THE FOUR TOPS
The Four Tops had the same line-up for 44 years, a record which no other pop act is likely to come remotely near, from their formation as The Four Aims in 1953 to the death of Lawrence Payton in 1997. Sadly we have since lost Levi Stubbs and Renaldo Benson as well, leaving Abdul Fakir as the sole survivor, still performing occasional dates with three other singers. Though their success came in fits and starts, in the late 60s they were arguably the greatest Tamla Motown group of all. Of the many compilation albums available, this is a good round-up of their Motown years (with one glaring omission, which I'll come to, and another fairly obvious choice missing), up to their departure from the label in 1972.
Whether you remember them from their heyday, or just know them as a golden oldies outfit, just a glance at the track list will surely bring back a memory or several. Track one is the 1966 classic and transatlantic No. 1, 'Reach Out I'll Be There'. Like most of the other premier Motown hits of the era, it was written by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, Detroit's answer to Lennon and McCartney. And the match was perfect - a song laden with hooks, a revolutionary (for the time) arrangement using Arab drums, flutes and oboes plus the trademark Tamla bass and tambourines, to say nothing of front man Stubbs' inimitable lead vocal, a mixture of gospel and passion, and the harmonies of the other three. Incredibly, the group disliked the record at first and thought it too musically ambitious to be a success. How wrong they were. (There was a horrendous UK-only remix in 1988 which reached the Top 10 - thankfully that's absent).
Although it was a hard song to follow, 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love' and 'Bernadette', both by the same writing team, were the subsequent singles, keeping to a similar template without sounding too much like carbon copies. '7-Rooms Of Gloom' and 'You Keep Running Away', which followed later in 1967, might not have been quite in the same class, but weren't far behind.
When the H-D-H songwriting trio left Motown after disputes over royalty payments and took their services elsewhere, the Tops simply looked elsewhere and made other people's material their own. Little-known psych-pop outfit The Left Banke later gained their own 15 minutes of fame, thanks almost entirely to their 1966 flop single 'Walk Away Renee' being rescued from oblivion and turned into a classic smash one year later by our heroes. A gorgeous tune, atmospheric lyrics and one of Stubbs's most heartfelt vocal performances ever make this a rival for 'Reach Out' as their finest three minutes ever.
'Just walk away, Renee / You won't see me follow you back home / The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same / You're not to blame.'
Which brings me to the omission. Where oh where is their peerless version of Tim Hardin's 'If I Were A Carpenter', a British Top 10 hit in 1968? Not on this CD, sadly. (Right, sorry, but I'm deducting one star). Another track which might have been included but is not was their 1971 joint effort with the Supremes, 'River Deep Mountain High', which made the Top 20.
Nothing lasts forever, and in my view the group's magic run of singles dried up at that point. Different songwriting and production teams were tried, but sometimes when you lose the old team, the chemistry goes with it. Not that the subsequent hits 'Yesterday's Dreams', 'I'm In A Different World', and 'What Is A Man', were bad singles, they just lacked that old spark, and the songs just weren't as good as their predecessors. 'Do What You Gotta Do', penned by Jimmy Webb of 'McArthur Park' fame, was an improvement, but in the spring of 1970 it took a reissue of their 1965 classic 'I Can't Help Myself' (at the time a US chart-topper and UK Top 30 hit) to restore them to the British Top 10 and remind us that the group sounded best when they kept it simple. Two subsequent singles, 'It's All In The Game',a much-covered standard which dated back to the earlier years of the 20th century, and 'Still Water (Love)', were by comparison rather dreary affairs, even though they still went Top 10 in Britain.
By 1971 the hits were beginning to tail off, though there was another remarkable one-off collaboration around the corner when they recorded a song written, produced and played on by the Moody Blues, 'Simple Game'. The combination of leading British mellotron and prog-rock outfit with Motown's once golden boys of soul seemed a bizarre one on paper, but the result was an artistic and commercial success that, like so many of the Tops' singles, fared much better in the UK (No. 3) than on their home patch (a miserable No. 90).
This CD has 25 tracks, which makes it good value. Some of the songs, released in Britain before the group were really well known, were only minor hits or else missed totally. The Top 30 1966 hit 'Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever', is a wonderful a mid-tempo song which has grown in stature over the years, despite many inferior cover versions. 'It's The Same Old Song' is an effortlessly catchy song that fared poorly at the time, but has likewise since been recognised as one of Motown's great moments. And the semi-hidden treasures don't stop there. We go back all the way to the summer of 1964 for the sublime 'Baby I Need Your Loving', a pleading ballad which has likewise been plundered by many an inferior act. There are also two great songs which were minor American hits but deserved better, 'I'll Turn To Stone', and the infectious 'Something About You', which was revived quite magnificently (and with strangely little success) by Dave Edmunds in 1984.
A few B-sides also make up the collection. Naturally none of them match the quality of the A-sides, but that was generally the way. There are enough classic oldies to make this worth £6 or so, or less if you're happy to settle for a secondhand copy.
A twelve-page booklet, including several black and white photos and a full gracklisting which includes original US (but not UK) chart positions, release dates and catalogue numbers. One small hiccup in the five-page biographical essay - 'Simple Game' was not really 'a 1972 collaboration' - it was released in America that year, but in Britain it came out the previous autumn.
Of the several other compilations issued over the years, The Four Tops 'Singles Collection' is the best alternative. It includes not only the best of the Motown songs but the subsequent hits on different labels between 1972 and 1988, notably 'Keeper Of The Castle' and 'Loco In Acapulco', co-written by longtime Motown fan Phil Collins and used in his film 'Buster'. Although now deleted, secondhand copies can easily be found.
But whichever collection you end up with, this really is timeless music. The pick of these tracks are great songs, Stubbs was one of the classic soul voices, and the arrangements and production were equally fine - a wonderful example of all the elements falling into place.
[Revised version of a review I originally wrote on ciao]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Reach Out, I'll Be There
2 Standing In The Shadows Of Love
4 Ask The Lonely
5 Baby I Need Your Loving
6 Without The One You Love (Life's Not Worthwhile)
7 It's The Same Old Song
8 Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
9 I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)
10 Something About You
11 I Got A Feeling
12 I'm In A Different World
13 Walk Away Renee
14 What Is A Man
15 A Simple Game
16 Still Water (Love)
17 (It's The Way) Nature Planned It
18 It's All In The Game
19 You Keep Running Away
20 If You Don't Want My Love
21 7 Rooms Of Gloom
22 I'll Turn To Stone
23 Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)
24 Sad Souvenirs
25 Yesterday S Dreams