“The Tops are golden!” the CD cover blurb screams, and now they are in the anniversary sense as well: 50 years ago Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton and iconic soul belter Levi Stubbs sang together for the first time at a weekend party in Detroit’s North End. The foursome became a crack live act but it wasn’t until they signed with Motown ten years later that their hard work bore tanglible fruit.
Paired with the production/writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland by Motown owner Berry Gordy, the Tops’ first hit was a mature, confident masterpiece, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” with those jaunty finger-snaps, “dah-dee-dum dah” triplet-led piano figure, and glorious yearning chorus. They followed up with nothing less than Billboard’s Record of the Year for ’65, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” one of THE landmark Motown hits, driven by James Jamerson’s maniacally insistent circular bass line and Earl Van Dyke’s unflappable backbeat.
Their R&B vocal harmony experience grounded them even as HDH took flight into their “classical period” of late-’66 to mid-’67 with “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing In the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette” and “7 Rooms of Gloom.”
The Tops’ earthy harmonies and Stubbs’ stentorian baritone pipes with tenor range were never swamped by the melodies, chording, nor the tension (verses) and release (choruses) model that HDH drew from sophisticated orchestral music for these songs, where archetypal black and archetypal white music reached an exquisite balance that revealed the power and beauty of both.
Supplementing the classic HDH tunes was an outstanding cover of Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” in ’67, and (after the departure of HDH from Motown in ’68) one of my personal favorites, Frank Wilson and Smokey Robinson’s “Still Water (Love)” in ’70. After a brief lull, the Tops returned to the top 10 in ’72, working with writer/producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter on “Keeper of the Castle” and “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got).” Proving their amazing durability and longevity, the Tops struck again in ’81 with “When She Was My Girl,” with an outstanding vocal arrangement by their self-contained musical director Payton.
This exceptional, 2-CD, 48-song collection ends with Levi singing “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” from his role as the voracious plant in the smash ’86 Little Shop of Horrors film, and the group’s final pop hit, ’88’s aptly named “Indestructible,” which indeed they were until Lawrence Payton died in 1997.