A night to remember
Four Tops: fellowship, loyalty, longevity, integrity
If you were there, that night can never be forgotten.
Sure, the precise memories are distant – it was more than a half-century ago – but not the experience, not the blinding flash of sound and light, not the exultation. Nor the look of disbelief on Duke Fakir’s face as he glimpsed the front row of the audience, immediately on its feet and – in one case, at least – singing every single syllable of “It’s The Same Old Song.”
You’re sweet/As a honey bee/But as a honey bee stings/You’ve gone and left my heart in pain…
Before the Four Tops bounded onto the stage of the Saville Theatre, they knew of their records' popularity in Britain. Yet they could not have imagined such a welcome. And in some corner of the Saville, the night’s impresario must have smiled, too. Just three years earlier, he had seen other British theatres shaken to their foundations by a group of young musicians. His name was Brian Epstein.
But this extraordinary night in London – Sunday, November 13, 1966 – belonged to a fabulous four from Detroit, not Liverpool: to Levi, Lawrence, Duke, Obie.
It belonged to “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “I Can’t Help Myself” and – could it possibly be? – “Ask The Lonely.” I also heard them perform “Michelle” and “If I Had A Hammer,” and they probably sang “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” too, but the inclusion of “Ask The Lonely,” so melancholy and majestic, has since obscured the memory of everything else.
Well, not everything. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was the climax. The Tops had to sing this twice – the audience willed it. In fact, it was rather like the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the ship descends. You were not surprised – convention demanded it – but the scale and the illumination were awe-inspiring. At last, the Four Tops – here. Levi – here. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – here.
Decades later, it’s clearer than ever that the quartet stood for other virtues beyond their music: fellowship, loyalty, longevity, integrity. Popular culture, travelling at light speed, is often short on those qualities. Yet these can be present. The Tops were proof.
When in 1983, the group, having left and returned to Motown, recorded a heartfelt ballad called “I Just Can’t Walk Away,” they could have been singing about themselves. And if the Tops were never at the cutting edge of youth and fashion, it hardly mattered. Motown had others who could be blade-sharp, sensual or supercool.
Ultimately, it’s the music which must stand time’s test. So when some future digital streaming service offers access to the studio master tapes of the past (“Deconstruct classic Motown on your phone for only $9.99 a month!”) and James Jamerson’s bass, Jack Ashford’s tambourine and Benny Benjamin’s drums are stripped away, the soul of the Four Tops – the voices – will remain, resonant with passion and power, harmonised with precision and purity.
Just as they were on the night of November 13, 1966, at the Saville Theatre.