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The Ambush Songs: When an old favourite sneaks up on you

Updated: May 5, 2020

Stan Hey

We can consume our music around the clock and everywhere we go – we no longer have to find a jukebox when we’re on the move. We can hear it from our phone or laptop, or ask shops or bars to play our favourites. Or we can scan the shelves where our cassettes, vinyl singles and LPs and CDs entomb some of our favourite songs. You can’t list them all – but they each have their own time and place in our lives. Some lie dormant for years. Phil Spector comes out every Christmas. But there are moments when choice is beyond our control – a passing car with the window down; a hotel lobby; an airport lounge can suddenly ambush you by playing your favourite unannounced, with no sense of what it might mean to you or what mood you are in. Here come three of mine…

I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch): The Four Tops

(Written by Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Eddie Holland; released on Tamla Motown in June 1965)

The Detroit-born Four Tops seemed naturals to sign up with their city’s vibrant new Tamla Motown after several years recording on minor labels but it actually didn’t happen until 1963. Hitsville’s roster was already bulging with talent by then – Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Supremes, The Temptations, Martha and The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, all of whom would form the vanguard of Motown’s 1965 tour of Britain and the game-changing appearance, in March, on Ready, Steady, Go.

The Four Tops didn’t make the trip, standards deemed more suitable to their lead singer Levi Stubbs’ rasping baritone voice. Motown’s house style was higher-pitch, tenor and falsetto, relating to the emotional strains of its teenage audiences; indeed the label was marketed as The Sound Of Young America.

The Four Tops sounded like grown men, who’d honed their act over nearly a decade since forming at high school as The Four Aims. Stubbs was backed by Abdul Fakir, Renaldo Benson and Lawrence Payton. Their first proper efforts made little impact on the American charts. But then came the song that broke them to a wider audience. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) kicks off with a classic Funk Brothers (the Motown studio band) – rolling drum-beats, a jangling piano, rumbling bass and, of course, a tambourine right in the foreground.

The song’s bracketed subtitle opens the vocals with Levi leading and the other Tops filling in with repeats and whoops. It’s upbeat, jaunty even, but then we hear:

In and out of my life

You come and you go

Leaving just your picture behind

And I’ve kissed it a thousand times

It’s a beautiful line and sets the plaintive tone for the singer’s devotion which might be misplaced. The linear progress of the song is broken halfway with a change of tempo and a vivid summary of the protagonist’s dilemma:

When I call your name

Girl, it starts the flame

Burning in my heart

Tearing it all apart

No matter how I try

My love I cannot hide

The song quickly went to No1 in the American charts, and reached the top 10 in England in July 1965. It featured on one of the first Motown collection albums that I bought, Hitsville USA, 16 wonderful tracks, in mono, of the sound that had swept The Beatles and English pop out of my heart. My soul-loving pals danced to it at various teenage clubs around Huyton on Merseyside, utterly unaware of the truth of the lyrics – ‘I love you and nobody else’ was just a great line to sing at the unknown girl dancing opposite who would respond with a look of Scouse contempt and a subtitle ‘one dance, then you can sod off, you spotty, speccy divvy’.

Nevertheless, the song stayed with me. A year later, Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Four Tops came up with probably the best single of the Motown era, Reach Out (I’ll Be There). They stayed loyal to one another for over 50 years, and to Detroit, until death parted them.

I have their songs on vinyl and CD and I can play I Can’t Help Myself any time I want, though it’s a favourite in the dusty corners of the memory. The scene of the ambush was the Edgware Road-Cricklewood Broadway one Saturday morning in the late 1980s. I was driving home to Liverpool to visit my ailing mum. The radio was on in the car, probably Capital, and the traffic was drearily slow. Then on came the song. It made me smile. I found myself singing along quietly and then noticed that in every car of approaching traffic, drivers and front-seat passengers were all singing along too, a chorus of communal pleasure. We began to wave at each other, unembarrassed.

What we should have done is got out of our cars to sing and dance but this was Cricklewood not Hollywood. No wonder that on one major radio station’s Four Tops playlist, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) is the clear No1.

Too Late To Turn Back Now: Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose

(Written by Eddie Cornelius; United Artists Records, 1972)

The Miami-based Rose family – two brothers Eddie and Carter, two sisters Rose and Billy Jo – seemed unlikely ever to reach the R&B charts, so remote was their city Miami from the mainstream soul cities, and recording companies, of Detroit and Memphis. True, Rose had appeared as part of a gospel group on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, and she seems to have energised the nascent ambitions of Eddie to become a soul singer with a handful of his own songs ready to go.

Having placed themselves in the hands producer Bob Archibald at the Music Factory in Miami, the family’s first single Treat Her Like A Lady – not the track later recorded by The Temptations – showed up on both the Billboard Hot 100 at No3 and also in the R&B Top 20. By August of 1971 the song had been certified gold.

Their follow-up in early 1972 – Too Late To Turn Back Now – went even higher in both charts, reaching No5 in the R&B listings and No2 in the Hot 100. The single sold more than a million copies and a gold disc was forthcoming in August 1972.

It’s hard not to like a song that starts with sweeping strings, a decent tempo and this opening line:

My mama told me, she said: ‘Son, please beware

There’s a thing called lo-oo-hve, and it’s everywhere'

She told me: 'It can break your heart and put you in misery’

It’s a joyous, innocent piece, charting a young man’s first encounter with the deep emotions brought on by strong attraction to ‘a little woman’, and worrying that he has to ignore his mother’s warnings because he’s already besotted.

‘I believe, I believe, I believe I’m fallin’ in love…’ Eddie sings while his sisters and brother echo the words in the background. And in a couple of more verses he outlines his symptoms – not being able to sleep because he thinks only of holding her tight; and he’s driven to phone her 10 times a day. And that’s about it really – Eddie’s treackly soul voice is perfect for the song and the romantic production hits the spot. Not much came out after this hit, a few lowly-placed singles, three albums. But that single simple song placed them in soul music history.

Forty-seven years later, I’m sitting in a small cinema watching Spike Lee’s hugely enjoyable and bitingly satirical film BlacKkKlansman. As John David Washington’s black detective Ron Stallworth plans his infiltration of the KKK he runs across the militant black-rights movement of the local university, fronted by Laura Harrier’s striking, Afro-haired Patrice Dumas. She hates the police almost as much she hates the Klan so when Ron meets her he has to be on his guard. On a subsequent ‘date’ he finds himself in the students’ hall, and in a wonderful scene in which all the students are dancing to a pounding soul song, romance seems a possibility. And I’m sitting in the darkness thinking, ‘I know this song, what the hell is it? Have I got this?’ Sitting alone through the end titles – a professional obligation for screenwriters – I spotted the track listing. Back home, I baffled my wife by going on an intensive search of my singles for about an hour before I woke her up to tell her I’d found the record.

Forty-seven years earlier, a college friend and I were hauling a mobile disco around colleges in Cambridge – Bill had the deck and speakers, I had the records I’d collected since becoming a soul fan. And one of the songs was Too Late To Turn Back Now, the seven-inch single with the cream-coloured UA label. We didn’t have any white records as Bill and I were evolving our own attempt to promote black music in a white educational universe. So requests for Hawkwind’s Silver Machine were given short shrift. Our treat was not only to be paid for playing music we loved but also being able to watch public schoolboys make Peter Crouch look like Rudolf Nureyev. Unlike Lee’s film, there were no black faces at our discos back then – but it must have changed by now.

Can We Pretend: Bill Withers

(Written by Denise Nicholas; from the album +'Justments, Sussex Records, 1974)

Bill Withers is, astonishingly, 80 years old now but it only seems like yesterday that his unique voice and style hit the music world in the late 1960s. His entry into music had been delayed by military service, frustrating perhaps but it meant that we got work from an emotionally intelligent man rather than some teenage upstart in a spangly jacket. That time had also allowed him to write his own songs and to have a ready-made acoustic guitar style, with a coterie of smart soul-jazz musicians such as Melvin Dunlap on bass and Ray Jackson on piano around him. Withers wasn’t learning on the job.

Ain’t No Sunshine, Grandma’s Hands, I Can’t Write Left-Handed and Lean on Me established him as a major force, able to move from protest song, to folk-soul, to tender ballad. Can We Pretend, track two on Side B of the early 1974 album +'Justments, is certainly the latter and it became my companion during my last term at university. There was exam anxiety for certain but the overwhelming emotions were a sense of sadness as three years in an artificial bubble drew close to an end. Deep friendships and loving relationships had been established but would they survive in the outside world? There was something of a rush to ‘partner up’ and four of my close friends ended up marrying the girls they had met in the bubble.

My on-off friendship-turned-enchantment, lasting over the three years, felt as though it was ready for a conclusion but there was hesitation, and doubt, on both sides. Here is where the song comes in: it’s an unusually gentle track (there are two more to follow on the same side) but its start, a cadence of acoustic guitar and a short lament of violin chords sets a mournful tone. A single rim-shot on a snare drum is all the percussion heard, as a light curtain of strings swishes in. By now you’ve confirmed that the guitar is being played by the virtuoso José Feliciano, embroidering the song with a poetic riff, matched underneath by a plucking upright bass. Withers enters:

Can we pretend

That from now on

There is no yesterday

Paint a portrait of tomorrow

With no colours from today

The lines announce the precise dilemma – are we going forward together, or staring at a blank canvas. The beautiful chorus then devastatingly lays out the profound contrast in emotions:

There’s a light that shines in your face sometimes

That turns my feelings and wraps them around your need

But there’s a shadow hiding in your heart sometimes

That turns my feelings back in on me

These astonishing lines seemed at the time precisely to sum up the state of my relationship, the words better than any I could think up. So exams passed, parties swung here and there, we saw each other here and there. And then finally a group of us made our way up to a beach in west Norfolk for an evening party and ramshackle barbecue. There was a bit of dancing, to radio music; some soulful walks along the beach; and as the sun set around 10pm we held each other wordlessly. It would be the last physical contact we’d have.

Understandably, I didn’t play the song for many years not so much through regret but because it reminded of a lost time of freedom which was receding fast as I scrambled for jobs and flats, definition and stability. But later I found a new resonance because of finding that it had been written not by Withers but by his then wife as their break-up song.

Now, every weekday, in the small town where I live, three friends, dads in our 60s with kids grown up, meet and discuss the events and troubles of the day. Tuesday to Friday we go to our adopted pub, with a window table and enough privacy for coffee and loose talk. But on Mondays when the pub is closed we have a second venue – The Doghouse, a vaulted emporium for canine shampooing and retails goods.

Ruth, the cheery owner, allows us to have coffee at one of her vintage Italian coffee tables with their leatherette chairs. We mind our language because there are dogs and their owners milling around. And there’s music too, piped in. And one Monday last autumn, Can We Pretend came on. I listened, in this surreal setting worthy of the Coen Brothers, then took a brief moment outside – ‘Can we pretend, the pain is gone, and go our merry way?’

Stan Hey is a scriptwriter for television (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet; Coast To Coast; The Lenny Henry Show; The Manageress; Dalziel & Pascoe) but has also been a sportswriter at Time Out, The Sunday Correspondent and both Independent newspapers; in the late 70s he also wrote for Melody Maker, getting to interview another hero, Curtis Mayfield, but also reviewing some of the worst disco music ever produced. He is currently developing a drama about The Chants, Liverpool’s only black group of the Merseybeat era.


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