I Can’t Help Myself: The Four Tops; The Supremes; Madonna.

Hello there! This week we will discuss a great Motown pop song, I Can’t Help Myself, which is alternatively known as Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch, after the first line of the song. We will first review the original song by The Four Tops. Next we will feature covers of this song by The Supremes and by Madonna.

One interesting aspect of this blog post is that it features an ‘all-Detroit’ group of artists. The Four Tops, The Supremes and Madonna all grew up in Detroit.

The Four Tops and I Can’t Help Myself:

The Four Tops were a vocal group who became one of Motown’s most popular artists. Here is a publicity photo of the Four Tops from 1965. From L: Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, lead singer Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton.

Embed from Getty Images

Although 1965 was the “breakout year” for the Four Tops as Motown stars, by that time the group had been together for a significant amount of time. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the Four Tops hold the record for longevity as a group. They had exactly the same lineup from 1953 to 1997, a remarkable 44 years!

The Four Tops formed while all four members were in high school – Fakir and Stubbs went to one school, while Benson and Payton attended another. They first sang together at a birthday party, and began their career as The Four Aims. However, when they signed a contract with Chess Records in 1956, they changed their name to The Four Tops to avoid being confused with The Ames Brothers.

Over the next seven years, the group performed in the Detroit area, where they polished their act and gained a strong regional following. They also backed up singer Billy Eckstine. However, their jazz-inspired records did not sell, as they cycled through four different record labels.

In 1963, Berry Gordy, Jr signed the boys to Motown Records. For the first couple of years, the Four Tops released unsuccessful covers of jazz standards for Motown; in addition, they provided backup for girl groups such as Martha & the Vandellas and The Supremes.

Then in 1964, the Motown songwriting and producing powerhouse Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) composed an instrumental track. For a while, they weren’t sure what to do with it, but they eventually decided to add lyrics and give it to the Four Tops.

That song, Baby I Need Your Loving, became the Four Tops’ surprise breakout hit, making it to #11 on the Billboard pop charts. However, more importantly it convinced the Four Tops to switch their focus from jazz to R&B; and H-D-H began to write songs specifically tailored to the Tops.

The Four Tops were unusual in that their lead singer Levi Stubbs was a baritone, whereas the “natural” arrangement for pop groups was to have a tenor as lead. As a result, many of the arrangements for Four Tops songs were pitched at the top of Stubbs’ range. This made him strain to reach the notes, and that became a hallmark of the group.

The Four Tops’ first #1 hit was the 1965 release I Can’t Help Myself, which was written and produced by H-D-H. The Four Tops signature style featured call-and-response lyrics, with Stubbs on lead. Because the group’s vocals were pitched somewhat lower than the typical male ensemble (e.g., The Temptations), the Four Tops were generally accompanied by a girl group; on most of their hits that group was The Andantes. Furthermore, the group was invariably backed by the Motown house band The Funk Brothers.

The song I Can’t Help Myself describes a man who is hopelessly in love with his woman. Even though she is unfaithful, her man keeps returning to her regardless of how badly he is treated.

Sugar pie, honey bunch
You know that I love you
I can’t help myself
I love you and nobody else

In and out my life
You come and you go
Leaving just your picture behind
And I kissed it a thousand times

When you snap your finger or wink your eye
I come running to you
I’m tied to your apron strings
And there’s nothing that I can do

Here are the Four Tops in a live performance of I Can’t Help Myself.

This video must have been recorded in the late 60s. As you can see, Levi Stubbs can easily reproduce the quality of vocals from the Four Tops’ studio recordings. And the other members of the group combine the backup vocals with their signature choreographed moves, taught to them by the inimitable Cholly Atkins.

Below is a photo of Cholly Atkins with one of his early dance partners, Honi Coles.

The dance team of Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles.

Before Berry Gordy brought him to Motown, Cholly Atkins had been a successful vaudeville dancer, who appeared with some of the great jazz groups such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Cab Calloway. In the 50s, he began to provide choreography for early rock groups such as the Shirelles, Frankie Lymon and Little Anthony.

Atkins virtually invented the dance moves that we associate with Motown groups; he called his work “vocal choreography,” as the moves were specifically created to accompany the vocal harmonies.

After their big breakthrough, the Four Tops churned out hits in the mid-60s. Not only did they release a series of classic R&B songs (topped by their 1966 signature tune Reach Out I’ll Be There), but they also struck gold with their 1967 cover of Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter, and their 1968 cover of Walk Away Renee by the Left Banke.

Alas, in 1967 H-D-H left Motown after a contract dispute with Berry Gordy. After losing their main songwriters and producers, The Four Tops began a slow but inexorable slide. A number of the remaining Motown songwriters and producers worked with the group, and they had a few more hits, but nothing like their glory years.

In 1972, Berry Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles (but he didn’t have the decency to change the name from Motown). While most of the groups followed Gordy to L.A., a number of artists like Martha Reeves, the Funk Brothers and the Four Tops remained in Detroit.

The Four Tops began to record for ABC-Dunhill. Again, they had some decent hits but nothing like their Motown glory years. In the 70s the group moved around from one record company to another, scoring the occasional hit. Then in 1983, the Four Tops returned to Motown, where once again they were produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

And now here is a treat. In 1983, a TV special aired that provided a retrospective of the Motown studios. It was titled Motown 25: Yesterday; Today; Forever. It showcased many of the iconic Motown stars in live performance.

One of the highlights of Motown 25 was the “battle of the bands” between the Temptations and the Four Tops. The scenario was straightforward: the two groups shared the stage, and each of them alternated singing a few lines from one of their greatest hits.

By 1983, only two members of the original Temptations (Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams) remained, and Dennis Edwards was singing lead for the Temps. All of the original Four Tops were still performing with that group, led by the incomparable Levi Stubbs.

Isn’t this terrific? This “battle” was one of many highlights of the Motown 25 special. This was so well received that the Temps and Tops reprised this repeatedly. They repeated the “battle” theme in 1985 at another Motown TV special at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The two groups also carried out joint tours for several years, and those tours would invariably include a “battle of the bands” competition.

By the late 80s, the Four Tops were still releasing the occasional record, although their major success was achieved through touring.

In December 1983, the Tops were scheduled to fly back to the States following a European tour. However, after a late recording session and one final performance, the group missed their Frankfurt to Detroit flight. Lucky for them: that flight, Pan Am Flight 103, was blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board.

The Four Tops continued to perform, becoming favorites on ‘oldies’ tours. In 1986, Levi Stubbs appeared as the man-eating plant Audrey II in the musical film Little Shop of Horrors.

The Four Tops continued touring until in 1997, Lawrence Payton died from liver cancer. The group added a replacement in 1998, but in 2000 Levi Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer and he also had to be replaced. Obie Benson died from lung cancer in 2005, and Stubbs himself passed away in 2008.

The Four Tops continue to tour, although only Duke Fakir remains from the original lineup. The Tops have deservedly received a slew of honors. In 1990 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and the group was named as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by both Rolling Stone magazine and Billboard magazine.

We salute the Four Tops, most of whom are currently in Rock and Roll Heaven. They left us with a terrific legacy of Motown classics.

The Supremes and I Can’t Help Myself:

We first came across The Supremes through their cover of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love. So here we will give a brief review of the history of their career.

The Supremes were one of the most successful pop groups in rock music history. In the mid-60s, they were the top girl group in the Motown enterprise. Not only were they a pop powerhouse, but
It is said that their success made it possible for future African American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream success.

The Supremes were formed in Detroit in 1959. Florence Ballard was a junior-high school student living in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects. She recruited her friends Betty McGlown, Mary Wilson and Diane Ross to form a quartet called The Primettes. The Primettes began winning song competitions in the Detroit area.

The girls got an audition with Berry Gordy at Motown. Although Gordy told them to return once they had graduated from high school, the girls continued to hang out at Gordy’s Hitsville USA studios.

Eventually, in 1961 Berry Gordy signed the group (now a trio, with Diane Ross taking the name Diana) to a Motown recording contract. However, he insisted that the group change their name. Eventually, the girls decided on The Supremes.

The Supremes’ fortunes changed dramatically in 1963 when the songwriting and producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland began working with the group. The H-D-H song Where Did Our Love Go had been rejected by The Marvelletes, so the Supremes were forced to record it. To everyone’s surprise, Where Did Our Love Go rose straight to #1 on the pop charts. Overnight, the Supremes became pop stars, where they remained for several years.

Gordy took great pains to ensure that his acts radiated glamour and class. As a result, the Supremes generally appeared in ballroom gowns and stylish makeup. Their song routines were highlighted by languid, graceful choreography overseen by Maxine Powell and Cholly Atkins. Finally, Berry Gordy decided that Diana Ross would become the lead singer on nearly all Supremes songs.

So here are The Supremes in a live performance of I Can’t Help Myself.

I believe this took place in 1965. Although it is a short clip, it is extremely enjoyable. Diana Ross and the Supremes appear in more casual dress than usual; they look very happy, and they provide an energetic performance.

It was natural for the Supremes to cover the Four Tops, as they had much in common. Both groups were accompanied by the legendary Motown backing band, the Funk Brothers. In addition, Holland-Dozier-Holland were the main songwriters and producers for both groups.

Furthermore, early in their career, both groups spent considerable time performing in the Detroit area. Before they became Motown superstars, the Four Tops frequently provided backup on Supremes records. So the two groups knew each other well, and both of them were encouraged by their mutual success.

In the late 60s, tensions had been growing in the Supremes for some time. The group had changed its name in 1967 to The Supremes With Diana Ross, followed closely by a second change to Diana Ross and The Supremes.

An additional source of friction at this time was Berry Gordy’s sexual relationship with Diana Ross. The two had a daughter, Rhonda, who was born in 1971. Gordy’s obsession with Diana obviously influenced his decisions regarding the Supremes and Ms. Ross’ career.

Florence Ballard strongly (and probably accurately) believed that her role in the group was being diminished. She became depressed and developed a serious alcohol problem, occasionally showing up drunk to performances.

In July, 1967 Florence turned up inebriated at a Flamingo Hotel concert in Vegas. When Berry Gordy discovered this, he fired Ballard and replaced her with Cindy Birdsong. This began a downhill spiral for Ballard that eventually led to poverty and substance abuse. In 1976, when a sober Florence Ballard began a comeback as a solo artist, she tragically died from coronary thrombosis at the age of 32.

By 1976 the Supremes were essentially history. Once H-D-H quit Motown in a contract dispute, the group found it much harder to score hit records. In 1970, after Diana Ross left for a solo career, the Supremes went through a revolving door of replacement singers. The group’s records no longer made the pop charts, and their popularity waned.

However, at their peak the Supremes were a pop powerhouse, and one of Motown’s greatest acts. They released an astonishing number of top-rated songs, and even today they form the model for girl pop groups.

Madonna and I Can’t Help Myself:

We discussed Madonna in an earlier blog post for her cover of Don McLean’s American Pie. Here we will briefly review her life and career.

Madonna Ciccone has been a pop superstar for the last 35 years.  She grew up in the Detroit area, where her father Tony was an automotive engineer. When Madonna was 8, her mother died of breast cancer. This came as a great shock because Madonna’s mother had concealed the fact that she was gravely ill.

Things got worse for Madonna when her father married the family’s housekeeper a few months later. Madonna’s resentment over this situation transformed her from a straight-A student to a rebellious teenager.

Madonna received a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan School of Music, but dropped out after two years. At that time, she headed off to New York City with $35. Like many young artists, Madonna worked at Dunkin’ Donuts while she took classes at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and auditioned for various dance productions.

Below is a photo of Madonna performing at Madison Square Garden in 1984.

Embed from Getty Images

Madonna then began singing and playing guitar with various rock bands. In 1982, she decided to branch out on her own as a solo artist. She signed a contract with Sire Records, and released a couple of singles that became big dance-club hits.

Madonna released an eponymous album in July 1983 that featured disco-era technological features such as synthesizers and drum machines. Madonna became a superstar following the 1984 release of her second album, Like a Virgin.

The title track of that album topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six straight weeks. By this time Madonna’s career had reached the stratosphere. Although her voice was no better than average, her music videos were powerful and controversial. She used her ballet training in elaborately-choreographed dance numbers on world tours.

Madonna’s music videos and tours also featured edgy sexually-provocative numbers. Hints of sado-masochism and bondage, same-sex couples embracing, and simulated masturbation appeared in her performances.

Predictable complaints from religious conservatives provided publicity that helped Madonna’s career to thrive. The Vatican condemned one of Madonna’s music videos, while MTV banned a couple of them.

Here is Madonna in a “live” performance of I Can’t Help Myself. This took place at a concert in Turin, Italy in 1987.

I put ‘live’ in air quotes for several reasons. First, it is well known that Madonna mixes live singing with pre-recorded vocals in her concerts. She defends this by saying that her choreographed dance moves are sufficiently taxing that she is often unable to dance and sing at the same time.

Perhaps, but as our readers know, we are extremely critical of lip-synched music. Over-reliance on taped music leads directly to “artists” like the despicable phonies Milli Vanilli.

Having said that, this Four Tops signature tune does not really seem to be a “Madonna” type of song. She certainly gives it an energetic performance, and shows off her strong vocals. And perhaps Madonna feels an affinity for this Motown song, since she grew up in Detroit.

But I found this video deeply unsatisfying. First off, the person writing the lyrics onscreen has replaced “Honey Bunch” by “Honey Bun.” Next, this clip is labeled an “extended” video. My assumption is that a single verse from the song has been repeated on a video loop. This provides an overpowering sense of déjà vu, as one watches exactly the same clip roll around for a fourth or fifth time.

Finally, Madonna appears in at least three different costumes in this video; so my guess is that material was spliced together from several different performances of this song (or even from another song).

To date, Madonna has sold over 300 million records and is certified by Guinness World Records as the best-selling female recording artist of all time. In 2008, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Madonna has also proved herself to be a talented and versatile actress. She starred in movies such as Desperately Seeking Susan, Dick Tracy and Evita. True, some of her movies were also real stinkers (e.g., Swept Away), but this might be expected from an artist who was constantly pushing the envelope and venturing into uncharted territory.

It is hard to argue with Ms. Ciccone’s tremendous commercial success. She combined powerful ambition and drive with a clear sense of what she wanted to accomplish. She thrived in the MTV and dance-club era, and changed the landscape for female pop artists.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)
Wikipedia, The Four Tops
Wikipedia, Cholly Atkins
Wikipedia, The Supremes
Wikipedia, Madonna (entertainer)

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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1 Response to I Can’t Help Myself: The Four Tops; The Supremes; Madonna.

  1. Pingback: Reach Out I’ll Be There: The Four Tops; The Tremeloes; Gloria Gaynor | Tim's Cover Story

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