The Northern Soul scene in the UK has prolonged the careers of artists who would struggle to call what they used to do a career. There has though been a tendency to value rarity as much as quality. Only 250 demo copies were pressed of Frank Wilson’s Motown 45 from 1965. it is a fine record but £25,742 ($40,000) for a copy ? I’ve got it on CD ! Many great tracks have been excavated & played out by DJ obsessives but I find it does help to get back to where you once belonged. To renew contact with the soul greats, the artists who’s music put the bug in your ear & led you down the road to infatuation. Here’s four of them now.
In 1965 “the Sound of Young America” started out of West Grand Boulevard, Detroit (Hitsville USA) & spread to the rest of the world. For 3 consecutive years the Four Tops had 4 hit singles. The group were not too young, they had worked together for a decade & were all coming up to 30. They were though the epitome of the Motown sound. Holland-Dozier-Holland…check, the Funk Brothers’ indefatigable insistence that we should dance…check, as Marvin sang, a “Pride & Joy”, yup, it was all there. The first hit, the impassioned “Baby I Need Your Loving”, was pinched in the UK by some Mersey magpies. The subsequent run, which included “The Same Old Song”, were left alone, any approximation of these perfect, floor-filling stompers would just be gimpy. Their records only reached the lower Top 30 over here but were the toppermost in every club in the country.
What a clip this is. The Tops, Duke, Obie, Lawrence & Levi, are smart casual here, instead of the usual matching band uniforms, they look the better for it. There’s an off-the-cuff feel about the presentation, certainly compared to the precisely drilled choreography of the Temptations. Of course Levi Stubbs is lead vocal, centre stage but he’s happy singing & dancing with his boys. Sugar pie, honeybunch, this song just flows with a simple, urgent logic.This is how a great pop song sounds & I have to smile, I can’t help myself.
In 1966 Motown & the Four Tops went into overdrive. There was a lot of competition but “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” was not just a great soul song, it was alongside “Good Vibrations”, “Sunny Afternoon”, “Eleanor Rigby”, stuff like that. The group were #1 in the world & they consolidated their primacy with a run of subsequent 45s which were, as I believe the young Americans say, awesome ! I remember a friend, a vocalist of ability who has made his own albums, hearing “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” for the first time & being stopped in his tracks. I could have picked any of these hits but “Bernadette” just never pales, the pause before Levi returns for the fade-out…perfect. Here the boys are suited & booted, smart guests in American lounges of a Sunday night. It’s Levi’s show now, the songs’ pleading lyrics encouraging him to strain his powerful tenor voice. The backing vocals were lower in the mix & Levi Stubbs can be remembered as a great male Motown voice with Marvin, Smokey & David Ruffin.
In 1967 H-D-H, left Motown. The band needed new writers & new producers. The Temptations headed off to psychedelic soul but that was never going to suit the Tops. There were different producers, including the very same Frank Wilson. A new policy of taking new, classy pop songs by young writers brought them hit versions of Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” & Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter”. The band were making some classy cabaret soul, Levi could ease off & still deliver a world class vocal. Now the hits were bigger in the UK, “Do What You Gotta Do” (1969) is a Jimmy Webb song, an early one from when the young tunesmith would write true stuff down in songs. Nina Simone recorded the definitive version of this song but Levi does his thing &, while it may be from the middle of the road, he does it well.
The band left Motown in 1972 & they did have a few more hits. Man, they had a lot of credit in the bank after a decade of success. If you didn’t rate Levi Stubbs then you were wrong (Feed Me Seymour ). The 4 friends continued to perform together until 1997, welcome all over the planet. Only the unfortunate death of Lawrence Payton broke the sequence. Now Duke Fakir is the only surviving member but when you play those Motown records they are all still around.
I am not posting this without including this performance at the RFK Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13 1985. While Phil Collins was being tiresome on both sides of the Atlantic on the same day. While Queen’s (spit !) posturing pantomime pomp-rock pretence embarrassed us all. The Four Tops appeared at Live Aid (between the Hooters & Billy Ocean !) & they were this brilliant.