The Four Tops
I hope everyone had a great weekend and is digging Friday’s installment of Funky16Corners Radio.
At the risk of jinxing the situation, the humidity appears to have broken – at least for the moment – and the sun is out again. Unfortunately this meteorological upswing arrived after the end of the weekend, so I basically get to watch it through my window.
I should warn you now that my wife and I are expecting our second child next Monday, so next week is more than likely going to be filled with summer re-runs/”Best of” material, so I can do my duty as a loyal husband/father. I may post the occasional brief, but aside from that I’m going to be getting used to not sleeping again.
Rest assured, I have lots of great stuff in the pipe, including lots of new mixes, so bear with me.
Today’s selection is another one from the “I Can’t Believe How Much I Took This Group For Granted, Honestly.” File. Certainly, of the artists that pop up in this space, few are as well known or successful as the Four Tops. If you follow my antics with any regularity, you will have noticed that periodically I return to a previously worn groove. I do this – at the risk of sounding repetitive (or embarrassing myself) because usually it has to do with a slightly “larger” concept.
As a music lover and record fiend, I often catch the collector psychosis, in which rarity brings not only an increase in monetary, but also artistic value (dubious to be sure) stepping in when I listen to music. This results in many fine records, which popularity and drastic levels of overplaying on oldies radio have rendered, how do you say “familiar” (with the most pejorative meaning possible) getting the brush-off when they come on the radio. Many of these records are Motown sides, that for better or worse have gotten the “Big Chill” treatment, and as a result have become – for me anyway – all but unlistenable.
I realize that this is not the artists (or the songs) fault, and that my beef is with the homogeneity of commercial radio. As I often explain to my wife (who’s a little younger than I am) the vast majority of what gets played on “Oldies” radio, is the stuff that was lodged firmly in the Top 10 of its day, and that you rarely get to hear anything else that resided between #10 and #40. These songs were in fact hits when they came out, but because the America’s pop-cultural “memory” has been so warped by the funhouse mirror of commercially driven “nostalgia” (and the reliance of “Oldies” radio on the Pop top 10), that many great records are known today only to the people old enough to have heard them first-hand or collector types (like myself) who spend most of their time rooting around in the dusty attics (literal and figurative) of the world.
Anyway, the aforementioned issue kept me from properly appreciating the sounds of the Motown organization for many years. That this was foolish on my part is, sadly, undeniable. I can however say that the last few years have seen me endeavor to remedy this situation. This isn’t to say that you’re going to find me blogging ‘Stop In The Name of Love’ – a song that I’ve decided I just don’t dig – but that you shouldn’t be surprised if you see me singing the praises of groups like the Four Tops or the Miracles alongside people you’ve never heard of before.
That said, despite songs like ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ getting overplayed into oblivion, the Four Tops discography is filled to the brim with records that are so potent that they transcend their abuse at the hands of radio programmers, advertising executives and wedding DJs. One of the prime beneficiaries of the Holland/Dozier/Holland troika, the Four Tops – led by one of the great soul voices of the 60’s, Levi Stubbs – racked up a remarkable series of hits between 1964 and 1967*. Some of these, like ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, ‘Standing In the Shadows of Love’ and ‘Bernadette’ (one of my wife’s favorite records) are among the greatest soul records ever produced, taking Motown (and all of soul and pop for that matter) in new directions.
I first heard ‘Shake Me Wake Me (When It’s Over)’ not on the radio, but on a scratchy, flea-market copy of the Four Tops greatest hits that I scored as a teenager. It struck me the first time I played it as one of those “where has this been all my life” records.
Starting with the piano and bass drum in tandem, then the tambourine and Stubbs vocal, ‘Shake Me…’ busts open with a drum roll that takes the cry of anguish into a solid, danceable tempo. There’s a real “cry” in Stubbs’ vocal, and the backing of the Tops (and I think the Andantes) in the background is perfect. The melody is one of HDH’s best, and the arrangement, pushed along by strings and ringing vibes is brilliant (the key change in the second half of the song is beautiful), but the real standout here is the voice of Levi Stubbs.
I think that because Stubbs never recorded as a solo artist, he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I suppose some of problem is that Motown is looked at as a kind of “hit factory” where the composers, producers, arrangers and band are often seen as equal contributors to the success of a given record (the same thing could fairly be said of many great Stax sides), and the singers end up looking like just another vehicle for delivery of the product. But I mean, really…give this track a couple of close listens and then honestly tell me that anyone besides Levi Stubbs could have delivered such a masterful, passionate performance (it is possible to make such a statement without denying the genius of the song itself, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive). I think you’ll agree**.
*I’m talking about the records that I consider remarkable. They obviously kept having hits after 1967…
** This said of course, noting that on the LP (this track is recorded from the jukebox EP seen above) ‘On Top’ almost the entire b-side is devoted to awful attempts at middle-of-the-road-ness like a version of ‘Matchmaker’ from Fiddler on the Roof. Despite the fact that the Four Tops did record jazz and standards before they signed with Motown, this unfortunate detour can be wholly attributed to the Motown organization, who pushed the same, ill-advised supper club dross on many of their hitmakers.