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Castle High

A new CD remembers the Four Tops of the '70s

By Nicky Baxter

The Four Tops will forever be associated with Gordy Berry's Motown Records--and understandably so. After all, the Tops' halcyon days were spent with the Motor City label.

But by the early 1970s, groups began fleeing Berry and his less-than-savory business practices by the score, among them lead singer Levi Stubbs and his backing vocal buddies. The Four Tops wound up taking their business to Dunhill, a subsidiary of ABC. Keeper of the Castle: Their Best 1972-1978 (MCA) chronicles their six-year association with the label.

To the surprise of a lot of folks, the soul men's fortunes did not take an immediate downturn. In fact, ditties such as "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got") and "Are You Man Enough?" (both included here) suggested that little or nothing had been lost in the transition. Holland-Dozier-Holland, the group's former songwriting team, could hardly have improved on either tune.

"Ain't No Woman" lifts a few tricks from Motown's soul book, most notably its mellifluous, windswept strings. But there are subtle differences. This is a punchier rhythm section than is usually associated with the Tops. The drums and bass are more prominent, the guitar part more ornate. On both tunes, Stubbs' roughhewn baritone growl is the very essence of controlled passion.

Ranking just below the uncontested brilliance of their Motown gems, the Four Tops' Dunhill debut, "Keeper of the Castle," augured well for vocal unit, high-stepping its way into the R&B chart's upper reaches.

Interestingly, though it preceded "Ain't No Woman," "Keeper of the Castle" strayed much farther from the Motown mold with its socially conscious theme and funky pulse. Stubbs' drama-laden performance almost makes you forget the song's embarrassingly lame lyrics. "One Chain Don't Make No Prison" and "Midnight Flower" followed suit though neither can be considered classic performances.

Down With the Disco Fever

Perhaps inevitably, as the disco era began to flower, the Four Tops, along with scores of other vocal groups, began to lose their direction. In the collection's liner notes, Stubbs concedes that the Four Tops "s[a]t out the disco boom."

Not quite. "Catfish" (co-written by group member Lawrence Payton) found Stubbs and company stricken with disco fever. Actually, the tune possessed a peculiar charm, coupling a narrative about a tryst at a backwoods fish fry with an uptown dance beat.

A muscularly plucked bass and skipping high-hat drum figures establish a thudding groove. Add to that some swirling strings and pumping horns, and it could be a Chic production. The track's lyrics are downright raunchy ("Catfish sets me on fire / She makes my nature rise") and delivered with almost unseemly gusto.

Vocally, the Four Tops stretch out as they never have before. The introductory exhortations strongly suggest the O'Jays' rubber-throated lead vocalist, Eddie Levert. An uncharacteristically egalitarian affair, Stubbs' partners pop in with terse interjections, then consolidate their energies like the street-corner crooners they once were.

As quirky a single as "Catfish" was, it never garnered the requisite airplay necessary to make it really soar, chartwise, and as the 1970s progressed, the group continued to flounder, flitting from one misguided gambit to the next to no avail.

Such numbers as "Inside a Brokenhearted Man" and "Save It for a Rainy Day" attempted to yolk the group's '60s heart-and-soul approach with the glitzy decadence of the Me Decade, again with little success.

Nowadays, the Four Tops are dismissed by some as just another oldies act trying to make a buck. That may well be true; but then, it's not easy to teach an old dog new tricks, and in fact, some are simply not worth learning.

Finally, if only for a short while, and even without Gordy's Motor City machine, the Four Tops showed they were still among the best soul units of their time.

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Web exclusive to the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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