THE FOUR TOPS
Conserving themselves for a busy year
- No, this isn’t the Four Tops planning a guest spot on Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants, nor lead singer Levi Stubbs anticipating his role as the carnivorous plant Audrey II in musical horror comedy Little Shop Of Horrors. This shot of the Motown quartet – from left, Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Lawrence Payton – looks to have been taken circa 1965 inside the Belle Isle Conservatory on the thousand-acre park situated in the middle of the Detroit River. It’s long been a favourite recreational site for city residents, and Motown used to hold summer picnics there around the July 4 holiday weekend. The location also served as an exercise route: when Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. was an amateur boxer in his teenage years, he would run five miles around Belle Isle in the early hours of the morning.
- The summer of ’65 was a sizzling time for the Four Tops. Their “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” had blazed to the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 that June. Then, as described in the liner notes of The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 5: 1965, Motown got word that Columbia Records was planning to reissue a recording the group had made there years earlier, “Ain’t That Love,” having remixed it to sound like a current Hitsville track. To pre-empt that possibility, Berry Gordy told his team to deliver a follow-up to “I Can’t Help Myself” immediately.
- The date was Wednesday, July 7, according to Motown engineer Bob Dennis, who remembered the Holland/Dozier/Holland team in Studio A that afternoon. “With the Tops standing by, they wrote [the words to] ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ on the spot,” he noted. By 5pm, he received the first mix of the track from Robert Gordy, “and he waited for me as I cut a reference disc on it.” This was part of the accelerated process to get early pressings onto the airwaves. By 3pm on July 8 – that is, 24 hours after Holland/Dozier/Holland and the Tops started working on the vocal parts – Dennis reported that “Motown managed to have 1500 copies in the hands of key DJs in the country, and ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ became a hit literally overnight.”
- Whether the Four Tops found time to relax on Belle Isle will remain a mystery. The day after they cut their vocals for “It’s The Same Old Song,” they were back in the Motown studio doing the same for another Holland/Dozier/Holland hit in the making, “Something About You.” By the end of November 1965, it became their third consecutive Top 20 hit. The group’s travel and performance schedule reflected the year’s success: that spring, they had spent ten days in the U.K., promoting “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” on radio and TV, while in August and September, they appeared at state fairs in Michigan and New Jersey, to mention just a few commitments. If you called them, they’d be there.