Four Tops – “It’s the Same Old Song”

Four Tops – “It’s the Same Old Song,” Pop #5, R&B #2

By Joel Francis

There’s a good reason why “It’s the Same Old Song” sounds so much like the Four Tops’ previous hit, “I Can’t Help Myself:” both songs are built on the same chords, only in reverse order.

When “I Can’t Help Myself” hit No. 1 in June, 1965, the Tops’ old label, Columbia, tried to cash in by re-releasing a five-year-old Tops single. An upset Berry Gordy countered that Motown needed to quash that single with one of their own – in just 24 hours.

At 3 p.m. Holland-Dozier-Holland sat down to write. Just two hours later, the Tops had finished recording the number and the tune was ready to mix. By 3 p.m. the next day, 1,500 copies of “It’s the Same Old Song” had been pressed and sent to DJs across the country. The icing on this astounding feat of production came in the coming weeks, as the song eventually rose to No. 5 on the charts.

Like “I Can’t Help Myself,” the song is propelled by Funk Brother Jack Ashford’s vibe’s and Richard “Pistol” Allen’s drumming. The bubbly string arrangement also echoes “I Can’t Help Myself.” Unsurprisingly, the end result is a second helping of a joyous melody masking a melancholy lyric. If it ain’t broke….

In the late ’70s two groups proved it was anything but “The Same Old Song” with two very different covers. KC and the Sunshine Band turned in a disco version and Delroy Wilson gave a reggae reading. Neither translation made the charts.


The Contours – “First I Look at the Purse”

The Contours – “First I Look at the Purse,” Pop #57, R&B #12

By Joel Francis

The name on the label says “The Contours,” but all four of the singers who found success with 1962’s chart-topping “Do You Love Me” were gone by the time this number came out three years later.

A novelty song penned in the vein of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s classic Coaster’s numbers, it’s hard to imagine songwriters Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rodgers presenting this number to their group, the Miracles. But since none of the Contour’s follow-up efforts had cracked the Top 40, they had a little leeway for fun.

The production combines the Motown Sound with a spirit similar to Jimmy Soul’s 1963 hit “If You Wanna Be Happy.” In Soul’s song, ugly women cause fewer problems that pretty ones. For the Contours, fiscal assets are more desirable than physical ones. Or as the lyrics so eloquently put it, “If the purse is fat/that’s where it’s at.”

It’s not surprising the number failed to catch on, although it did prevent the group from becoming a one-hit wonder. What is surprising is the longevity of the group. As the original lineup fell away, Berry Gordy kept replacing members. Billy Gordon, the man who sang lead on “Do You Love Me” was replaced by Joe Stubbs, brother of Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs. After Stubbs left, Dennis Edwards was recruited to front the group.

It seemed the end for the Contours when the Temptations plucked Edwards to be their frontman in 1968. Founding member Joe Billingslea had other plans. Nearly 10 years after he left the group, Billingslea, a founding member, resurrected the name and hired four other singers to play and record with him around Detroit.

The band found themselves in demand after the Motown 25 concert and the 1988 film “Dirty Dancing,” which prominently featured “Do You Love Me.” The subsequent Dirty Dancing Concert Tour found Billingslea reunited with his old bandmate Sylvester Potts and recording for Motor City Records. In the early ’90s, Potts split from Billingslea’s quintet and started his own four-piece lineup, also called The Contours. Today, both Joe Billingslea and the Contours and The Contours featuring Sylvester Potts can be found on the oldies and county fair circuit.

Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

The piano riff that kicks off this tune is instantly and universally recognizable – and with good reason. Depsite the apologetic lyrics, Levi Stubbs’ magnificent vocals are a ray of sunshine. He might be singing that he’s “weaker than a man should be,” but Stubbs is clearly having more fun than he should for a man in his predicament.

The string arrangement echoes the upbeat, impulsive melody – pay attention to the delightful vibraphone line – while Funk Brother Richard “Pistol” Allen’s offbeat drumming keep the feet moving. Stubbs’ vocals sound like the direct descendent of Kansas City, Mo. jazzman Big Joe Turner’s “shout” singing style. If they couldn’t bring his lover back, then the saxophone interlude should have sealed the deal.

Holland-Dozier-Holland’s song capped five straight No. 1 hits with the Supremes. Although the trio penned the Tops’ early hits like “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Berry Gordy thought they had lost their touch and passed the Tops to Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter’s pen for “Ask the Lonely.” After the success of “I Can’t Help Myself,” Holland-Dozier-Holland were given nearly exclusive rights to the Tops’ singles for the next three years.

In the summer of 1965, this song fought for the No. 1 spot with The Byrd’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” by the Rolling Stones. What a summer that must have been.

Four Tops – “Ask the Lonely”

Four Tops – “Ask the Lonely,” Pop #24, R&B #9

The name on the label says “Four Tops” but this is really a Levi Stubbs record. Stubbs was never one of Motown’s marquee vocalists, and the injustice of that act is amplified by his three-minute tour-de-force singing here. Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Hunter’s song and production is more mature than the typical Motown single. Stubbs’ classic soul voice is imbedded with the “hurting pain” he’s imploring his friend to avoid. The female backing vocals sound silly when they introduce the song, but blend well with the arrangement. The other three Tops are all but absent, but they’re not missed thanks to Stubbs’ heart-wrenching performance.

“Ask the Lonely” is stuck in the Tops’ limbo land. It wasn’t a big hit, but it was too good to be a footnote. The song is still performed at Four Tops concerts today – sans Stubbs’ vocals, of course – but unlike other Motown hits, it never made an impact on the covers circuit. Which is probably just as good. — by Joel Francis

Four Tops – “Baby I Need Your Loving”

Four Tops – “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Pop #11

Few had heard of the Four Tops before this song was released in the summer of 1964, but the public quickly became acquainted. The quartet’s debut single sold over a million copies – a feat equally impressive in today’s iTunes era – and landed just outside the Top 10.

Songwriters and producers Holland-Dozier-Holland went the Phil Spector route in the studio, hauling in a 40-piece string section and supplementing the Four Tops’ voices with backing vocals from the Andantes, a female trio also signed to Motown. Spector’s Wall of Sound productions were simultaneously big and small. For all the attention lavished on the strings and vocals, check out the echo on those finger snaps. That’s ultimate flattery for Spector.

Levi Stubbs’ lead vocals capture the ache and longing of a lover hoping to be forgiven. The way he sings the line “lately I’ve been losing sleep” perfectly captures a midnight soul search in a bed too big.

While the competition between the Four Tops and Temptations raged within Berry Gordy’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio, on the carts and among fans, the Four Tops introductory offering more than equaled the Temptations breakthrough “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

An incredibly durable number, the song charted in various arrangements (and punctuations, appearing as both “Baby I Need Your Lovin'” and “Baby, I Need Your Loving,”) for nearly 20 years after it was released. Folk singer Johnny Rivers had the first cover hit in 1967, but it has also been a hit for lounge singer O.C. Smith, soul singer Geraldine Hunt, pop idol Eric Carmen and, finally, funk singer Carl Carlton in 1982. — by Joel Francis