Can’t Help Myself (Soul May 9th 1970)

In the Poptastic mid-1960’s there was a heaving rush of perfect 45’s, seven inch vinyl discs that broadened the scope of popular music not only appealing to a massive audience but forcing me to use the word “zeitgeist” here. In 1964 Phil Spector hooked up his Wall of Sound to the vocal talents of the Righteous Brothers for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”. The following year “Satisfaction” showed that there was much more to the Stones than their R&B influences, Folk god Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar for “Like A Rolling Stone” & the double whammy of “We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper” confirmed the growing maturity of the Merseyside moptops. In 1966 Brian Wilson immersed himself in then emerged from his studio with “Good Vibrations” while “the Sound of Young America”, Tamla Motown, released “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, an urgent, exciting & assertive instant classic to rank with the aforementioned. The Four Tops, already established in the US, became international stars.



The Four Tops: 'Reach Out I'll Be There' | Classic TracksOn the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations for May 9th 1970 “It’s All in the Game”, the latest record by the Four Tops, rose from #34 to #26. The quartet were friends from Detroit high schools, formed in 1953, releasing their first single in 1956 as the Four Aims, they were older than other emerging groups at Motown. Matched with producer/songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland in 1964 they were immediately successful with a string of records featuring the quintessential, magnificent, mature vocals of Levi Stubbs, the sweetness added by Obie Benson, Duke Fakir & Lawrence Payton, a line-up that endured until 1997. The “Reach Out” LP (1967) launched the Tops into the stratosphere. The album included an incredible 6 singles all of which charted in the Top 20 of the Pop & R&B listings. “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, “7 Rooms of Gloom” & “Bernadette” are all in the same class as the title track. In 1968 the first volume of The Four Tops’ “Greatest Hits” was some kind of wonderful.


Four Tops - It's All In The Game - sheet music – A Nickel And A NailPerhaps the Four Tops were affected more than most by the departure of H-D-H from Motown. “Reach Out” was to be their final collaboration but the later singles from the record “Walk Away Renee” & “If I Were a Carpenter”, soulful reworkings of contemporary Pop hits, indicated a change of pace. I wouldn’t say more restrained because Levi was still giving it his all. They recorded with different producers & there was a period where their records were more successful in the UK than at home. In 1970 the LP “Still Waters Run Deep” put their name back in the top frame. “It’s All In The Game”, a melody written in 1911, a hit in 1958, an arrangement where the other members were, for once, more prominent, started another run of Top 20 R&B hits which continued after they left Motown in 1972. The live clip above, recorded in a Vietnam veterans hospital for “The Ed Sullivan Show”, is a little extempore but still charismatic. We all know just how great the Four Tops were.




Flaming Ember | Discography | DiscogsThe Flaming Ember originally Embers, named after a Detroit hamburger joint, had made some records for small local labels. George Clinton was involved with 1967’s “Hey Mama (What’cha Got Good For Daddy) but their big Rock & Soul sound met with little attention. The group’s luck was in when they were signed by Holland-Dozier-Holland’s new post-Motown operation. The trio’s reputation for quality & commercial appeal was reinforced with “Mind, Body & Soul”, Flaming Ember’s debut for them & the group’s first hit.


Flaming Ember - Westbound #9 (1970, Vinyl) | Discogs“Westbound #9”, at #45 on this week’s chart & headed for a much higher position, is the title track of the Ember’s debut LP on the Hot Wax label. I reckon that Levi Stubbs would have heard the 6 H-D-H songs on the record & thought that he & his group could have made a fair go of them. Featuring drummer/vocalist Jerry Plunk, that’s him out front in the love beads & bell bottoms giving it loads on the TV show “Upbeat”, the album’s instrumentation suggests that the house band, the Politicians, were busier in the studio than the four group members. They have more input on the next LP “Sunshine”, Jerry wrote a couple of the songs, but “I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper”, the standout track, another chartbound sound, followed by “Ding Need Dong (To Ding-A-Ling-A-Ding-Dong)” is an indication of its variable quality. The label was having bigger hits with other artists & Flaming Ember were soon back in the Detroit clubs. Still, you hear “Westbound#9” & that song sticks around for the rest of the day.



El Chicano - Viva Tirado (1970, Monarch Pressing, Vinyl) | DiscogsFrom blue-eyed to brown-eyed Soul. El Chicano were representing for their Mexican-American community in East Los Angeles who were developing a more visible political & cultural voice in parallel to the Civil Rights movement. “Viva Tirado”, an instrumental regional hit in their hometown was breaking nationally & was at #30 on the chart. There seems to have been an indeterminate number of members of El Chicano with a whole bunch of fine percussion surrounding the virtuoso Hammond B-3 organ playing of Bobby Espinosa complemented by the Jazz influenced guitar of Mickey Lespron. “Viva Tirado” is a Jazz tune & the integration of Funk, Soul, Latin, Salsa & Rock rhythms makes for a very tasty & moreish El Chicano sound.


Mexican-American band "El Chicano" including members Rudy Regalado ...I’m making up for lost time with El Chicano. The group released an LP a year until 1976 & there are new favourites to discover. Guest vocalists were added on later records but the instrumentals are the ones that hit the spot. Placing them somewhere between Santana & War their covers of well known tunes may not immediately impress new listeners but the band always hit the coolest of Latin grooves where foot-tapping & smiling is no longer optional. Here’s their take on Marvin’s “What’s Going On” to prove it. In the words of novelist Carlos Fuentes  “Soy chicano en todas partes. No tengo que asimilarme a nada. Tengo mi propia historia.” (I am Chicano everywhere. I don’t have to assimilate to anything. I have my own story). El Chicano are part of that story.



When You Need A Hand To Hold, Darling, Reach Out (Four Tops)

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.