WITHOUT meaning any disrespect to Dunhill Records — who have one of the finest images in straight 'pop' music — it didn't look right when a copy of "Keeper Of The Castle" landed on my desk bearing the name of the Four Tops. It wasn't unexpected because we knew all about the signing of the most consistent Soul-orientated group in Britain to the ABC/Dunhill group.
But the Tops were part of the Motown structure, they had clambered their way to the point where over the past five years, their British record sales must be in excess of any other Motown act. It just wouldn't look right — Motown without the Four Tops or the Four Tops on any other label.
Back to reality and there staring up at me is a nicely packaged album by the Four Tops on Dunhill. Why did the move take place? "It was by far the most important decision of our lives," admitted Obie, christened Renaldo Benson and whose other main claim to fame is that he co-wrote Marvin Gaye's award winning "What's Going On". 'We felt that maybe we were not getting the right type of promotion at Motown," he continued, "and that maybe the right sort of material wasn't getting through to us. In short, our career had reached a standstill and we felt that we had gone as far as we could progress with the company.
"We had had twelve great years with Motown and we learned an awful lot of things and gained more experience than we could ever have gotten elsewhere."
So, why to ABC/Dunhill and was the initial album to the group's satisfaction? "It's all fantastic," enthused Obie, "and we're very happy with Dunhill. They have captured a new feeling for us, one that we have never experienced at all before. Why ABC? Well, we were scouting around for a new label and of the opportunities we had facing us, ABC presented the best all-round arrangement. We felt they had the best team of song-writers at their disposal, we were highly impressed with their promotion staff who all seemed so young and enthusiastic. They were the two main points that convinced us that we should be with them.
"The album itself is an attempt on our part to do something a little different. We wrote some of the tunes ourselves but for the mainpart the credits go to Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who wrote most of the other songs and also produced — Brian's an Englishman, too. We cut the album in Los Angeles at ABC's own studio and we all felt that sensation that here was another Holland - Dozier - Holland situation in the making."
Did Motown's move from Detroit to California have anything to do with the parting of their ways? "I think so actually," Obie slowly explained. "We are all natives of Detroit, born and raised there virtually and we will be staying on in the city although this first LP was made in Los Angeles. But we feel that there's an awful lot of undiscovered talent in the Detroit area and Motown's leaving will create a sort of vacuum.'
Are the Tops planning to capitalise on this situation? "In a way — we have agreed to record some local acts for ABC. The first will be Levi's brother, Joe, who used to be with the Falcons and the Contours. Joe is Levi's younger brother. We'll be starting work on him quite soon and then we'll go on to a group we've got and who we're calling Little John — they are two of the sons of the late Little Willie John and they truly are fantastic.
"At Motown, for example, we never had the opportunity to broaden our scope and work on other acts, passing on the benefit of our own experiences. The new company encourages us to have such responsibilities and I think we'll all benefit from the situation."
How does the group feel about Motown's 'swan-song' success with the "Nature Planned It" single and album success? "We're delighted — you see, we have parted company happily, there is no bad feeling. The company probably understands what we are striving to do. Yes, we're delighted to leave on such a good note because we've had twelve wonderful years at Motown and this is the ideal way to bow out.
"We're also delighted for Frank Wilson, our producer at Motown because he worked hard for us. We always liked the album because it was the only concept album we made with them and it inspired us. It's nice to know the public liked it."
A final question that everybody has been asking — how did Levi turn up on stage on crutches? "Oh, I thought you might ask that," chuckled Obie. "He was putting his young son to bed after having watched TV in the den in the house in Detroit. Anyway, he laid him down on the bed, which is lower than most beds being for a small child. Levi put his foot accidently under the bed structure and as he turned round to go out, he wrenched his foot. He didn't think too much about it at the time, though it hurt him. Then the next morning, it hurt him so much he went to see a doctor who put him on crutches because he had broken a blood vessel. But it's O.K. now."
It will now be intriguing to see how successful the talented Tops can be without the Motown image to direct them. On the evidence of this first album, their immediate future is safe at least because it's certainly going to appeal to the legion of Four Tops fans in Britain, their "second home".