Something About You - the Four Tops
Billy Bragg gives us the excuse to return to the immortal Four Tops singing songs written and produced by the Motown team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland. "Something About You" wasn't a UK hit but reached number 19 in the US Hot 100 in 1965. Apart from being a classic Motown stonker, with Levi Stubbs' vocal sounding so desperate and urgent that it almost makes you panic, unusually for early Motown, James Jamerson must either have been having a day off or been told to "stick to a normal bass line or else" as his usual exuberant improvisation is absent. It's still a powerfully good bass line whoever is playing it. Its regularity makes the space for the lead guitar to take centre stage with a repeated rock-style riff from the lead guitar a la Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" amongst many others. This is unusual in Motown as the guitar usually has a chopping rhythm role.
Also unusual are Levi's opening words - I agree with Dave Marsh that they are "Dumplin' dumplin" and not the tamer "Darling darling" attributed to him on the published lyric song sheets. Which means that the Tops are responsible for two of the most endearing opening lines in pop history, this along with the "Sugar pie, honey bunch" of the Holland Dozier Holland composition "I Can't Help Myself".
Not that this helped me when I held out for Motown amongst my schoolmates as they shook their weeping willow braids and played air guitar to the likes of the Small Faces and the Stones. The first time I heard this song was when I bought the 1968 compilation - "The Four Tops Greatest Hits" - the first Motown album to reach Number One in the UK album charts, and only the second UK album number one by a black artist since the chart had begun in 1956 - the first was "Love is the Thing" by Nat King Cole in 1957.
I had a fight with James "Smiler" O'Toole when he sneered at my record cover, which famously shows the Tops performing at what appears to be a garden party attended exclusively by white people (see photo above). His objection was as much that they were middle aged men in suits than that they were black. Looking at the cover now, the disturbing thing is the setting, with the white/black audience/performer divide exaggerated by the dancing stance of Levi and co as caught on camera, worryingly reminiscent of the cliche "Mammy" style posture popularised by Al Jolson in the 1920's. Also worrying is the resemblance of the blonde guy at the righthand table to Smiler himself!
My problem is that out of, presumably, a whole series of photographs from the event, Motown chief executive Berry Gordy should choose this one for the UK album cover. Perhaps the answer lies in a closer inspection of the UK album charts of the sixties. Prior to May 1963 the chart number ones were a mixture of film musical soundtracks such as South Pacific and West Side Story, Elvis Presley LP's (by now very much the same thing as they were all soundtracks to his movies), and records by Cliff Richard and/or the Shadows. The other big sellers, with 3 number ones in 1962 and '63, were Black and White Minstrel show albums. The popularity of the show that featured blacked-up white men singing Mississippi-style showboat songs was due to it having the week's prime time tv family billing on one of the only two tv channels of the day, the BBC: 45 minutes on a Saturday evening! Perhaps because I had been born and raised in an Arab country, I remember thinking it was pretty weird even at the age of six. Goodness knows what the recent Caribbean arrivals to the UK thought of it!
May '63 saw the advent of the Beatles and an astonishing revolution whereby for the best part of the next four years, until late January 1967, only records by the Beatles, the Stones and Bob Dylan made number one, with the exception of the "Sound of Music" film soundtrack. But old habits die hard, and over the same period the George Mitchell Minstrels (aka the Black and White Minstrels) achieved a further four top twenty album chart entries. One can't help wondering if Berry Gordy, always a great one for research, deliberately chose that photo so as to subconsciously play into the musical prejudices of UK white, middle of the road audiences who might feel less threatened by an album cover that showed dancing black men showboating to a respectable white audience. Whether deliberate or not, it may have helped boost the sales, or at least worried the parents of the record purchasers less, although it didn't stop Smiler from getting a thick lip from me. At the age of fourteen I liked the cover - and the music - so much I was ready to fight for it.
Levi Stubb's smouldering vocal delivery and the scorching sax leave you in no doubt that these guys are, unlike the George Mitchell Minstrels, actually black, and, also unlike the George Mitchell Minstrels, no Uncle Toms. From the roared, first "Dumpling" he makes you sit up and listen, dispelling any notions except for respect for such passion, and a desire to grab someone and dance.