In 1972, Motown did the unthinkable and let the Four Tops go. By that time, the group (Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson and Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir) was perceived as a veritable soul music institution having racked up 27 memorable US R&B hits (including a brace of chart toppers) for Berry Gordy’s Detroit label. But when the time came for their contract to be renewed, Motown’s then president, Ewart Abner, told them (unbeknownst to Berry Gordy) that they were surplus to requirements and showed them the door. The group were angry, heartbroken, and, naturally, felt betrayed but licked their wounds, girded their loins, and left the “Motor City.” They soon had an offer to record with ABC/Dunhill under the production supervision of songwriters Dennis Potter and Brian Lambert. They spent six years at ABC/Dunhill and, unlike some ex-Motown acts, didn’t struggle to recreate past glories. This fabulous new chronologically-sequenced 33-track anthology from Real Gone shines a light on the legendary group’s tenure at ABC/Dunhill and presents all of their 45s and flipsides for the company during 1972-1978.
The Tops’ debut 45 for their new label was the strident ‘Keeper Of The Castle,’ a song which blended funk with harmonised soul and proved that the group could have a life after Motown. It was a Top 10 US smash and it’s follow up, ‘Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)’ was even bigger, rising to #2 R&B (#4 pop) and was their second and final single to achieve Gold status. Other big hits included here are the rousing ‘Are You Man Enough’ (taken from the Shaft In Africa movie soundtrack), the funkafied ‘One Chain Don’t Make No Prison’ – with Levi Stubbs at his strident, stentorian best – the delicate ‘Midnight Flower,’ and the blissful dancer, ‘Sweet Understanding Love,’ the latter drawing on the classic H-D-H Motown sound of their 60s repertoire. The group’s last Top 10 R&B single for ABC/Dunhill was ‘Catfish’ in 1976, which showed the band doing something different (Tops’ member, Lawrence Payton, is also the producer) and getting into a full-on disco mode.
But what makes this collection really intriguing are the largely unheralded songs that were on the flipsides of all the singles. It’s a fascinating blend of material, ranging from the militant message song ‘Peace Of Mind’ and nostalgic balladry of ‘Main Street People’ to the reflective ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ and the funkafied, horn-laced ‘Turn On The Light Of Your Love.’ Different again is ‘The Good Lord Knows,’ a delightful pastoral excursion co-written by Obie Benson that sounds like a cross between gospel, pop, classical and country music. Gentle, too, is the breezy ‘All My Love,’ laced with delectable layered harmonies and featuring its co-composer Obie Benson on lead vocals. There’s even a jazzy vibe on the laidback, mid-tempo ‘I’m Glad You Walked ‘Into My Life’ and a palpable Marvin Gaye-esque feel to the superb ‘Feel Free.’ Tops’ completists will also be pleased by the inclusion of the group’s slightly bizarre Spanish rendition of ‘Keep Of The Castle’ (which was translated as ‘Guardian De Tu Castillo’).
For committed fans of the Four Tops, a group that’s always had a loyal following in the UK, this compilation, which features 13 songs that have never been reissued on CD before, is essential. Their ABC/Dunhill catalogue is often neglected at the expense of their Motown repertoire but as this fine compendium shows us, the group was still at the top of their game in the ’70s. Not only does it remind us how remarkably talented this Detroit vocal quartet was but also shows us that they were outstandingly versatile in the 1970s and were able to able to record a wide range of songs without losing the soulful essence that was the core part of their identity. (Release date October 5th 2018).
Read SJF’s interviews with Duke Fakir here: