IN THE FIVE short months that have passed since the last time the Tops came to Britain, a great deal has happened to them. Back on that cold, bleak Wednesday afternoon during March, I remember the apprehensive yet confident way they were preparing to plot the future of the 'new' Tops. They believed in the new style that they had jointly created with master Motown producer, Frank Wilson, yet it was untried. It was to be a sound away from the Levi dominated era of "Reach Out" and it was to be spearheaded with a standard, "It's All In The Game".
Well, that's water under the bridge because "Game" gave them their biggest hit both in Britain and the States for some three years and it allowed them the chance to succeed with their classic "Still Waters" album, an album that has become one of the most successful Soul albums of the year, topping the R&B charts in Britain and America alike.
Hot on the heels of "Still Waters Run Deep" will come a new Motown album from the Tops. Entitled "Changing Times", it is a creative continuation to "Still Waters". Commented Lawrence, of the Tops: "Frank Wilson is again the producer. He was responsible for the album we did with the Supremes, too, on which each of us and each of the Supremes takes a turn at singing lead. That album is called "The Magnificent Seven". Our album is "Changing Times", and that's the name of the lead track along the same lines as "Still Waters" being the lead track to the last album. It's not that we weren't happy with "Still Waters" but we are much happier with this one.
"You see, we were a little unsure when we cut "Still Waters" as to whether our fans would accept us in such a different bag. Now we know the answer to that question and it allowed us to be at far more ease for the new album. On the set will be the Beatles' "Long And Winding Road", the ballad "Try To Remember", plus a new song that Frank wrote and which is, to me, one of the very best tracks, "Something's Tearing At The Edges Of Time".
Bearing in mind this change of style for the Tops, I was prompted to enquire as to whether there were many unreleased Tops' tracks in the can relating to their previous style: "Well, yes, there must be a few", answered Lawrence. "Not too many, though I think we have a couple of Holland-Dozier things in the can but somehow I don't think they were ever completely finished."
Obie joined in: "The new album, though, is where we're at now. It really is a sign of the times, the changing times. It's not a political album, though, but a sign of the musical changing times! As with "Still Waters", it's very creative and has something to say that is different, we feel, to every different listener. We're not trying to be deep or anything, just doing our best to entertain our fans. For example, on the new album, there are no grooves in between the different cuts. Frank decided to replace the peace of the in-between grooves with the ticking of a clock. It really has a strange effect on the whole album."
Then, in bounded a much-slimmer Levi minus the beard that he sported on his last visit: "Frank is a very talented producer and he's only a young man. The album includes "You Got What It Takes" and Diana Ross' hit, "Reach Out and Touch" and the old ballad, "For Your Love". Unfortunately — or fortunately, I'm still not sure! — I caught Levi on one of his most irrepressible days and he spent most of the time imitating the British accent on "Hello, Duckie!" or "Old Bean" or something equally Angloid! However, he did stay still long enough to talk about the group's successful six week tour of Australia: "It was just too much. Everywhere we went, people treated us so well, and we played to full houses at nearly every date. And everyone knew our songs."
Lawrence interjected: "It's amazing, really, because Australia is just like being in England on a sunny day. The people are very much the same and they have that same warmth in their character." Back to Levi: "We were there for close on six weeks and enjoyed every minute. There was a good deal of publicity built around our tour so I guess that helped a lot. One date that we did was in a stadium in Sydney and we broke the house record that had been standing since 1908 when Jack Johnson, the boxer, brought a full crowd. However, we were the last act to appear there because they closed the stadium straight after our performance. I guess they felt that they couldn't follow us!"
On arriving back in Detroit, the Tops were invited to appear at a special gala in aid of the boxer, Joe Louis. The testimonial was held at the Cobo Hall in Detroit and the Tops shared the bill with the Jackson 5, Mahalia Jackson, B. B. King, Bill Cosby, Billy Eckstine and Red Foxx. As most B&S readers will already know, Joe Louis is rated as being one of the greatest boxers of all time and he was world heavyweight champion for many years. Just recently, though, he has been beset with ill-fortune and suffered a nervous breakdown earlier this year. During his period of illness, Louis ran out of money and two of his closest friends approached Motown's President, Berry Gordy Jr., to sponsor a show in Detroit, home city of both Motown and Joe Louis, in aid of the boxer. Gordy agreed to supply the talent and to arrange the actual entertainments for the evening with the artists donating their services freely.
As it turned out, the show was poorly organised — not from Motown's end, incidentally — with very little of the proceeds actually reaching the unfortunate Mr Louis, once the expenses were taken from the actual monies earned for the evening. Despite the fact that close on 15,000 people paid between five and fifty dollars (£2-£20) each, there was a very small profit margin. As a company, Motown were naturally very disappointed and they are considering staging another charity show for Joe Louis later this year in Las Vegas. Anyway, as far as the Tops are concerned, it was a great experience.
Meanwhile, by the time this feature is read, the Tops will have virtually completed another British tour and we can only look forward to their next British trip.