Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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The Four Tops

Reviewed on this page:
Four Tops - On Top - Live! - Reach Out - On Broadway - Yesterday's Dreams - Now - Still Waters Run Deep - Changing Times - Nature Planned It - Keeper Of The Castle - Main Street People - Meeting Of The Minds - Night Lights Harmony - Tonight! - Back Where I Belong - Magic - Indestructible

Although they formed in 1956, it wasn't until 1964, after signing with Motown, that the Four Tops found commercial success. The Four Tops soon became one of Motown's first-string acts, the male version of the Supremes - like the Supremes, nearly all the Four Tops singles were written and produced by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. While the Temptations' main attraction was their smooth tenor singers, the Tops' lead singer is rough-voiced bass Levi Stubbs, who recorded many of the label's most impassioned vocals ("Standing In The Shadows Of Love," "Reach Out I'll Be There"). Motown's house band, always excellent, often outdid themselves on Four Tops songs ("Bernadette," for example). The group left Motown in 1970, a couple of years after Holland-Dozier-Holland did, had a huge hit in 1972 with "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got)," and is now on the oldies circuit: somehow the original lineup managed to stick together more than forty years. (DBW)

Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer on 20 June, 1997. The remaining group members plan to continue performing as "the Tops." (JA)
Obie Benson died of lung cancer on 1 July, 2005, leaving just two group members. (DBW)

Personnel: (all vocalists)

Levi Stubbs, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Adbul "Duke" Fakir, Lawrence Payton. Payton died, 1997.

Four Tops (1965)
Motown hadn't quite figured out how to handle the Tops' distinctive vocal sound at this point. This album was rushed out to cash in on the success of the gritty "Baby I Need Your Loving," and aside from that single and Mickey Stevenson's "Ask The Lonely," the tracks are not among the group's best work. Stevenson's three other tracks are dull weepfests ("Sad Souvenirs"), and Holland-Dozier-Holland's contributions are no better ("Love Has Gone," "Your Love Is Amazing") - simple, unmemorable tunes; basic, hastily recorded arrangements; a distinct lack of presence. Despite their years of work before joining Motown, the Tops were not yet ready to take over the world. (DBW)

Second Album (1965)
A big step forward; the smash singles ("I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" and "It's The Same Old Song") are classics, and elsewhere H-D-H succeed in a variety of styles, from full-throttle dance music ("Since You've Been Gone") to the quiet longing of "Love Feels Like Fire." I haven't heard the entire album yet, but I'm sure looking for it. (DBW)

On Top (1966)
This record established a pattern - punchy H-D-H R&B on side one, tacky AM covers on side two - which held for some time. The big hit was the classic "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)," with a terrific Stubbs vocal, but the other H-D-H tunes are nearly as good: "I Got A Feeling" and "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" (written by Stevie Wonder) also mark the first appearance of the Mid-Sixties Motown Bass Virtuoso (generally believed to be James Jamerson, though Carol Kaye has laid claim), whose cascading arpeggios and endless chromatic passing tones sound like nothing released on any label before or since. The schlocky covers are pointless and dull, and the few original ideas (slowing down "Michelle" and piling on harmony vocals) misfire. There are also some forgettable ballads, including "Brenda," written by Eddie Holland without benefit of brother Brian or Lamont Dozier. (DBW)

Live! (1966)
Probably Motown's best 60s live album, partly because the Tops had honed their live act for years before joining the label, and Stubbs has an easy, confident rapport with the audience. Partly because the performance was in Detroit (at the Roostertail), with superb recording quality and musicianship: some of Motown's house band clearly participated, though it's definitely not Jamerson on bass. The big hits aren't rushed ("Baby I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself"); the flop singles are fun ("I'll Turn To Stone"); the obligatory MOR covers are cleverly rendered with tongue in cheek ("I Left My Heart In San Francisco," Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual") or juiced up with audience participation ("If I Had A Hammer"). If you want to hear a classic Motown act performing live at the peak of its powers... what am I saying? Of course you do. (DBW)

Reach Out (1967)
Half of this record ranks with the best Motown produced in the 60s: perfectly realized, gripping pop hits include "Bernadette," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Standing In The Shadows Of Love," "7 Rooms Of Gloom" and "I'll Turn To Stone." These aren't just catchy tunes with soulful vocals (though they are that), they're huge, ambitious pop productions. But most of the rest of the record is turned over to covers of the most whitebread pop hits of the day: not one but two Monkees hits ("I'm A Believer" and "Last Train To Clarksville"), the Association's "Cherish"... They managed to chart their versions of Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter" and the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee." I'd advise you to program your CD player to skip all those tracks, and focus on the Motown machine at its best. H-D-H tailor their material to the artists (no one else on the label could have sung "Bernadette" or "Reach Out" with the same conviction) and continue to experiment with song structure; the rhythm section is rock solid and continually interesting; the vocal performances are riveting. (DBW)
"If I Were A Carpenter" also was a hit for Bobby Darin in 1966 and Johnny Cash and June Carter in 1970, and also was covered by the Small Faces. (JA)

On Broadway (1967)
More painful than a trip to the dentist. The Tops give their all to this collection of bathetic show tunes ("The Sound Of Music," "Make Someone Happy," "Hello Broadway"), which only makes it worse: if Levi had sleepwalked through his vocals, it would have been a better fit for the hackneyed material and overbaked arrangements. Produced by Frank Wilson. Full review coming soon. (DBW)
Seems like all the big Motown acts were doing supper club music at this point. (JA)

Yesterday's Dreams (1968)
The cover tunes ("Daydream Believer," "By The Time I Get To Phoenix") are spread out over both sides, probably because there's not much else going on here. H-D-H had left the fold (they are represented by one pleasant leftover, "I'm In A Different World"), and most of the originals come from Ivy Hunter ("We've Got A Strong Love," title track), though Ashford & Simpson also gets one shot (the forgettable "Can't Seem To Get You Out Of My Mind"). No producer listed, but I assume it's a similar hodgepodge. Catty comments aside, the covers are enjoyable - "Phoenix" benefits from blissful harmonies, Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" is arranged like Stevie's version of the same tune, only funkier - there's a consistent soothing tone throughout, and the bass playing is inspired. Good fun for fans, but not to be mistaken for a classic. (DBW)

Four Tops Now (1969)
The single, "What Is A Man" by Johnny Bristol, failed to chart, but it's pleasant, tuneful Motown, one of several pleasant songs in the H-D-H mold (Raynard Miner's "The Key"). The album also includes two Beatles covers, "Eleanor Rigby" and "Fool On The Hill." Full review coming soon. (DBW)

Soul Spin (1969)
Norman Whitfield protege Frank Wilson took the reins here, and produced a batch of covers including the Mamas & the Papas hit "California Dreamin'" and the Beatles' "Got To Get You Into My Life," along with five originals including Smokey Robinson's "Nothing" - an accurate prediction of what the record would do on the charts. (DBW)

Still Waters Run Deep (1970)
This time Wilson dropped the AM covers, going with a steady diet of psychedelia. He used a light touch on a few numbers, mixing the sound effects low and creating a sparse backdrop for two hit singles, the smooth "It's All In The Game" and "Still Water (Love)" - co-written by Smokey Robinson - with a catchy/repetitive flute hook. Elsewhere, though, Wilson characteristically goes overboard, as with the echoey cover of the Supremes hit "Reflections." Most of the song material is flat, whether composed by Wilson and partner Pam Sawyer ("I Wish I Were Your Mirror") or by outsiders ("L.A. (My Town)" by S. Matthews). Perhaps the most successful of the group's post-HDH Motown albums, but that's not much of a recommendation. (DBW)

Changing Times (1970)
Another case of Frank Wilson Discovers Sound Effects Syndrome, as both album sides start with wah-wah'd, distorted crossfaded nonsense ("In These Changing Times"), and most tracks are separated by the sound of a ticking clock. Far out, man. And unlike the previous album, there are no memorable mellower numbers. Wilson seems out of touch on the cover of Bacharach & David's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," where emotive belting, swelling orchestration and a brash horn coda completely overwhelm the light jaunty spirit of the tune. The unsuccessful single "Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)" loses its way after a stately funky opening, drowning in silly backup vocals. Other covers include the Beatles' "The Long And Winding Road," with Jamerson uncharacteristically overplaying; most of the originals were written by Wilson and/or Pam Sawyer. (DBW)

At this point the Four Tops cut several studio records in collaboration with the post-Diana Ross Supremes, beginning with the successful The Magnificent 7. It included a substantial hit, their cover of "River Deep - Mountain High." Concurrently, the Tops released a weakly performing version of "MacArthur Park (Part II)" - movie star Richard Harris had scored a huge hit with "MacArthur Park" in 1968. (JA)

Nature Planned It (1972)
This is a mediocre outing, with Wilson trying some pretty routine early 70s gimmicks like sitar and stereo effects, and enforcing an smiley-faced, up-tempo pop formula that strongly recalls concurrent Jackson 5 hits ("She's An Understanding Woman"; "I Can't Quit Your Love"). Which is fine, except that none of the tunes, written by Wilson or by any of the second-string hack writers he had on tap, are particularly memorable. A couple efforts are over-earnest love songs that veer towards supper club music ("I Am Your Man"; the Sinatra-y "You Gotta Forget Him, Darling"). And the low point is a cover of Todd Rundgren's "We Gotta Get You A Woman," which instead of getting a tasteful Carole King-like arrangement, gets tranformed into a near-parody of early 70s pop experimentation, complete with ludicrous Latin horns. On the up side, most of the material is passable, some of the corniness is dispelled by a hard-kicking rhythm section ("Happy (Is A Bumpy Road)"), and they do mine the classic Motown sound in a few places ("I'll Never Change"). For once, the players are all listed; they include Wah Wah Ragin (guitar), Bongo Brown (percussion), and of course James Jamerson (bass), who isn't able to salvage much despite getting mixed plenty loud. (JA)

Keeper Of The Castle (1972)
You can take the group out of the record label, but taking the record label out of the group is a whole different kettle of worms. The group's first album on Dunhill is a careful copy of early 70s Motown, specifically the Norman Whitfield's wah-wah plus sweeping strings ("Put A Little Love Away") and What's Going On-era Marvin Gaye ("When Tonight Meets Tomorrow," written by Gaye collaborators Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, "The Good Lord Knows"). Throughout, Levi Stubbs' gritty vocals - so beloved by HDH - are minimized in favor of smooth group harmonies. It's an effective formula, soothing without being sappy, and they scored two top ten hits with love songs: "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got)" and the title track. Most tunes were written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter; they produced with Steve Barri, and they're smart: Toward the end of the record, when you're starting to gag on all the string sweetening, they throw in a stomping Stax-style number ("Jubilee With Soul"). You could ask for more depth and more originality, but you couldn't ask for better-crafted product. (DBW)

Four Tops Story (1973)
I suspect this is just a greatest hits record, put out by Motown once the Tops were done with them for good. (JA)

Main Street People (1973)
Again produced by Barri, Lambert and Potter, and it's a step up from their Dunhill debut. The Motown sound is blended with Philly strings and occasional funk ("Peace Of Mind"); the tunes are uniformly solid ("I Just Can't Get You Out Of My Mind"); the lyrics are clever and thought-provoking (title track). For perhaps the first time, the Tops made significant contributions to the songwriting: Fakir cowrote "Peace Of Mind" with Benson and Huey Davis, while Benson also co-wrote the thoughtful "Am I My Brother's Keeper" and the hit single "Sweet Understanding Love," an irresistable love song that could've walked off an H-D-H album. The other hit was "Are You Man Enough," from the Shaft In Africa soundtrack, which slyly combines a lush orchestration with Shaft-style wah-wah. While Stubbs gets most of the lead vocals, Payton gets a couple of features (he nails the plaintive "One Woman Man), and the backing vocals are prominent throughout. (DBW)
After this they fell off the charts for almost a decade. (JA)

Live And In Concert (1974)
I have this one and it's not a high point: the group mostly runs through old hits and does so with extreme enthusiasm, but the arrangements are sloppy and it just doesn't add up to much. (JA)

Meeting Of The Minds (1974)
Another solid effort like Main Street People, a bit heavier on ballads. Produced by Barri, Lambert & Potter; many of the arrangements are by Michael Omartian. Musicians include many West Coast bigshots like Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton. Full review coming soon. (DBW)

Night Lights Harmony (1975)
Full review coming soon. (DBW)

Catfish (1976)
Laurence Payton took over as producer. Full review coming soon. (DBW)
At this point they signed with ABC. (JA)

The Show Must Go On (1977)
Full review coming soon. (DBW)
Their second record on ABC. (JA)

At The Top (1978)
Their only disc on MCA. (JA)
Also, a 1978 recording of "To Care" was eventually released on George Clinton's Family Series Volume 4: Testing Positive 4 The Funk. (DBW)

Tonight! (1981)
Produced by David Wolfert, this was the last Tops album to hit the Top 40. The single "When She Was My Girl" was the reason why: it's pleasant, laid-back pop that almost cracked the Top Ten. The rest of the disc is in the same vein: Wolfert doesn't have anything approaching a fresh idea, just lots of midtempo string-laced 70s AM arrangements ("From A Distance"), but he's got a reasonably good batch of tunes ("Who's Right, Who's Wrong"). The lyrics are clichéd ("Tonight I'm Going To Love You All Over"), but the professionalism of the singers puts them across ("I'll Never Ever Leave Again"). The cover of Stevie Wonder's "All I Do" exemplifies the approach: enjoyable (especially if you haven't heard the original), if a bit flavorless and unimaginative. "Don't Walk Away" is a standout, though: a lively upbeat tune with a classic pleading vocal from Stubbs. The musicians are mostly studio heavyweights like Nathan East. (DBW)

Back Where I Belong (1983)
Their return to Motown, with one side produced by H-D-H, one number with the Temptations, and a duet with Aretha Franklin. Review coming soon. (DBW)

Magic (1985)
Willie Hutch and Reggie Lucas produced three tracks each, with one each contributed by Hal Davis (a cover of Ashford & Simpson's "Remember Me"), Johnny Bristol (a cover of Martha and the Vandellas' "I'm Ready For Love"), and Kerry Ashby & Benny Medina (their own "Easier Said Than Done"). Full review coming soon. (DBW)

Indestructible (1988)
Includes another duet with Aretha Franklin, "What Have We Got To Lose." Full review coming soon. (DBW)

Christmas Here With You (1995)
With the death of Payton, this one ends up having been the last album the original group ever recorded. (JA)

Wake me when it's over.

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