Their Greatest Hits –Four Tops (Telstar 1990)
UK Chart Position – 47
With quite a number of Four Tops hits compilations available over the years I have gone for this one. At first sight it doesn’t appear to be that promising – it certainly was a no frills release. The cover looks cheap, as if it might consist of tracks re-recorded by the group in a studio in Switzerland in the 1980’s – but rest assured, these are the originals. They’ve opted for a fairly undistinguished photo of the group and a picture of four young boys masquerading as the Tops on the back, which I think could only have tied in with a TV advertising campaign. There’s no sleeve notes other than track listing, songwriters and year published. So why, have I gone for this CD then? The answer is that in twenty tracks it gives a great overview of the Music of one of the greatest vocal groups of all time- covering the early golden Holland-Dozier-Holland years at Motown, the years after HDH had left the label and the group were matched with a range of writers/producers with occasional thrilling results and, proving there was life after Motown (for some), the hits on the Dunhill label (in the UK these were issued on Probe), Casablanca and Arista. In having this range it is quite unusual and gives a perfect introduction to this group.
Lawrence Payton, Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Levi Stubbs four lads who began their career singing jazz influenced supper-club material as the Four Aims, working locally around Detroit with touring artists such as Billy Eckstine. The group was unusual at the time as most male vocal groups had a tenor lead whereas Levi Stubbs had more of a gruff baritone. They were signed by their old friend Berry Gordy who was interested initially in their potential as a jazz/easy listening group, believing this would have the potential to crossover to the white pop market. In what must have truly been a Eureka! moment this was abandoned and the Four Tops, as they were now known, were paired with brothers Eddie & James Holland and Lamont Dozier, Motown’s hot song-writing and production team. HDH encouraged lead singer Levi Stubbs to sing just a bit above his natural vocal range and the magic began.
Lamont Dozier & the Holland brothers at the piano
There are seven Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions on this album and these contain some of the finest moments in pop history. The CD kicks off with their biggest track, which gave them the second of their two US chart-toppers and their only UK number 1. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” from 1966 is a track which has everything thrown at it – the powerful rhythm (which was racked up a little in the Disco Era to give Gloria Gaynor a 1975 hit), a big, almost cavernous sound, great backing vocals and a sublime performance from Levi Stubbs. Their songs worked best when there was a big production but with a hollow, empty almost paranoid feel (a less technical version of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound) and when Levi was the loser in love wrenching every ounce of emotion from the song. Their songs could have a chilling coldness even though they were uptempo. This can be heard to marvellous effect in “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” (1967 US#14, UK#12”) “Standing In The Shadows Of Love”(1966 US#6, UK#6) and “Bernadette” (196 US#4, UK#8). It is these element coming together which make the Four Tops sound unique.
The first time this all came together was on 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving” (US#11). This debut hit is not included on this CD, probably because it was, strangely enough, never a UK hit (another track scuppered by an inferior UK cover version this time by The Fourmost). It was their 4th single which gave them the first US #1 and their first UK chart placing (#23 in 1965). “I Can’t Help Myself” is the track which many people think is called “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and is a joyful, infectious song. It’s easy to dismiss “It’s The Same Old Song” (1965 US#5, UK#34) as more of the same (I remember seeing a one word review of the 1978 likeable enough US Top 40 version by KC & The Sunshine Band which just said “Exactly” – an early proof for me of the caustic power of the concise review) but once again it’s catchy and well performed, even if the title is asking for trouble. A couple of HDH productions not written by the boys also scored big “Walk Away Renee” was a cover version of a song by Left Banke. It’s another of the highlights of their career and one of their biggest hits in the UK (#3, US-#14). Walking away is what HDH did from Motown not long after this release. The Tim Hardin folk song “If I Were A Carpenter” (1968) (UK#7, US#20)was a little bit of an odd choice for the group and is not amongst my favourites but Gordy was always looking to extend the market and put the Tops alongside the Supremes as a high-earning supper-club act.
Of the non HDH songs you get an early deviation from the production team with the Ivy Jo Hunter produced song co-written with Stevie Wonder- “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”. This gave them their biggest UK hit to date (#21 in 1966) but wasn’t that favoured in the US and the try- the- group- with- other producers experiment was abandoned (but as the next single was “Reach Out I’ll Be There” nobody was complaining). The problem may have been that it actually sounds a bit more like a Temptations song than the Four Tops. 1987’s Levi wearer as opposed to Levi Singer Nick Kamen, who shot to fame stripping down to boxer shorts in an advert for 501’s to another Motown tune scored a UK#16 hit with a good enough cover of this song. When Motown’s lead songwriting team upped sticks and left to set up Hot Wax/Invictus their own label the Tops may have lost some of their defining sound. But there were still hits. “It’s All In The Game” is an excellent cover of the 1958 Tommy Edward’s chart-topper. “Still Water (Love)” (1970) (US#11, UK#10) had a Norman Whiftield-ish ballad feel although was written and produced by Smokey Robinson and Frank Wilson. Perhaps my all-time favourite Four Tops track comes from this time “Simple Game” was actually a Moody Blues song once again produced by Frank Wilson and was one of the tracks that was more successful in the UK (1971#3). We in the UK loved the Four Tops – they may have not been as cool as the Temptations but as a singles act they were more successful.
Perhaps Berry Gordy’s ultimate plan for the Four Tops post- HDH can be seen with tracks such as “It’s All In The Game” and “Macarthur Park” (US#38) and when Motown upped sticks to move to LA- primarily to get involved with the movie business the Four Tops decided to remain in Detroit. Success after this time was sporadic but it is great to have on this CD tracks such as “Keeper Of The Castle” (1972 US#10, UK#18) and “When She Was My Girl” (1981- US#11, UK-3) and a couple of UK only hits, the HDH influenced “Don’t Walk Away” (1981#16) and the track helped by its appearance in the Phil Collins movie “Buster”, “Loco In Acapulco” (1988#7). The song that perhaps sums up this time is “Indestructible” (1988 US#35, UK#30) as it seemed that the Four Tops actually were. This is the group that stayed together. Levi Stubbs was always loyal to the group, never tempted to a solo career or even recording solo singles. His one foray away from the group was to voice the man-eating plant Seymour in the Little Shop Of Horrors movie – and what better person to do that. The group seemed indestructible, until death intervened in their 44th year of recording together when Lawrence Payton died in 1997. Then the personnel changes started (including for a time Payton’s son). Obie Benson died in 2005 and the legendary Levi Stubbs died in 2008, leaving Duke Fakir as the only original living member.
The Four Tops are one of Motown’s greatest groups and one of the best vocal groups ever and this compilation reminds us why.
“Their Greatest Hits” is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.99 and used from £0.23. It does not seem to be readily available in the US. In both markets other Greatest Hits compilations are available.