The Temptations and Four Tops Shine On After 60-Plus Years

Iconic Motown acts deliver sweet soul music old school style and in perfect harmony at St. George Theatre on Staten Island, N.Y.

Nope, it wasn’t just my imagination, runnin’ away with me. On Thursday evening, I actually found myself at my first larger-scale indoor concert since January 2020: The Temptations and Four Tops at St. George Theatre, an old beautiful 2,800-seat performance venue on Staten Island, N.Y. I literally didn’t make the final decision to go until the morning of the show. In the end, perhaps I’m weaker than a man should be, I can’t help myself. One thing is for sure: It felt so damn good!

I’ve deliberately been avoiding large crowds since this bloody pandemic began, especially in closed rooms, so my decision to attend this show didn’t come easy. In the end, I felt the risk was acceptable, given the Covid numbers have been trending down, I’m fully vaccinated and I was wearing a mask for additional protection. In addition, performance venues in New York require that all visitors provide proof of vaccination before they can be admitted. Frankly, I wish New Jersey would do the same. On to the show!

Yours truly at St. George Theatre, which first opened its doors on December 4, 1929. And, yes, there was a big smile behind that mask!

I trust none of these two iconic Motown acts need much of an introduction. The Temptations, who opened the evening, were formed in 1960 in Detroit, Mich. Initially called The Elgins, the original members included Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Elbridge “Al” Bryant. Not surprisingly, the group’s composition has changed many times over the decades. Notably, Williams who just turned 80 on October 30, is still part of the current line-up, which also includes Terry Weeks (since 1997), Willie Greene (since 2015), Ron Tyson (since 1983) and Larry Braggs (since 2016). Braggs couldn’t be there since he was under the weather, as Williams put it, but the four of them did a marvelous job on vocals.

Following are a few clips I took from their set. First up: Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. Co-written by producer Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., part of the songwriting and production powerhouse of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg was first released as a single in May 1966 and also included on The Temptations’ fourth studio album Gettin’ Ready from June of the same year. The song became their fourth no. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. It also reached no. 13, no. 32 and 21 on the mainstream charts in the U.S., Canada and UK, respectively.

For the most part, The Temptations presented their songs blending into each other, which made recording a bit tricky. Luckily, Setlist.fm included the song line-up from another recent show and, as far as I could tell, they replicated that same set. Here’s the highlight of their show and perhaps the highlight of the night: Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away With Me) and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Just My Imagination, co-written by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, first appeared as a single in January 1971 and was also part of the group’s 14th studio album Sky’s the Limit. The song became their third to top the Billboard Hot 100 and reached no. 8 in the UK, one of their most successful hits there. Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett co-write, with its edgy psychedelic soul sound set quite a contrast. Originally, this tune was released as a single in May 1972 by The Undisputed Truth, another Motown act. But it was the version by The Temptations from September that year, which turned the great tune into a major hit, both in the U.S. and internationally. Once again, it topped the Billboard Hot 100, reached no. 12 in Canada, and became a top 20 hit in the UK and various European countries.

The last tune from the group’s set I’d like to call out was the closer My Girl, which Williams called The Temptations’ anthem. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White who also both produced the tune, My Girl became the group’s first big hit and a signature song. First released in December 1964, it reached no. 1 in the U.S. on both the mainstream and R&B Singles charts, climbed to no. 8 in Canada, and peaked at no. 2 in each the UK and Ireland. My Girl was also included on The Temptations’ sophomore album The Temptations Sing Smokey, which appeared in March 1965.

Here’s the entire setlist (based on the aforementioned entry in Setlist.fm)

Get Ready
Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (The Undisputed Truth cover)
I Can’t Get Next to You
Is it Gonna Be Yes Or No
Waitin’ On You
Treat Her Like a Lady
My Girl

After a 10 to 15-minute intermission, it was the Four Tops’ turn. That vocal quartet was first established as the Four Aims in 1953 in the Motor City. This means the group has been around for some 68 years, which I find absolutely incredible. What’s even more amazing is that one of the founding members, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, who is turning 86 years in December, is still part of the current line-up! The other original members were Levi Stubbs, Renaldo “Obi” Benson and Lawrence Payton. That line-up remarkably performed for more than 40 years until 1997 without any changes. Apart from Fakir, the group’s present members are Ronnie McNeir (since 1999), Alexander Morris (since 2019) and Lawrence Payton Jr., the son of original member Payton (since 2005).

Here’s Baby I Need Your Loving, the Four Tops’ first Motown single. Written by the aforementioned Holland-Dozier-Holland and released in July 1964, it marked an impressive start, reaching no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going all the way to no. 4 in Canada. The song was also included on the Four Tops’ eponymous debut album from January 1965.

Similar to The Temptations, the Four Tops hardly left breaks between their songs and combined some in medleys. Here’s a mighty triple combo of Reach Out (I’ll Be There), Standing in the Shadows of Love and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch). All of these three tunes, which formed the finale of the group’s set, were penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland. First released in 1966, Reach Out was the second Four Tops song to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. Also reaching no. 1 in the UK, no. 4 in Ireland, no. 6 in each The Netherlands and Canada, and no. 10 in Belgium, Reach Out became one of the group’s biggest hits and one of Motown’s best-known songs. Standing in the Shadows of Love couldn’t quite match that enormous chart success, but still climbed to no. 6 on the U.S. and British mainstream charts. I Can’t Help Myself marked the first no. 1 for the Four Tops in the U.S. on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. In the U.K., it got to no. 23.

Here’s the list of songs the Four Tops performed:

Loco in Acapulco
Baby I Need Your Loving
Bernadette
Same Old Song / Shake Me, Wake Me
I Believe in You and Me
I Got a Feeling
Mack the Knife
What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye cover)
When She Was My Girl
Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)
Reach Out (I’ll Be There) / Standing in the Shadows of Love
I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

What else can I say? Other than sharing a 10-piece horn section, The Temptations and Four Tops were backed by excellent separate bands. One cool factoid the Four Tops‘ Fakir shared is that their backing band featured Earl Van Dyke Jr. on keyboards. He’s the son of Earl Van Dyke, the main keyboarder for Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers. Similar to Booker T. & the M.G.’s at Stax, The Funk Brothers can be heard on countless Motown recordings between 1959 and 1972.

Speaking of Stax, I’ve noted before that Motown introduced me to soul, which eventually led me to Stax, my favorite soul label these days. Having said this, while the Motown formula they used during the ’60s can become repetitive, many of these songs were done incredibly well, thanks in part due to excellent studio musicians like The Funk Brothers. That’s something I realized once again listening to this music on Thursday night.

The final thoughts in this post shall belong to Otis Williams, who was quoted on the website of St. George Theatre as follows: “When I tell people we are God’s group…I don’t mean it arrogantly. It’s just that we have been tested time and again and keep coming back. We have suffered the death of so many legendary singers…Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin. Other’s like Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, Ali-Ollie Woodson and Theo Peoples have left, and yet our unity is tighter, our sound brighter and our popularity greater. Someone has watched over this group. Someone has protected our integrity. Someone has said…just go on singing and it’ll get better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; St. George Theatre website; YouTube

17 thoughts on “The Temptations and Four Tops Shine On After 60-Plus Years”

  1. Beautiful!
    I can feel your struggle to go or not to go to that concert. But at the end it seemed to be very very worth.
    And that venue! I can imagine that the sound was very good.

    It seems that I’m one of the younger reader of your blog, the Temptations came into my mind with “My Girl” when the movie ran in the cinemas in 1992.
    My first encounter with the Four Tops was the song “Loco in Acapulco” which was used on the soundtrack of the movie “Buster”. (And none than Phil Collins starred in this film.)

    Greetings from Vienna, AT.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sori. After such a long abstinence from indoor live music, I was so ready. It was also a welcome distraction from a nutty week on the work and family fronts. Plus, as you noted, both The Temptations and Four Tops sounded really great. And there’s just something about their old school delivery of their beautiful music. It’s got class and stule you generally don’t see any longer these days. I had a real ball! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Looks like it was a fantastic show Christian. Nice to see those two iconic acts still going, albeit with mostly newer members. The visual and sound qualities of your videos are really excellent too. Nice write-up, and I love your tongue-in-cheek opening comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I first saw The Temptations in the late ’90s at the Apollo Theatre in NYC, which was very cool. It was great to see that 20-plus years on, they are still out there performing and still sounding great. I really had a ball there!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That was a hell of a bill. I saw the Temptations in the 80s and it was fantastic. One hit after another. It’s great those acts are still spreading their music.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I guess you’re right to say that the 60s Motown formula could be repetitive, but there’s nothing wrong with a formula as long as the records keep turning out well. When they changed the formula starting in the early seventies, there were fewer and fewer good records. Part of this had to do with the fact that most of the regular songwriters were gone and most of the regular musicians. Of course, some of the new non-formulaic records were excellent, like albums by Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross, and were also huge hits, but most of it kind of made you wish that they’d go back to the old formula. The Temptations and The Four Tops still had several great hits in the first few years of the 70s, but Motown just wasn’t churning them out in huge quantities anymore like they used to. But they couldn’t come up with a new formula to replace the old one. And then all their biggest stars, like the Jacksons and Diana Ross started leaving by the end of the seventies. The only really big new star they had during the seventies was Rick James. It all makes you wish they could have kept the old formula going. Ha ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hard to tell whether they would continue. I had the impression that the founding member in each band kind of is their leader. So it would probably be tough to go on without them.

      The fact that Abdul “Duke” Fakir of the Four Tops has performed with that group for about 68 years is just unreal to me!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You went all the way to Staten Island? Jesus, that’s a haul. I used to live in NYC. When a friend came to town we’d ride the ferry for fun then go right back to Manhattan.

    We saw the Four Tops a number of years ago. I was in the middle of my “rock is all ” phase but we did enjoy it. Same with the Fifth Dimension.

    You had great seats! For the moon. 🙂 Sounded great, though. I can’t believe there are original guys still in both bands. And they’re not sitting.

    I’m going to see an octogenarian soon. More on that later.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Now, him I saw. Coincidentally, it was in the same year (2016) as the Rateliff post. Wrote about that too. A classic bit of British blues. I don’t know how guys in their 80s tour. Not sure if I’d have the stamina for it.

        Liked by 1 person

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