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.
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.
Martha and the Vandellas – “Nowhere To Run,” Pop #8, R&B #5
Every element positively soars in this song. The brief, simple horn riff lifts off and Martha Reeves’ voice pushes the listener into the stratosphere. Funk Brother Benny Benjamin’s bouncing drums and ascending backing vocals from the Vandellas keep the track in the air well past the run-off groove.
Reeves’ vain search to shake a no-good lover from her mind is further propelled by a light tickle of piano and hard-driving percussion than included a pair of snow chains bolstering the tambourine placed front and center in the mix. Holland-Dolland-Holland clearly knew what they were doing with this number. Heartbreak has never sounded so jubilant. – by Joel Francis
The Temptations – “My Girl,” Pop #1, R&B #1
By Joel Francis
Lightning definitely struck twice for Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. After struggling for years, Robinson gave the Temptations their breakthrough hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” “My Girl,” their follow-up, is not only Motown’s biggest song, but one of the biggest soul numbers of all time.
Inspired by his wife Claudette, Robinson and fellow Miracle Ronald White wrote the one of the greatest Valentines of all time as an answer song to their previous hit “My Guy.” Bob Dylan may have been thinking of the lyric “I’ve got so much honey/the bees envy me” when he proclaimed Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” in 1965.
David Ruffin made his lead vocal debut delivering these deceptively simple lyrics. Though it seems a no-brainer in retrospect, the decision was controversial at the time. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams had shared the lead role prior to this song, and, to make matters worse, Ruffin was a ringer who replaced original Temptation Al Bryant. Ruffin got the nod after Robinson saw him singing “Under the Boardwalk” as part of their Motown Revue repertoire, and quickly became the group’s featured singer.
The Motown string section furthers Ruffin’s references to sunshine and fluttering birds, while Funk Brother James Jamerson’s signature two-note bass line anchors the entire performance.
It’s unclear why Robinson and White didn’t keep their song for The Miracles, but it didn’t take long for other acts to put their stamp on the number. Otis Redding added some blues for his 1965 reading; both the Rolling Stones and the Mamas and Papas cut it in 1967. Since then, everyone from Al Green to reggae artist Prince Buster to Dolly Parton to British shoegazers The Jesus and Mary Chain has reinterpreted this timeless classic.