Apr 072021

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

I Can't Help Myself

“Sugarpie, honeybunch” must be the most gloriously unselfconscious opening shot of almost any song I can think of, epitomizing the sheer unstoppable surge of soppiness true love can invoke in even the red bloodiest of macho men. Tagged to a monster of a melody that takes wings from the start, “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops couldn’t be a stronger declaration of fact; when you hear it, you just know that no-shrinking-violet Levi Stubbs really can’t help himself. It is so well constructed a song: the words, the melody, the never-better arrangement and the transcendent vocals, all add up to Motown at its mid-60s pinnacle. And the credits clearly don’t need any prompting–it could be nobody other than Holland-Dozier-Holland, oozing out of every pore of the vinyl, always vinyl, always 45 rpm.

Brothers Brian and Eddie Holland had been with Motown and Berry Gordy from the start, as both songwriters and performers, ahead of teaming up with Lamont Dozier, who similarly had been writing and performing on the fertile Detroit music scene. As a production and writing team together, they hit pay dirt, responsible for a huge proportion of the label’s output, and arguably the most responsible as anyone for the fame and fortunes of the Tamla Motown brand. The Supremes? Martha and the Vandellas? The Isley Brothers? Yup, they wrote most of their early hits, and a fair few for the Temptations, Junior Walker, Marvin Gaye and more. Plus, of course, the Four Tops, for me the earthiest and most authentic set of voices in the roster. The combination of the strained vocal of Stubbs, the writers deliberately pitching the songs to the top of his range, with the call and response backing vocals of Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton is remarkable. Add in the exemplary musicianship of the legendary studio house band the Funk Brothers and it becomes unbeatable. Over four decades the recipe and the line-up, at least of the vocal group, didn’t change. And if the Hollands and Lamont didn’t write everything, wherever they were involved, they sure as hell produced and arranged it to sound as if they did.

Hitting the top of the Billboard chart for two weeks in 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself” was the second-biggest seller of the year, in a year of strong competition (you’ll never guess what number one was). How well has it fared since? And with whom? There are a lot of anodyne facsimiles, watering the soul and passion down into pappy would be chart fodder. But a few, just a few, have taken the ball and run.

Taj Mahal – I Can’t Help Myself (Four Tops cover)

Taj Mahal can, of course, do no wrong. A veteran performer from the 1960’s, starting alongside Ry Cooder in The Rising Sons, he has maintained a solid and influential career exploring the lesser known nooks and crannies of black American music. Playing little with the “I Can’t Help Myself” melody, it is the really only the backing that Mahal interferes with, cross-pollinating the sounds of the Caribbean and New Orleans. They filter together delightfully, with the vocal needing little more than the rudiment he brings to the party. “I Can’t Help Myself” is tacked onto the 1993 album Dancing the Blues as a bonus track; I can find no credits, but one might suppose it came from the same sessions that included many of Little Feat amongst the ranks of other musicians.

Billy Hill – I Can’t Help Myself (Four Tops cover)

Quite who Billy Hill was or were is open to some conjecture, but they took this swagger of a version to #58 in the Billboard country chart during the summer of 1989. There was no single person called Billy Hill in the band, this being a fiction contrived by the band to give them some mystery. Coming over all like Dwight Yoakam on a good day, with a touch of a street corner doo-wop choir in the massed group vocal, even with neither doos nor wops, this totally schizophrenic version works a treat, from the rockabilly swing of the arrangement to those vocal stylizations. Including an erstwhile bass player from Steve Earle’s then band, and adding famed steel player Bucky Baxter to play on the record, they produced but one album to their name, with this not even the biggest of the two singles released. (Bet you can’t remember the other? Covered by Marty Stuart.) The organ solo, by Muscle Shoals man Barry Beckett, is especially tasty.

Georgeana Bonow – I Can’t Help Myself (Four Tops cover)

Well, this’ll divide you. Even I am not sure whether I like this as a piece of delightful proto bossa-nova or just some drecky bubblegum with an odd vocal. On balance it is the former, because an effort has been made and there is thought in the largely sensitive backing, if a bit heavy on the congas. Who she? Well, she actually is Brazilian, so maybe samba would be a better description, and she has a track record of similar covers, including (Madonna’s) “Like a Prayer” and “Frozen,” often on those compilation discs that try and suggest a lively Latin lounge scene. For all I know there is.

Lamont Dozier – I Can’t Help Myself (Four Tops cover)

Nothing in the rules about the writer of a song later choosing to record it, and, by and large, I am glad he did. Yes, the arrangement is a bit bland, but the slower speed and Dozier’s world-weary vocal adds something absent from the gravel of Levi Stubbs. This is from a 2004 collection that applies similar brakes to a dozen or so of his greatest hits, rendering them just a little too much adult orientated gloss, if also reminding quite how bountiful is his back catalog. I’m uncertain quite whose idea the electric violin solo was, but I trust he never worked again. (Ed. Harry Scorzo.) I think this would have worked far better without the orchestra; I would pay just to hear his voice and a piano.

Kid Rock – I Can’t Help Myself (Four Tops cover)

Just as you were thinking I didn’t really have five good covers, here’s the proof I do, and from an unexpected source. Kid Rock rarely casts any shadow over my listening. I am not even entirely sure who or what his demographic is; a sort of rock, rap and country crossover, he seems designed to be badass, but comes over more often as just ass. Coming from his Nashville recording debut, 2017’s Sweet Southern Sugar, a record that took no prisoners in his longstanding offend-the-liberals stance, this cover is a wonderful slow boogie shuffle, kicked off by his echoed vocal and a simple repeated guitar motif, ahead of pleasingly gruff singing, with shimmering keyboard creeping in. Gradually backing vocals join, vying with some near imperceptible electronic trickery. The whole combination dares you to re-evaluate his catalogue, not least as sax and steel battle it out in the distance. A gem.

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