything about this is right on the money. Levi’s narrator wants to win back the love of his life, so he sets about doing it not just through his words (which he means from the bottom of his heart), not just through the pain and pleading in his voice (which would melt anyone else’s heart), but by putting together the grandest gesture imaginable, a massive production full of massive performances, all with one thing in mind, all working towards the same goal: it’s not I want you back, it’s not even I need you back, it’s Without you, I’m nothing, and I’ll do anything to put things right. If this doesn’t work, nothing ever will.
As we move into Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age proper, we’re going to be encountering a lot of my favourite records, and so the top marks are going to start clustering around these next few years, coming with increasing frequency. I hope you all won’t get bored if there are rather more 10s, awarded rather more freely, between now and 1968. There’ll only be fifty in total, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, so I’m painfully aware of the consequences of using them all up too fast or giving them out too cheaply. This, though, was an absolutely nailed-on choice, the first time on Motown Junkies we’ve come across a record that on its very first play, right out of the box, made me think it might be the best record that’s ever been made.
It is wonderful, almost unspeakably so. Of all the 10s so far, it’s both the most exhilarating and the most inspiring. It’s also possibly the best.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in the Four Tops? Click for more.)
“Guarantee (For A Lifetime)”
|The Four Tops
“Call On Me”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.