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