Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The Four Tops

"There were many stars in Motown's firmament - among them Stevie, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and Diana Ross - but I happen to have loved the Four Tops most of all" - Jon Landau
The Four Tops (1965)

Baby I Need Your Loving/Without The One You Love (Life's Not Worthwhile)/Where Did You Go/Ask The Lonely/Your Love Is Amazing/Sad Souvenirs/Don't Turn Away/Tea House In China Town/Left With A Broken Heart/Love Has Gone/Call On Me           

The great thing about this impressive debut from The Four Tops is that, unlike many of their subsequent albums, it didn't contain a superb first side before descending into a second side of covers of songs from the musicals or The Beatles. As the saying goes, it is "all killer, no filler". It is full of good material from beginning to end. The sound quality is really good as well, full and warm and in stereo.
Baby I Need Your Loving was a superb introduction to this magnificent vocal group, backed wonderfully by The Funk BrothersLevi Stubbs' magnificent lead vocal makes this track simply soar, as indeed does the rumbling bass and trademark Motown drum sound. 

Without The One You Love (Life's Not Worthwhile) is a very Northern Soul-ish floor-filler, with that killer beat and impossibly catchy refrain. The sumptuous mid-pace ballad Where Did You Go features Stubbs' iconic voice beautifully. 

Ask The Lonely was, along with Baby I Need Your Loving, a single, and, although it was a sower number, it was a damn good one, with Stubbs' voice again dominating proceedings. It is slightly dated now, however, more so than the other single.

Your Love Is Amazing is a very typical mid-sixties Motown track, with that Northern Soul appeal there as well. Sad Souvenirs has echoes of The DriftersOn Broadway in its big, dramatic soul ballad feel. 

Don't Turn Away returns to that big Motown upbeat, brassy thump. This is good stuff, no throwaway "filler" here. Tea House In China Town is an atmospheric number that tells a good story over a bit of a mysterious bluesy but soulful backing.

Marv Johnson's Left With A Broken Heart is a Smokey Robinson-esque number that is very much of its time, a bit more redolent of the early sixties as opposed to the mid-sixties, actually. 

Love Has Gone is a slow tear-jerker featuring some sublime cymbal work. Call On Me is a You Send Me style ballad with more crystal clear percussion and it now goes without saying that the vocals are top notch. At just over twenty-five minutes, it is a very short album, but that was the way it was then.

Four Tops Second Album (1965)

I Can't Help Myself/Love Feels Like Fire/Is There Anything I Can Do/Something About You/It's The Same Old Song/Just As Long As You Need Me/Darling I Hum Our Song/I Like Everything About You/Since You've Been Gone/Stay In My Lonely Arms/I'm Grateful
The first two Four Tops albums were actually quite credible soul albums. From the third one onwards, for a while, Motown started to produce albums that featured the current singles, their ‘b’ sides and then, in a (possibly misguided) but understandable attempt to “crossover” and win over “adult” audiences, they packed the rest of the album with middle of the road standards. This was a shame, because The Four Tops were worth more than that and indeed, Motown was worth more than covering Frank Sinatra or Beatles songs. Diana Ross & The Supremes also suffered from these “supper club” type albums. Even worse was The Four Tops’ “On Broadway” album of covers from musicals. Dear oh dear.
Anyway, this second outing, entitled The Four Tops Second Album (inventive title!) is a pretty convincing soul album. Nearly all the songs are Holland/Dozier/Holland ones. The great singles on here are I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and It's The Same Old Song - both impossibly catchy and full of superb harmony vocals and, of course, stunning lead vocals from the great Levi Stubbs. Both are magnificently played by The Funk Brothers, Motown’s “house band” and are just magnificent examples of peerless Motown singles of the time.

Love Feels Like Fire is a yearning, soulful number with a hooky, brass and bass backing. The recording of this album is a stereo one and, for 1965, it is pretty good. 

Is There Anything I Can Do is a Smokey Robinson song, but suits The Tops here, Stubb’s voice being stronger than Robinson’s. Something About You had a pounding, fast beat that made it a Northern Soul hit some seven or eight years later. When it comes on, you just think “Northern Soul”, as opposed to Motown, funnily enough. 

The Tops’ cover of Helpless was another Northern floor-filler, although Kim Weston’s version is my preference. Hers has more vitality, which is saying something, as The Tops’ one is certainly not lifeless. Just As Long As You Need Me is a yearning mid-paced ballad.

Darling I Hum Our Song is a rock ’n’ roll -style piano-driven ballad with a great vocal from Stubbs. I Like Everything About You is probably not the best on the album, a pretty average number, but average Motown is many other artists’ great tracks. 

Since You've Been Gone is another Northern Soul retrospective hit. So many tracks on this album just have that beat. Great saxophone in this one. Stay In My Lonely Arms has a Sam Cooke vibe to it. Hints of You Send Me

I'm Grateful was an upbeat, typical 1965 Motown tune to finish off a genuinely authentic Motown album. No real filler or panderings to “crossover” audiences.

On Top (1966)

I Got A Feeling/Brenda/Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever/Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)/Until You Love Someone/There's No Love Left/Matchmaker, Matchmaker/Michelle/In The Still Of The Night/Bluesette/Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars/Then                     
Motown albums in the mid-sixties were strange things, often made up with a couple of huge hit singles and several Beatles, Frank Sinatra and easy listening "supper club" covers. The Four Tops' albums suffered considerably from that at times, and this one is one of those. It is a positively "Jekyll and Hyde" album of two distinct sides.  It certainly has its ordinary points, on the original "side two" when Motown followed their policy of trying to draw in more "adult" audiences, not just the teen pop market, by including covers of popular songs.  This was referred to as "crossover". Personally, like most people, I preferred Motown groups singing Motown songs. To see this album reflect that questionable policy was a shame, because the first two Four Tops albums had been credible soul albums full of Holland-Dozier-Holland songs. Not so this one, it was two distinct sides, one of classic HDH songs, one of schmaltzy covers.
Now for the good stuff - it begins with the wonderful I Got A Feeling, one of my favourite songs (although the definitive version is by Barbara Randolph, for me). It is still a great track, however. Brenda is a soulful ballad with some nice stereo sound, particularly on the percussion. It was a quirk of Motown that while nearly all of their single releases, even into the seventies, were in mono, but the albums were in stereo. Certainly the current releases of the albums are in stereo. Very good it sounds too. 

Up next is the marvellous, evocative Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever. The backing is superb and Levi Stubbs' vocal sublime. This was a hit single. 

A minor hit was the pounding Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)

Until You Love Someone was not a single but could easily have been one. It is a convincing Motown (Holland-Dozier-Holland) song. This excellent, original "side one" ends with another HDH number, There's No Love Left is another melodic, driving and supremely soulful, uplifting song. This certainly was a great six-song run, showcasing this great vocal group at their very best. The album is worth it for this barnstorming side alone.

I'm not sure how many of the teenagers who bought this album flipped over to "side two". This is where the quality erodes somewhat and the covers begin. It is almost as if this side of the record was sung by a different group completely. Matchmaker, Matchmaker is a night, breezy, jazzy easy listening piece of fluff. Utterly different in ambience to what had been before. The music is still immaculately played, of course. 

Time for a Beatles cover? You bet. It's Michelle and it is pretty cheesy, I have to say. Unessential. The Tops continue to sound like a barber shop meets upbeat easy listening jazz on Cole Porter's In The Still Of The Night. I would struggle to identify this as The Four Tops if I hadn't known. Bluesette has me seriously questioning if it is the same group as had delivered such a pulsating first part of the album. Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars doesn't buck the trend, although the closer, Then, has some definite Motown-ish stylings in its vocal delivery, unsurprisingly, as Smokey Robinson was one of the songwriters.

A very definite album of two halves that exemplified an unfortunate trend.

Reach Out (1967)

Reach Out I'll Be There/Walk Away Renee/7-Rooms Of Gloom/If I Were A Carpenter/Last Train To Clarksville/I'll Turn To Stone/I'm A Believer/Standing In The Shadows Of Love/Bernadette/Cherish/Wonderful Baby/What Else Is There To Do (But Think About You) 

This was the peak of The Four Tops' career, and by far their best-selling album. After the somewhat schizophrenic nature of their previous album, On Top, which had one side of classic Motown and one of inessential, schmaltzy covers, this one redressed the balance, slightly, in favour of quality Motown material. The album is in stereo and has a pretty good sound quality. This would prove to be the group's last album with legendary songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who left Motown after this in a financial dispute. Quite what possessed Motown to commission drawings/paintings of some of their groups for several album covers such as this one is unclear. They were pretty awful.
The copper-bottomed classic, Reach Out I'll Be There, kicks things off. No much more can be said about this true classic, with Levi Stubbs' vocal peerless throughout the song. 

The beautiful, soulful Walk Away Renee is another true classic, although it has always suffered somewhat from poor sound, in my opinion. 

Seven Rooms Of Gloom is up next as the hits just keep coming. It is actually quite a complex song, with what is, I am sure, a difficult vocal to deliver and a huge, pulsating bass line. Need a break from hits? Not yet, now we get the sublime Tim Hardin cover, If I Were A Carpenter, with its melodic keyboard intro and, once again, wonderful vocal. It features another magnificent James Jamerson bass line. Great stuff.

For some reason, the producers of The Four Tops saw for for the group to cover Monkees hit singles during this period. On this album we get Last Train To Clarksville and I'm A Believer, both of which are sung impressively, but inessential. Believer is played wonderfully, though, with a big, thumping bass. I would rather the originals, to be honest. 

In between these two, though, is another Motown classic I'll Turn To Stone, which found popularity in the seventies on the UK Northern Soul scene. It is one of my favourite Four Tops tracks - an uplifting, lively, soulful and underrated song.

The classics don't end, though, the iconic "Reach Out part two" of Standing In The Shadows Of Love and the powerful, bassy Bernadette further enhance what is already a corker of an album. 

Cherish is a cover, but it is has a Motown feel in its backing. The last two tracks, Wonderful Baby and What Else Is There To Do (But Think About You) are perfectly ok, but lack something quite as mighty in them as compared to what has been before. Overall, though, this is The Four Tops' finest sixties album.

Yesterday's Dreams (1968)

Yesterday's Dreams/Can't Seem To Get You Out Of My Mind/I'm In A Different World/We've Got A Strong Love/By The Time I Get To Phoenix/Remember When/Sunny/Never My Love/Daydream Believer/Once Upon A Time/The Sweetheart Tree/A Place In The Sun        
Songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who had contributed so much to The Four Tops' success throughout the sixties, had now left Motown after a financial dispute. They left only one song on this album, ironically I'm In A Different World, which Eddie Holland apparently considered his finest ever song. It would not be my first choice, although it is a great song, with a delicious bass line and catchy refrain. There again, he wrote it. The other songs on the album came from Nickolas Ashford/Valerie SimpsonIvy Jo Hunter/Pam Sawyer among others and a selection of covers.

While not being absolutely chock-full of classics likes its predecessor, Reach Out, this album still had some good stuff on it - the afore-mentioned song, the soulful, infectious Yesterday's Dreams, the muscular Can't Seem To Get You Ot Of My Mind and We've Got A Strong Love get the album off to a fine start. The stereo sound quality is excellent on the album too, it was now 1968, and recording techniques and sound reproduction were getting better literally by the day.

Jimmy Webb's By The Time I Get To Phoenix is the first cover version (Motown were still trying to attract a more "adult" audience by putting covers like this on albums by artists like The Four Tops). They do this one convincingly, though, and it doesn't sound too out of place.

Remember When is a buzzy guitar-driven pulsating Motown number in the style of The TemptationsI Know I'm Losing You. The much-covered Sunny sounds excellent, as actually does The MonkeesDaydream Believer. They actually are given a Motown feel by the production, so they don't sound out of place next to a genuine Motown song like Remember When. This was not the case with the covers on 1966's On Top, for example.

Never My Love, another cover, also sounds convincing. Despite the presence of the inevitable covers on the album, the production from Ivy Jo Hunter and Frank Wilson has ensured that the album plays and sounds as a solid Motown album. It possibly sounds more self-contained as an album than Reach Out did, due to the latter's six hit singles making it almost sound like a "greatest hits" in places.

Once Upon A Time descends into cheese, I have to admit, however. The same applies to The Sweetheart Tree. Proper Motown returns with a solid cover of Stevie Wonder's A Place In The Sun to end the album. A bit patchy at the end but overall, a credible album. Another of those painted covers, like Reach Out, though!

Four Tops Now! (1969)

The Key/What Is A Man/My Past Just Crossed My Future/Don't Let Him Take Your Love From Me/Eleanor Rigby/Little Green Apples/Do What You Gotta Do/MacArthur Park/Don't Bring Back Memories/Wish I Didn't Love You So/Opportunity Knock (For Me)/The Fool On The Hill     

As with many of The Four Tops albums, this is a mixture of some excellent singles, some underrated album tracks and probably too many covers (particularly of Beatles numbers). Even in 1969, Motown were still pursuing the policy of trying to win a more "adult" market, hence the "easy listening" covers. Either way, there is no doubt as to the quality of the singing, the instrumentation and sound quality is outstanding too.
On to the music - the three singles are the little-mentioned but impressively soulful The Key, the harmonious, brooding What Is A Man, with its superb Levi Stubbs vocal and the wonderful, emotional Do What You Gotta Do

My Past Just Crossed My Future, with its Beatles-influenced Eastern instrumentation is an impressive cut too. The classic Motown sound continues with another great track in Don't Let Him Take Your Love From Me. As with so many of The Four Tops sixties albums, it starts really well, and then the covers come along and it becomes a bit less convincing. Here they cover The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, turning it into a pulsating, Otis Redding/Wilson Pickett-style soul ballad. To be fair, it has its good points, with a great bass line and confident vocal. 

Little Green Apples is slowed down to walking pace at the beginning, although the chorus picks it up a bit, but it lacks the trademark Motown sound that had so enhanced the first few tracks on the album.

The quality is restored with the afore-mentioned Do What You Gotta Do, however, which is magnificent Motown heartbreaker. I never tire of this song and its evocative vocal. Classic stuff. I have never particularly liked the song MacArthur Park, but this is one of the better covers of it, deep and soulful and the orchestration toned down a bit. 

Don't Bring Back Memories is a lively piece of "proper Motown". The same applies to Wish I Didn't Love You So

Opportunity Knocks (For Me) is a bona fide slice of Motown soul, made so by another powerful, muscular Stubbs vocal. The cover of The BeatlesThe Fool On The Hill is not a success, I have to say, unfortunately. It is not a soul song and doesn't translate as one.

Overall, this was a pretty good album, despite the covers, there is still some good, "forgotten" Motown material on here.

Soul Spin (1969)

Look Out Your Window/Barbara's Boy/Lost In A Pool Of Red/Got To Get You Into My Life/Stop The World/Nothing/This Guy's In Love With You/Light My Fire/Honey/The Look Of Love/California Dreamin'  
This was a low-key album release from The Four Tops, in that it contained no hit singles, and was quite "serious" in mood, tapping into the prevalent social consciousness trail-blazed by The Temptations. Indeed, the opening track, the ecologically-aware Look Out Your Window is very much like The Temptations in its sound and vocal delivery. Frank Wilson, who also went on the produce The Supremes, was at the controls. He injected a Norman Whitfield-influenced awareness into proceedings.

Barbara's Boy is more of a Bernadette-style Motown number. However, it touched on the sensitive subject of paternity rights. Lost In A Pool Of Red is another hard-hitting number with a killer bass line and, as always, a towering Levi Stubbs lead vocal. It has a huge, pounding drum sound too. It seemed every Four Tops album had to contain a Beatles cover. Here, it was Got To Get You Into My Life, saved by Stubb's vocal. 

Stop The World is more of a Motown stomper, but with a message. The Tops were getting more like The Temptations by the day. Thus far, at least.

Nothing is a Smokey Robinson song, again with an authentic Motown feel. and that huge bass line again. This is as far as the Motown material went on the album, the same applied to the socially aware stuff. It was "easy listening" covers all the way now - Burt Bacharach's This Guy's In Love With You and The Look Of Love; Bobby Goldsboro's lachrymose Honey; The Doors' Light My Fire and The Mamas And the Papas' California Dreamin'. all immaculately sung, of course, but pretty inessential. They are nowhere near as good, or as credible as the old "side one" of the album. The Four Tops had continued the trend of putting out an album of a really solid side one and a side two of cheesy covers. They had "previous" on this. 1966's On Top was guilty of the same thing. As a completist, I have this album for the side one tracks, but I wouldn't recommend it for anything other than a serious hardcore Motown aficionado.

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Smokey Robinson

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