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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Joss Stone/Mind, Body & Soul

Joss Stone is only 33 years old, yet already has been active for two decades. In 2001 at the age of 13, the British singer, songwriter and actress auditioned for the BBC Television talent show Star for a Night. Not only did she pass the audition but she went on to win the entire contest.

From there, things moved very quickly. The following year, Stone was signed by S-Curve Records. Her studio debut The Soul Sessions, a covers album of ’60s and ’70s soul songs, was released in September 2003. Mind, Body & Soul is Stone’s sophomore record. She regards it as her actual debut – understandably so, given this was her first record, for which in addition to performing lead vocals she also co-wrote most of the tracks.

Until yesterday when I came across her 2005 Grammy Awards Janis Joplin tribute performance with Melissa Etheridge, I had only been casually aware of Stone. But, as frequent readers of the blog know, one thing that typically gets my attention are great vocals. And Jess Stone undoubtedly has compelling pipes, which her online bio nicely characterize as “gravely-but-lustrous.”

Released in September 2004, Mind, Body & Soul is blend of mainly soul, R&B and pop. It combines elements of “old” soul with more contemporary R&B and hip-hop influences. While the album is a bit more commercial than what I usually listen to, I still find it pretty enjoyable. The sound is great and that woman can sing!

Here’s the opener Right to Be Wrong. The tune was co-written by Stone, Desmond Child and Betty Wright. It also became the album’s second single in November 2004 and reached no. 29 in the U.K. on the Official Singles Chart.

Next up is the groovy You Had Me, which became Stone’s first major hit. Apart from climbing to no. 9 in the U.K., the song charted in numerous other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Canada. Co-written by Stone, Wright, Francis White and Wendy Stoker, the tune became the lead single released on September 13, 2004, two days prior to the album.

Spoiled, yet another single, is one of the record’s highlights. The song was co-written by Stone, Lamont Dozier and his son and Stone’s then-boyfriend Beau Dozier. And, yes, that’s the Lamont Dozier of Motown fame who wrote many hits for Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Four Tops and The Isley Brothers. He was part of the songwriting and production team with brothers Brian Holland and Eddie Holland, better known as Holland-Dozier-Holland. Now, that’s my kind of music!

How about throwing in some Jamaican groove? Ask and you shall receive. Okay, Less Is More doesn’t exactly sound like Bob Marley, since it’s really a blend of reggae and R&B. Still, it’s a pretty groovy affair! The tune was co-written by Stone, Jonathan Shorten and Conner Reeves.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Killing Time. It was co-written by Stone, Wright and Beth Gibbons. Well, listening to this tune certainly doesn’t feel like killing time to me!

Mind, Body & Soul is an impressive production, especially for a sophomore album. It features ten different producers, with head of S-Curve Records Steve Greenberg serving as executive producer. The making of the record involved five different studios in New York City, New Jersey and Miami. The army of musicians backing Stone includes drummer Cindy Blackman, who is also the wife of Carlos Santana, and Nile Rodgers (guitar), among others.

The album was generally well received by music critics. It won Stone two 2005 Brit Awards for British Female Solo Artist and British Urban Act. The same year, Stone also received three Grammy nominations in the categories Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for You Had Me and Best Pop Vocal Album.

Mind, Body & Soul became Stone’s best chart success and second best selling album to date. It entered the UK charts at no. 1, making 17-year-old Stone the youngest female artist accomplishing the feat at the time. In April 2019, that record was broken by Billie Eilish for her album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Eilish is two months younger than Stone. The album also charted in numerous other countries, gaining top 10 positions in Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland. In the U.S., it just missed the top 10, climbing to no. 11 on the Billboard 200.

Sources: Wikipedia; Joss Stone website; YouTube