Happy Friday! We’ve got a special double dose of Detroit for you today: reviews of two of Motown Select’s latest releases – singles box sets devoted to The Four Tops and Martha & The Vandellas, respectively. First, Mike can’t help himself when it comes to the Tops…
Is it right to call one of Motown’s most beloved vocal groups – with over a dozen Top 20 hits and production credits from three of the greatest names not only on the Detroit label, but in all of pop-soul music – underrated?
For reasons I’ve never been able to identify, The Four Tops seem like they’re always gunning for the second tier of male-led vocal groups in the Motown legacy, far behind the gritty diversity of The Temptations and the angelic beauty of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. A dive into Motown Select’s brand-new package honoring the Tops – 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1964-1972 (Motown Select/UMe, catalogue no. TBD) makes it hard to understand how you can undervalue a group like this.
The Four Tops are perhaps most noteworthy for their consistency, both in terms of musical prowess and band aesthetics; Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton were the classic lineup that remained unchanged until Payton’s passing in the 1990s. (Today, only Fakir is still alive, and is still active with the group.) Any tension the band felt had less to do with internal affairs and more to conflicts with their label, leading them away from Motown for a spell in the 1970s. There’s plenty of musical consistency on this triple-disc set, thanks largely in part to the production and songwriting efforts of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. From “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” to the impressive Top 5 run of “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette,” there’s something like two dozen H-D-H compositions to enjoy here.
And there are surprises for those who know those songs like the back of their hand, from the extra mixes of “I Can’t Help Myself” and “It’s the Same Old Song” to much of the material on the second and third discs of the set. You might have heard “Walk Away Renee,” “It’s All in the Game” or “Still Water (Love),” but these last two discs let fans really dive into the Tops in their post-H-D-H career. (Key finds: the Tops’ collaborations with The Supremes, including rousing takes on “River Deep-Mountain High” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” or rousing deep cuts like “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” and “A Simple Game.”) The three Italian versions of key Tops hits that close the package are a trip, too.
If you’re leery of buying another Tops compilation, 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1964-1972 may be the one to get, not only for its comprehension but its look. The 7″ x 7″ package is stuffed with track-by-track liner notes (adapted from The Complete Motown Singles series) as well as beautiful scans of rare photos and picture sleeves from all over the world – a definite reward for the eyes as well as the ears (which will love the mono mixes in action here).
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought or felt that The Four Tops were second bananas during the golden years of Motown. But with this set, it’s definitely not the same old song.
You can order The Four Tops’ 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection here!