There’s no question that Motown founder Berry Gordy was talented, shrewd, daring, and industrious. He was also lucky. A guy in the right place at the right time, with a unique network of friends, acquaintances, and business associates. The story of Motown is a complex game of connect the dots.
Freshly discharged from the army in 1953, Gordy comes home to Detroit, opens and closes a record store specializing in jazz records, and gets married. By 1956, he’s working at the Lincoln Mercury plant, writing songs on the side. His sister Gwen works at a local club, and introduces him to the club owner, a fellow named Al Green (no relation to the famous soul singer). Al Green manages a small stable of singers and musicians, one of whom is another Detroit native, young Jackie Wilson. Berry and Gwen and Gwen’s boyfriend, a guy named Billy Davis who has connections to Chess Records in Chicago, form a songwriting partnership, and get to work writing songs for Al Green’s stable of artists.
And they’re good at it.
The Gordys and Billy Davis write ‘Reet Petit’ and ‘To Be Loved’ for Wilson, as well as his signature hit, ‘Lonely Teardrops’, which goes Top Ten on Billboard‘s Hot 100 in 1959. The success is nice. The money? Not so much. As Smokey Robinson put it, why work for the man when you can be the man? So that’s what Berry Gordy does, forming his own label, Motown, in April 1960.
The Four Tops, like their future label mates the Supremes, meet in the mid-50’s, right around the time Berry Gordy is hired to fasten chrome strips to cars at Lincoln Mercury. Levi Stubbs and Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir were students at Pershing High; Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson and Lawrence Payton were from nearby Northern High. (And let’s note, Pershing, Northern, and Cass Technical, the Supremes’ alma mater, are all less than 10 miles from one another.) They perform at a local birthday party, like the sound, like each other, so they start getting together to practice, calling themselves the Four Aims. By 1956, they’re signed to Chess Records, where they change their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with another vocal group, the Ames Brothers.
Remember Billy Davis? Gwen’s boyfriend with the Chess Records connections? He’s Lawrence Payton’s cousin. By 1963, Billy Davis is working for Chess for full time and Berry Gordy has convinced the Four Tops to sign with Motown. Like the Supremes, it takes the Four Tops some time to hit their stride — for Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland to figure out what to do with them — but once they hit it, they really hit it.
The follow up to ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’, which hit #11 US Pop in 1964, ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ in 1965 was the Four Tops’ first #1 hit. It has all the Holland / Dozier / Holland hallmarks: catchy intro, a bouncy tempo, instantly memorable sing-along lyrics, 2:45 running time. Where it departs from the formula is Levi Stubbs’ impassioned vocals. There are moments here where it sounds like Stubbs is singing one song, and everyone else is working on a lighter, fluffier version of the same tune. Let off the leash, what Stubbs is doing here is maybe closer to Stax / Volt than to the usual melted butter of Motown’s male vocalists. More Sam & Dave, say, than Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye.
The Tops themselves were not overly enamored of ‘I Can’t Help Myself’. They thought the lyrics were dopey — all that sugar pie, honey bunch stuff — and Stubbs wasn’t happy with his performance. End of the day, though, it’s hard to argue with that #1.
Michael Strum: “Another incredible gift from the gods atop Mt. Motown. Prometheus this instance is played —again — by the trio Holland-Dozier-Holland. The Trinity of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland has given the world a great deal of joy; Dozier and B. Holland on the music and production, with E. Holland handling lyrics and vocal arrangements. Has there ever been a better songwriting team? At least anyone with a run to beat HDH 1962-1967? Obviously Lennon / McCartney comes to mind, likely 1964-1969, but despite their laudable achievements, I’d take HDH every day and twice on Sunday. There’s E. John and B. Taupin, probably 1969-1975. I’d say the real challenge is M. Jagger and K. Richards, 1967-1972. Who’s the winner? We are! ‘Sugar Pie’ has it all: the slick production, gorgeous arrangement, percussion, horns, backup vocals, heartbreak so we have our catharsis and a smile. The only issue here is that it’s ranked too low.”
Rolling Stone: One of Motown’s most rousing anthems, “I Can’t Help Myself” was inspired by songwriter Lamont Dozier’s grandfather, who’d call the women his hairdresser wife fixed up “sugar pie” and “honey bunch.” During the recording, engineer Harold Taylor recalled, “People were banging on the door of the studio; they were so ecstatic about what they heard.” Nevertheless, Levi Stubbs asked Brian Holland if he could do another take. Holland promised him they’d do it soon — and Stubbs’ first pass hit Number One.