b/w Sad Souvenirs
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
b/w Sad Souvenirs
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
The Four Tops were so named back in 1954 because they were “aiming for the top”. If you’d told Levi, Duke, Obie and Lawrence that it would be an eleven-year journey to finally get there, I wonder how they’d have reacted? Would they have been discouraged, fazed by the prospect of a decade of thankless toil, slogging their way around dingy venues the length and breadth of the country? Or would they have been glad to know that no matter how long it would take, they were indeed headed to the top after all?
This, the group’s first Number One single – it replaced the Supremes’ Back In My Arms Again at the peak of the Hot 100, a Motown single unseating a Motown single as the nation’s biggest-selling record, in a turn of events nobody had seriously predicted even three years earlier – is the simplest, the most straightforward and the least musically ambitious of their Motown efforts to date. Maybe that’s why it hit so big; maybe the Tops’ earlier records were just too clever.
Or maybe it gatecrashed the Number One slot because it’s not just simple, it’s effortless, a streamlining of the Four Tops’ unique, signature sound – the heavenly blend of three guys and three ladies, with Levi Stubbs sing-shouting over the top, half gruff, half angelic – to make it work for a wider audience. And it does work, most certainly it does.
For me, when I first started getting into Motown, not having had prior knowledge of what was an enormous hit and what was a crashing flop, well, when going through the Tops’ magnificent run of mid-Sixties singles for the first time, I Can’t Help Myself (the “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” subtitle seems to have been added at some later stage) didn’t jump out at me, didn’t scream success.
And yet, when I discovered it was their first chart-topper, and by far their biggest hit to date, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, the more I listen to it, the more I think the bigger shock might have been had this not gone all the way.
THEY CAN’T HELP THEMSELVES
Mock me if you like, but until it was pointed out to me, I didn’t even notice that this entire song is based around the exact same chords and charts as the Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go. (Now, of course, it’s all I can bloody hear).
Levi’s passionate delivery marks a big difference from the Supremes’ approach, of course, and it is fundamentally a different song. The excellent looping four-note riff which opens and underpins the record (a riff heard a million times on a million other records, but which Lamont Dozier, James Jamerson and (ahem) Carol Kaye all claim was born right here by them) does a fine job of disguising the fact that the song’s musical skeleton is a hand-me-down affair, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sing Where Did Our Love Go right over the top of it, not to mention noticing that just like the Supremes record, it’s very difficult on first listen to grab hold of what’s verse and what’s chorus.
Critics have had a field day mocking both Holland-Dozier-Holland and Motown for this blatant re-use of old material (not so blatant that I noticed it, of course, but anyway), and Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch almost makes their point for them; Phil Spector’s snide remark about Motown releasing the same record every week with a few notes changed was never closer to being justified than it is here.
But despite the jibes, this is not the same song. In some ways, the comparison is a millstone – this doesn’t have the magic, the alien beauty and pain and poise of Where Did Our Love Go, and it feels a little unambitious as a result, especially when compared with some of the soaring leaps of musical faith seen on older Four Tops singles.
In other ways, though, the comparison serves more to illustrate the good differences between the two groups: on their best days, the Tops have access to a widescreen operatic splendour that the Supremes hadn’t yet been able to master, and on this, the best-sounding Four Tops record yet, they present America with the blueprint for their own sound, a contrast paradoxically heightened by the looming shadow of the Supremes’ own breakthrough hit.
A lot of big words for a small record, and a fine illustration of why sometimes it’s best to let the music do the talking; I don’t often feel superfluous, surplus to requirements, and yet more than any record so far, Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch feels like it stands on its own, like it doesn’t need me to explain why I think it’s good.
The Supremes thing becomes even more interesting when you consider that this, the first fruits of what would become the Four Tops’ second album, the excellently-titled Four Tops Second Album, represented big Tops fans Holland-Dozier-Holland’s first job with the group they loved in quite some time (they’d been absent from the Tops’ previous 45, the lovely Ask The Lonely, lifted from the first album, Four Tops). With that in mind, the none-more-HDH tune and arrangement, the 4/4 beat and classical overtones, can be seen as the trio’s attempt to both jealously mark their territory and also retrace their steps, following their own recipe which had landed the Supremes their first Number One to see if it worked again. And it did.
STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN
There’s no way this could have failed, as I should have realised. It’s just fun to listen to; if it doesn’t surprise you, if it doesn’t do anything you weren’t expecting, well, equally, it does everything you expect, and it does it beautifully. As with Where Did Our Love Go (here I go again), it trusts the listener to grab the concept within a few bars and then spends the entire remaining duration just playing around with it, safe in the knowledge we won’t let go.
Is it my favourite Four Tops record? No, of course not. It’s not even close. But I’ve never not really liked it; this wasn’t some sort of Dancing In The Street thing where a record gradually won me over. Rather, I’ve been fond of it since I first heard it. As a ticket to the very top table, it does its job quite splendidly.
I don’t know if a record can ever be “magnificently adequate”, which sounds like a veiled criticism even though that’s both exactly how I feel, and not at all what I mean. So instead, I’ll put it more positively: everything about this is just right.
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!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers (September 1965)
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