In this ‘Rare Cut’ the ever-fabulous Four Tops paired with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin on a really tasty cut from the Tops’ brilliant final Motown album Back Where I Belong.
What do you get when you combine two of the most talented vocalists in any genre together on record? Magic, that’s what. A little history is relevant here. In 1972 Motown Records, under the leadership of Berry Gordy Jr, decided to re-locate from Detroit city to the warmer climate of California, and situate itself in the entertainment capital of the world Los Angeles. Gordy had a fair few reasons for this: Detroit was a city on the decline, having never recovered fully from the race riots of the sixties; Los Angeles presented an opportunity for Gordy to expand into film and television, or at least expand Diana Ross into film and television; and, on a more selfish note, enjoyed the trappings of a showbiz lifestyle.
Not all shared the desire to up-sticks and move to L.A. Many musicians and background staff either were unwilling to move to California, whilst others simply could not afford it. The majority of Motown’s Funk Brothers, the musicians behind nearly all of Motown’s singles and albums throughout the sixties, remained in Detroit. Many artists too were less keen: Martha Reeves claims she read about the move in the paper, and wasn’t told by Motown hierarchy of the move prior to the public announcement. Among the artists who remained in Detroit were the Four Tops: the group was already established locally as a top act before they joined Motown, and held a deep bond to the city. Indeed, they still do, Duke Fakir, the last original member still lives in the Motor City.
(The classic Four Tops line-up (L-R): Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and Levi Stubbs)
As a result, the Four Tops left Motown and recorded for other labels. Unlike many of their contemporaries at Motown who left the label, such as Reeves and Mary Wells, the Four Tops had commercial and critical success outside of the label. They scored big with songs such as ‘Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)’, ‘Keeper Of The Castle’, and ‘One Chain Don’t Make No Prison’, and released decent albums such as the epic Main Street People and the brass-heavy The Show Must Go On.
Then in 1983 the Four Tops were booked to appear alongside The Temptations in a ‘musical battle’ as part of the Motown 25 celebration. The show, which famously featured Michael Jackson performing Billie Jean and doing the Moonwalk for the first time, as well as a tepid reunion of The Supremes (cut from the final edit was Diana Ross pushing her ex-singing colleague Mary Wilson behind her on stage), was a huge success. Bouyed by the success of their performance both the Tops and the Tempts decided to launch a ‘TnT’ Tour, which started the two groups touring together and which still continues to this day. The group also resigned to Motown Records, and released the appropriately titled album Back Where I Belong.
The album is pretty decent. Unlike The Temptations they retained the use of actual musicians rather than machines, making this slightly better than much of The Temptations’ output in the same period. The album actually featured a duet with The Temptations, but like their ‘Battle Song’ from the Tempts’ Back to Basics album, it was pretty rubbish. However, for us the stand out song is, naturally, the collaboration with Aretha Franklin. A year prior the Tops had appeared on her Jump To It album (produced by Luther Vandross), and the combination of Franklin and Levi Stubbs, the Tops’ iconic lead singer, was a match made in music heaven. The group knew each other, all being residents of Detroit, and the combination of the two is just stunning here. Franklin is, as you might expect, fabulous and Stubbs has no problem matching the Queen in power and performance. It’s a real rare gem that we here at TFSR only discovered recently, but one that we’ll be playing a lot more from now on.
But there is this delightful performance between the Tops and Aretha on YouTube – and it’s lovely.