Upon its original release in the second half of 1966, this album contained the future and the past.
Devotees of the Four Tops – Levi Stubbs, Renaldo Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton – and their early work at Motown already knew of the group’s capabilities. This was evident throughout ’65, from the depths of despair (“Ask The Lonely”) to the heights of happiness (“I Can’t Help Myself”). Now, in a new year, the Tops were to scale new peaks.
“Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” hinted at the future. It was the group’s first 45 of ’66, and the most ambitious construct to date by the Tops’ primary architects, Holland/Dozier/Holland. Today, as almost 50 years ago, it is a nightmare in song, the desperate articulation of a dream the singer does not want to believe. The waves of sound – a dark piano, James Jamerson’s haunting bass, the tinnitus of vibes and strings – are pressed together with Levi’s lead vocal, pushed to the edge of his range. The result is an unsettling drama, deeper and broader than HDH’s previous productions with the Tops, the first step towards their towering work to come.
“Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” which precedes “Shake Me…” on this album, is equally dramatic, another signpost of achievements ahead. With the song’s co-writer, Stevie Wonder, on drums, the band track thunders like a subway train beneath your feet. But it’s Levi who is driving this machine, his commanding lead above the background rumble, taking an upbeat lyric to its natural climax. The power of the Tops’ four-part harmonies is also perfectly captured here, without the high edge of the Andantes, often employed by HDH on their other recordings.
Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, as the album’s overall producers, were wise to place “Shake Me…” and “Loving You…” in the middle of the original vinyl LP’s first side. They must have realised the importance of reassuring Tops’ fans with conventional Motown: the optimistic “I Got A Feeling” as the opening track, the lyrically-downbeat but danceable “There’s No Love Left,” as the closer. (On the latter, Levi is resigned to heartache; on another version of the song, by the Isley Brothers, they are deranged by it).
After the future, the past. Side two of On Top is another time and place. This is not Studio A at Hitsville; these are the lounges of Las Vegas or the Catskills. Once, the Four Tops crooned the output of Tin Pan Alley for nightclub audiences of diners and drinkers, or opened for big-band singer (and bandleader) Billy Eckstine in venues around America during the 1950s. Once again, they inhabit that milieu, with five songs and four-part harmonies faithful to their roots as the Four Aims. True, most of the compositions come from the ’60s, such as “Matchmaker” (from the musical Fiddler On The Roof) and, of course, Paul McCartney’s “Michelle.” But because of their hungry years and their discipline, the Tops glisten and shine. Seldom has the bossa nova of “Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars” sounded so pristine and pure, or “Bluesette” so enticing. Levi occasionally steps to the front, as with a few, mournful lines of “Michelle,” but for the most part, these are the Tops together: seamless and sophisticated, in perfect harmony.
For those forever in thrall to Classic Motown, it may be tough to hear the Tops this way. But it was precisely because of their history, their experience, their adulthood, that they could deliver the innovations of Holland/Dozier/Holland, and were equipped to take the death-defying leap to the future of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Bernadette.” Nothing could intimidate them. And, of course, when Berry Gordy wanted his artists to dazzle in the Copa, the Four Tops were to the manner born.
There is a footnote. Was the Quality Control team, or Mr. Gordy, worried about listeners’ reaction to the sounds of yesterday, perhaps at the expense of tomorrow? Step forward, the ever-dependable Smokey Robinson, providing one of his most-underrated songs, “Then,” co-written with fellow Miracles Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers, to close the album. It’s a mid-tempo ballad tailor-made for the melancholy which Levi evokes when singing within his range, coupled with lyrics as fine as Robinson’s best: “If Columbus never sailed the sea/If Longfellow never wrote a rhyme/If leaves have never grown upon a tree/And if the sands have never told the time.”
This is the Four Tops on top, soon to reach out.
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