Them was fightin’ words, the New York Post critic claiming that The Temptations had better songs than the Four Tops in his review of the Tempts/Tops, who just finished their Dec. 29-Jan. 4 run at Broadway’s Palace Theatre.
Yeah, The Tempts had “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Just My Imagination”–but I liked the Rolling Stones’ cover versions better, sacrilegious as that may sound. Even with late great vocalists David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, The Tempts were like cotton candy compared to the gritty intensity of Levi Stubbs and The Tops, much like my preferred Martha & the Vandellas and The Marvelettes to the Supremes—and for that matter, David’s late brother Jimmy to David.
So I went to the Jan. 3 evening show, only because my old friend Judy Tint, the Tops’ longtime attorney, was playing percussion. I’d seen both groups back in the day and didn’t need to see either now that each has only one original member left.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially in the case of The Tops. Besides Duke Fakir–the last Top standing—the current quartet features Lawrence Payton, Jr., the son of original member Lawrence Payton, and while Harold “Spike” Bonhart couldn’t approach the emotional fire of Stubbs—not that anyone could—he wasn’t at all bad, and expressed pride in carrying on the Four Tops tradition. That tradition includes such timeless hits as “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” and of course, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” which the Palace people sang on their own.
But classic hits aside, the show was marked by spirit. Fakir dedicated it to “our three fallen brothers,” Stubbs, Payton and Renaldo “Obie” Benson. “We never forget them, and we never want you to forget them.”
Incredibly, up until Payton’s death in 1977, the original four had been together an unprecedented 43 years.
“People always ask, ‘How was it? What’s the deal?’” said Fakir. “The deal was that although they were three talented stars, they were truly three of the greatest friends that anyone could ever have.”
Stubbs, he acknowledged, was “one of the best singers of the century—but he had character far beyond the voice.”
Many times, said Fakir, Stubbs was offered millions of dollars to leave the others and go solo, but always said, “If it ain’t for the boys, it ain’t gonna happen.”
The Four Tops, truly, were a band of brothers. Toward the end of the Palace set, Fakir led the current version in “My Way,” beautifully rewritten as “Our Way.”
“These moments may not come again,” said Junior Payton, capably helping to keep his father’s legacy alive.
“Give it up,” he instructed, “into your hearts once again.”