How did you get to sign with Motown?
We had an amazing career before we even came to Motown; we just didn’t have enough followers. We had been hitting on Berry before he had even started the company. When he first started he just casually asked us: “hey, would you like to be with my company?” We just casually said no. We didn’t think he had a chance as a black recording magnate/owner in that day. It was like he was going nowhere. At that time we felt that he had no chance. There were two record companies in Detroit that had done it so badly that they had left a bad taste in our mouths. I felt that nobody in Detroit, especially a black record company, could make it. We signed onto three or four different record companies before we came to Motown. We first recorded in 1956 with Chess, then in 1960 with Columbia and then in ’62/’63 with Riverside. While we were recording with Riverside, we were also working up in upstate New York. One of the TV producers from the Tonight Show was up there and he said he’d like to have us on his show. So we went down and performed one of our numbers on TV. Berry Gordy was watching and said to his A&R director, William R. Stevenson; “You know the Tops: we want the Tops, go get them.” And at that time we had been watching Motown climb up the charts and getting more popular. And then right at that time we realised: “hey, that’s where we need to be. We need to be back home with Berry.” At the same time he was reaching out to us so it seemed wonderfully inevitable that we got together and it didn’t take long for us to get a deal.
What was the experience of being at Motown like?
At first, because we were like newcomers, we were like five, six or seven years older than most of the artists at that time and so we were like big brothers. But all of the artists that knew of the Four Tops, they respected us because we had friends and a great name around the city. We felt honoured to be there because some of them had great records – Smokey (Robinson & The Miracles), and the Marvelettes and then we met the Supremes and we said oh my God, look at these girls (laughs). We became great friends right away with them, with Smokey and with Berry. We used to play golf together, we’d play cards together, but the best thing we did, which was very important, was while we were recording our first album – it was going to be a jazz album, not really just jazz but our rendition of the American songbook of standards. Berry wanted us to do that because he said you’re capable of doing that and he had nobody else on his roster that he thought could do that. So he needed us. So we recorded that album but it didn’t really have the commercial appeal that he thought it would have. What we did learn was how to record. That was one thing out of all the professional-isms that we had; we knew how to get on and get off stage, how to put a show together, and dress up but we did not actually know how to record with feeling. And as I look back on the records that we recorded with other companies they were just nice renditions of songs but the actual heartfelt warmth from the voices and the feeling and the crying and the need of something from Levi wasn’t truly there until we got to Motown. And while we were waiting for Holland-Dozier-Holland to come up with the hits, we were constantly doing backgrounds which helped us to really realise how to feel what we’re doing and how to project that onto the tape. So it was just an amazing learning experience, those first six months of just being able to get your feelings, not just the notes, but the feeling to go with it, which had been missing I think on our previous recordings. They didn’t quite know how to bring it out but Holland-Dozier-Holland did, though. They knew what to do.
What was the experience like of working with them?
First of all, they were amazing people. They were probably the most talented writers and producers at that time. It was like going into a tailor’s shop. You’d go in there and they would fit you with this song for you. The third time you sit down with them your record’s in the top 10, boom. They would do that one week to the next week and they would have groups like Martha and the Vandellas, a totally different type of style. But they fitted them with whatever the attire that they needed to make it to the Top 10. And of course, the Supremes; whenever they came into the “tailors shop” they were fitted with number ones. So it’s just amazing. I use that analogy. I like to look at it like that. It was just amazing how they worked with different artists to produce different feelings and writing the sounds that fit. And they delivered. It was quite amazing.