People rave about how good the Temptations were. They wax poetically on how great their sound was & how they innovated that ’60’s Motown sound. The truth, however, is that The Four Tops while not as widely recognized are in fact just as good if not better than the Temptations. This, though, is not a comparison piece, it is merely a testament to the effect of the Four Tops in the evolution of soul music.
The Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs had the voice of a gravely angel as he raspily sang songs such as: “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” & my favorite “Bernadette”. The problem the Four Tops face is that their music doesn’t necessarily translate to today’s society as their most popular song the aforementioned “Sugar Pie, Honey bunch” is filled with slang & colloquialisms of that time. This does not take away from the affection of the song, just makes it less palatable to this generation.
Soul music today, has been bastardized to the point of nearly no return. It has formed a partnership with Rap/Hip-Hop which is fine in that music must constantly evolve but in some instances, this being one of them, a genre can lose it’s value to the point that it’s completely worthless. This is the case with modern Soul/R&B with a few exceptions, John Legend, Amos Lee, James Hunter & perhaps Jill Scott being those exceptions. They are far & few between, though. The Four Tops exemplified that harmonious street corner sound of 60’s soul.
Where Sam Cooke took gospel to new heights, the Four Tops took that soul sound & created a genre that the Temptations followed. it was the Four Tops, though, that from their inception in 1953 to their end in 1997 that not once had a personnel change. It was the sound of the Four Tops that created Motown. The Four Tops begot the Temptations & the Supremes who begot Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrel. It was from this quartet that Soul escaped the Blues/Jazz/Gospel sound of the ’50’s & for better or worse became a marketable entity for white America in the ’60’s.
The ’50’s sound of gospel was very close to Blues & the Negro spiritual anthems that were the forebearers to R&B/Soul that Berry Gordy, in collaboration with The Four Tops among others, perfected. My contention is merely that the Four Tops are simply not given the credit for which they so rightly deserve. The emotion that Stubbs sings with in the beautiful “Bernadette” about his longing for the girl that he adores & how he fears losing her to the “other men”, is palpable.
The Temptations are certainly more polished than the Four Tops. They go down easier. The Temptations are great in their own right, don’t get me wrong, but they are simply not as good as the Four Tops. Whereas the Four Tops are coffee black, the Temptations are 2 creams & a little sugar (nothing to do with race, sycophants).
The difference is & we’ll use the example of “Bernadette” once again, is the crescendo in the music as Stubbs goes right along with it. The music hits it’s peak just as Stubbs hits his, it’s brilliance is all consuming as you can sense the feelings in his voice getting more desperate as the song goes along. He pleads with “Bernadette” to “tell the world” of their love. Begging her to not leave him for the “other men” by expressing all the feelings of adoration he feels for her. All he wants is her to keep on loving him & then the best part when you think the song is going to end & Stubbs screams out her name without any accompaniment as one last plea for her to feel the pain he would feel if he were to lose her again to the “other men”.
It is music like this that should be recognized as the epoch of R&B brilliance, but instead they are a footnote to the easily digestible Temptations. It is my goal as a lover of the purity of all forms of music that they should be as widely recognized as the Temptations or the Supremes or even Marvin Gaye. The Four Tops live in the hearts & minds of those that have experienced their enduring legacy & learned from their example of stability & brilliance.
THE FOUR TOPS