In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Four Tops were around long before Motown — before the rock ‘n’ roll era, even. The group started when four Detroit high school students got together in 1953 to sing jazz standards. From 1956 to 1963, they bounced around from label to label, finding no success. They didn’t break through until 1964, when the songwriting/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland convinced them to move from jazz to pop and gave them “Baby I Need Your Loving,” a song that they took to #11.
More than most of the acts dominating pop music at the time, the Four Tops were grown-ups, men in their late 20s who sounded like they’d already lived lives. Levi Stubbs was a rarity, a baritone who sang lead. Holland-Dozier-Holland knew how to use that. They pushed him into a higher register, so that his voice would sound strained and desperate. He had a preacher’s urgency, and that gave the group’s records a raw intensity that the Four Tops’ Motown labelmates rarely even tried to capture.
The Four Tops’ later singles are the ones where Stubbs really weaponizes that strain in his voice; consider something like “Bernadette,” the #4 hit from 1967 where Stubbs sounds like he’s on the edge of a panic attack for the entire song. But it’s already there on “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch).” Stubbs might throw around cutesy, flirty nicknames on the song, but it’s still a song about a guy who wants someone so badly that he’s falling apart: “Wanna tell you I don’t love you, tell you that we’re through / And I’ve tried, but every time I see your face, I get all choked up inside.”
Like so many other Holland-Dozier-Holland songs (including the Supremes’ “Back In My Arms Again,” the song it replaced at #1) “I Can’t Help Myself” is an efficient little hook-delivery engine. That central riff builds and builds, before the song even really starts. It begins with bass and piano. And then the strings come in. And then more strings. And then the song kicks off. The track, just like the Holland-Dozier-Holland tracks that the Supremes were recording around the same time, is full of tiny details, like the quick sax-solo burst or the key changes in the strings, all riding on top of a runaway four-four beat. But unlike those songs, “I Can’t Help Myself” is all about conveying fervent passion, and that’s one thing Levi Stubbs knew how to do.
BONUS BEATS: Unlike the singing groups of their era, the Four Tops never really changed their membership. All four original Four Tops kept performing and recording until 1997, when Lawrence Payton died. So here’s the four of them, along with Diana Ross, giving an overjoyed, unpolished, heartwarming performance of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” with an entirely superfluous David Sanborn sax solo, at their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction in 1990: