Parentheses, The Four Tops, and the seeds of pop geekery

Parentheses, The Four Tops, and the seeds of pop geekery

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, our favorite songs with (parenthetical) titles.

I don’t know who the DJ was, and I can’t remember where the car was coming from or going to. What I do remember is sitting in the middle row of my family’s Ford Aerostar, listening to 104.3 WOMC (“Detroit’s Good Time Oldies Station”), and hearing a familiar six-bar intro fade into the mix. And then came the information that would lay my life’s path, the kind of knowledge that would enrich relationships and cause a whole lot of stupid, petty arguments in the years to come. The DJ had just received a request for “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” by The Four Tops, but WOMC didn’t have a song by that title on its playlist. There was, however, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” which the DJ was more than obliged to play. 

This was a turning point. The song’s titular lyric is “I can’t help myself / I love you and nobody else,” not the term of endearment that precedes it. Similarly, James Brown’s biggest hit is called “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and despite all of the times Buffalo Springfield asks “What’s that sound?” that song is “For What It’s Worth.” If my intense interest in oldies radio—which I listened to almost exclusively in elementary and middle school—hadn’t already done the job, this introductory course in record-title pedantry kicked open the door to whole worlds of musical geekery.

If you’re going to burn bridges over a pair of parentheses, the song better be worth a damn. “I Can’t Help Myself” certainly is, and it’s a tune so nice, the legendary songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland essentially wrote it twice: The chords and melody are nearly identical to another HDH composition, The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.” So it’s a testament to the songwriters’ chops and Levi Stubbs’ voice that “I Can’t Help Myself” and “Where Did Our Love Go” bear only a passing resemblance to one another. Stubbs was the voice of heartache on Motown, and though the accompaniment is a little brighter here than it is on “Bernadette” or “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” still finds Stubbs in a space between singing and shouting, an expression of romantic longing as acute as any other in the Tops’ discography. That’s another reason to get the song’s two titles straight: As a vocalist, “I Can’t Help Myself” is more characteristic of Stubbs than “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.” His is a voice that can’t be keep in parentheses.


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