BWW Review: THE FOUR TOPS AND THE TEMPTATIONS at the San Diego Symphony's Bayside Summer Nights
Nostalgic fans mobbed the San Diego Symphony's Four Tops and Temptations concert. Tables, stands and lawn were packed. Ticketless fans settled in spots outside the entrance, joining boats in the bay in listening to music that had created lasting memories. Tunes you hear growing up never leave you. You can tell how old someone is by asking which radio station they listen to. "The one that plays oldies from the 60s," is a good indicator, even if La Jolla's excellent plastic surgeons have intervened. Fond memories are why Motown vocal groups and "ghost" bands from the Swing Era still attract enthusiastic audiences.
With their many number-one hits and more than half a century of sold-out venues, it's not surprising to see The Four Tops at 79 and the Temptations at 68 on Rolling Stones' list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. For many years rivals, they now tour together, recreating the Motown grooves and soulful sounds they, and other groups such as The Supremes, made so popular in the 1960s and 70s.
The Four Tops opened the concert. The original members of the group performed together from 1953 until Lawrence Payton became ill and died in 1997. Today, at 82, Abdul "Duke" Fakir is the sole surviving founding member and still performing. Although he was sitting on stage because of a recent injury, it's likely he'll be on his feet dancing again before another birthday. He and the others flaunted flashy gold-sparkle jackets and gold pants, while they sang hits that included "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," "Reach Out I'll Be There," and "It's the Same Old Song."
The Temptations too have one surviving founder, Otis Williams, now 76. Founded a bit later than the Tops, the male vocal quintet began as The Elgins a mere 58 years ago, changing to their current name shortly after they learned there was already another Motown group named The Elgins. The Temptations have had more internal disagreements than The Four Tops, and far more turnover. Even so, Williams has managed to keep performances at a high level, with little change in signature vocal sounds and harmonies. He has felt an obligation he has said, "To make it all come together, the dancing, the harmony, the dressing." The smash hits reprised by The Temptations in the concert's second half included "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," "Just My Imagination," and "My Girl."
The groups have maintained their signature synchronized dance moves, although on this night, perhaps because Fakir was unable to join the other Tops, the Temptations would have had a big edge in a dance competition. Their moves were more precise and continuous.
Current arrangements and feel, especially in the case of The Four Tops, aren't identical to the originals. The Tops most popular recordings featured baritone Levi Stubbs, usually in arrangements that intentionally forced him up into a tenor range to get a strained, raw emotional sound. The current Four Tops lead, Harold "Spike" Bonhart, typically sings in a more comfortable range with a smoother sound.
On recordings, the two vocal groups were often backed by the Funk Brothers, Motown Records' studio band, augmented by a small chorus and a few strings. The nearly twenty musicians in the tour band, shared with a few substitutions, are as much Vegas as Motown. Changed arrangements have affected The Four Tops more than the Temptations because the latter has always been a little closer to prevailing mainstream styles. Even their black and white outfits were more conventional than the Tops golden glitter.
Purists may have been bothered by differences between the original recordings and the concert performances. But most, including me, were happy to hear the latest versions of legendary Motown groups singing songs so many have enjoyed for so long, songs that had the audience singing along and clapping rhythmically while swaying with arms in the air.
Photo courtesy San Diego Symphony.