“Four Ways to Listen to The Four Tops” is part of an ongoing series by David H. Miller that provides accessible and substantive approaches to the work of artists with large and varied discographies. So here it is: four Four Tops albums, a song from each, and a suggested approach to the music—a way to listen encapsulated by a single word.
The Album: Four Tops Second Album (1965)
The Song: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”
The Word: Rivalry
In March 1983, the Four Tops and the Temptations met together onstage for a musical “battle of the bands,” filmed as part of the television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. If the Four Tops and the Temptations were once rivals, though, there can be little doubt now which group came out on top. With neither an acclaimed miniseries nor a California Raisins cover to their name, it’s clear that the Four Tops never achieved quite the same level of cultural cachet as their sibling group at Motown.
The histories of the two groups have been entwined from the beginning. Their first hit singles, the Temptations’ “My Girl” and the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” reached #1 within a few months of each other in the spring of 1965. And while the Temptations may have arrived there first, “I Can’t Help Myself” spent two weeks atop the charts, “My Girl” just one. The Temptations would ultimately win the charts battle, scoring four #1 hits to the Four Tops’ two and topping the charts with “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in 1972, six years after the Four Tops last held that position. All of that may obscure a greater truth, though: the Four Tops and the Temptations combined for six #1 singles while Motown’s real supergroup, the Supremes, scored a staggering twelve.
Indeed, the Four Tops and the Temptations have always been closer to peers than rivals. As the two groups take the stage for their “battle” an announcer bellows “the Four Tops and the tempting Temptations, here to battle it out just like in the old days!” But it’s all a ruse. At the end of the segment, no victor is declared. Instead, the two groups come together for hugs while the audience showers them with applause. The battle, like the long-running tour it spawned, was always more about ensuring both groups’ continued popularity than choosing between them. And it worked. Even in 2016, the Four Tops and the Temptations are coming soon (and together) to a stage near you.
The Album: Reach Out (1967)
The Song: “Reach Out I’ll Be There”
The Word: Backing
The 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom shined a light on backing vocalists and the Four Tops’ other #1 single, “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” shows why that’s a good idea. Lead vocalist Levi Stubbs delivers a memorable performance, but it’s the other three Four Tops who kick the song into gear with one of my favorite moments in the group’s oeuvre: a wordless, visceral exclamation at the start of the first verse (0:16). In a live performance from 1966, the gesture is even more exaggerated. Appropriately enough, the group concludes that performance not as three-plus-one but as four together, with Stubbs rejoining the others to deliver a sumptuous tag not heard on the studio version.
“Reach Out I’ll Be There” is also one of many Four Tops songs to feature the Andantes, Motown’s in-house group of female backing vocalists recently described as the label’s “secret weapon” and “the unknown girl group heard 20,000 times.” Popular culture has long craved stars, as the history of Motown makes clear. The Supremes became Diana Ross & the Supremes, and David Ruffin left the Temptations when he didn’t get the same treatment. But groups like the Andantes show that there is strength in numbers. In fact, absent the prominent role granted backing vocalists at Motown, the Four Tops as we know them today may never have been. Before the group rose to prominence, they too sang backup, on the Supremes’ “Run, Run, Run.”
The Album: Still Waters Run Deep (1970)
The Song: “Still Water (Peace)”
The Word: Concept
Simply put, the Four Tops did not age all that gracefully. 1970’s Still Waters Run Deep has its bright spots (the cover of “It’s All in the Game” is undeniably charming), but the album is no overlooked gem, and I find it difficult to argue that it should have been anything more than the moderate success it was.
Opinions about the quality of its music aside, however, Still Waters Run Deep is worth mentioning for its intriguing relationship to an iconic Motown album. As detailed by Albumism’s Terry Nelson in his recent tribute, the title track of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971) was composed by Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson. But Benson’s composition isn’t the only link between Gaye’s album and the Four Tops.
What’s Going On is often cited as one of the earliest and most effective concept albums, a unified meditation on a single theme featuring seamless transitions from one song into the next. The album’s impact, then and now, relies not only on its powerful subject matter, but also on the integrity of its construction. While Still Waters Run Deep cannot claim to have had the same kind of impact, it too is something of a concept album. Some of the songs transition into one another, and the final track (“Still Water (Peace)”) is a reprise of the opener (“Still Water (Love)”). What’s Going On makes the same move in much subtler fashion, with strains of Benson’s composition appearing at the end of the final track, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”
Could it be that the relatively forgotten Still Waters Run Deep served, as some have suggested, as inspiration for What’s Going On? If it did, then we all owe the Four Tops a debt of gratitude for the role they played in bringing to life one of the most influential albums of all time.
The Album: Four Tops Second Album (1965)
The Song: “It’s the Same Old Song”
The Word: Meaning
On its face, “It’s the Same Old Song” is simply a standard-issue tale of love lost with a clever song-about-a-song conceit. But the chorus’s lyrics suggest that there is something more going on here: “Now it’s the same old song / But with a different meaning since you been gone.” The significance of the couple’s favorite song has shifted. What was once an emblem of their love is now a melancholy reminder of that love’s absence.
The tale is relatable enough, banal even, but the way in which “It’s the Same Old Song” highlights the mutability of musical meaning is noteworthy. The song’s “different meaning” serves as a reminder that musical meaning is always subject to change. What’s more, the shift in the song’s significance is brought about by a parallel shift in a relationship. In other words, the nature of that shift is personal—not aesthetic, intellectual, or political. It may be “the same old song” for everyone else, but for the song’s narrator it very much is not.
It is a lesson worth remembering. In an era of hot takes and think pieces, it can be tempting to try to pin down once and for all the meaning of a song or a film. When it comes to art, though, fixed meanings are always illusory. New interpretations that conflict with our own will inevitably crop up. Even musicians themselves have limited control over the meanings with which their music is imbued.
But maybe that’s a good thing. If no one gets to have the last word on what a song means, then we can all have a say. As in “It’s the Same Old Song,” room remains for personal significance. And if the Four Tops discography is any indication, personal significance is often more potent than even the hottest take or the smartest think piece.