138) Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” replaced “Back in My Arms Again” after just one week atop the charts, giving Motown its first set of back-to-back number-ones. As with The Supremes before them, Four Tops succeeded with the help of the writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who rescued the promising group from the label’s B-list and crafted a musical persona for them that was both distinctive and easily replicable. Four Tops had bounced around labels for nearly a decade, mostly recording lite-jazz standards and touring the supper club circuit. But it wasn’t until H-D-H positioned the Tops’ sound as a heavier, more gospel-influenced take on The Supremes’ polished soul-pop that the group had their first hit, 1964’s “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Lead singer Levi Stubbs began shouting against the upper limits of his baritone, the strain adding both a desperation and a forcefulness to his voice that marked it as the ultra-masculine, ultra-emotive counterpart to Diana Ross’s demure girlishness. “I Can’t Help Myself” even shares a similar chord progression and some lyrical content with “Where Did Our Love Go,” albeit fleshed out with a bridge and full Funk Brothers instrumentation, including vibes, strings and a saxophone.

While The Supremes sang in questions (“Where did our love go?” “Why must we separate?” “Won’t you hurry?”), though, the Four Tops issue proclamations. Stubbs isn’t apologetic or insecure about telling his girl how he feels; he lays out his anguish in plain terms, take it or leave it. Nor does he hold her directly responsible for causing his heartache. Rather, he turns the blame on himself for being “weaker than a man should be,” for letting himself fall in love at all. But even as he resists her, the swell of the strings and the jangle of the tambourine betray the rush of exhilaration he’s so desperate to tamp down. He may complain about the burning in his heart, but he can’t deny its warm glow. This being a Holland-Dozier-Holland production, Four Tops would repeat the formula with the aptly-titled “It’s the Same Old Song” – though as with “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me,” the knockoff arguably improves on the original. But the group’s most electrifying material was still around the corner, as H-D-H’s productions would grow increasingly gothic to match the exquisite agony of Stubbs’ voice. 8

Hit #1 on June 19, 1965 for 1 week; repeaked on July 3, 1965 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
138 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.68% through the Hot 100

1 Comment

Filed under 08, 1965

One response to “138) Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

  1. Action Man

    I like that a song dependent on the tambourine for its beat is replaced atop the chart by Mr Tambourine Man

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