News Column

Oldies and Newbies

May 5, 2013



The more pop acts change, the more they remain the same.

Anyway, that's what ticket buyers for groups like The Temptations ("My Girl," "Just My Imagination," "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone") and The Four Tops ("I Can't Help Myself ["Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch]," "Reach Out I'll Be There") are counting on.

Both acts, coming to bergenPAC Thursday, each contain only one founding member from their original lineup of 50-plus years ago. Otis Williams of The Temptations, and Abdul "Duke" Fakir of the Four Tops, are the last living links to the storied past for these classic Motown groups, whose ranks through the years have been replenished by younger men. The Beach Boys, at bergenPAC May 31, contain one original (Mike Love) and one semi-original (Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965) member.

So how does a long-lived act maintain its sound, its style, its integrity, with multiple changes of personnel over 50 years or more?

In the words of a 1969 Four Tops hit, you "Do What You Gotta Do."

"You have your growing pains," says The Four Tops' Lawrence "Roquel" Payton Jr., who is in a unique position to know.

He is the newest member of The Four Tops, the legendary soul quartet celebrating a milestone 60th birthday this year.

He is also, paradoxically, one of the guys who's been with the act the longest. His late father, Lawrence Payton, was one of the group's founding members. Payton Jr. has been watching The Four Tops perform since he was 4.

"There's that level of excellence they've tried to maintain all of those years," Payton Jr. says.

History behind the history

"It's the Same Old Song," runs another famous Four Tops title. Do people really care if it's a different singer? Yes and no. There are always fans who will go to so-called "oldies" acts, even with newbie members. But the attention, and the jump in ticket sales and venue prestige, that resulted from Brian Wilson's, Al Jardine's and David Marks' temporary rejoining of The Beach Boys on tour last year (none of the three will be at bergenPAC) suggests that the public does make a distinction between original artists and Johnny-come- latelies.

Along with Fakir, Payton Jr. is the institutional memory of his act. As a toddler, he watched The Four Tops rehearse at his grandmother's house in Detroit. He knows their history -- and the history behind the history.

"People come to me for advice," Payton Jr. says. "They come to me for the stories. I could tell you a bunch of stories. We were playing basketball, me and a friend, in my back yard. We must have been about 10 or 11. One of dad's friends comes by, and he says, 'Hey, can I play?' We were like, 'Yeah.' And he proceeded to knock us down. That 'friend' was Smokey Robinson. He was so competitive. He was very athletic. We were like, 'We're just kids.' And I'll never forget, he said, 'If you're gonna do something, you either do it or you don't do it.' That made sense to me."

He's tried to live by that philosophy ever since -- particularly since 2005, when he replaced original member Renaldo "Obie" Benson, who had died of lung cancer.

Payton Jr., now in his mid-50s, is one of the youngest members of The Four Tops, a group that held on to its original lineup longer than most. Since the group formed in 1953, it's had only eight members. The act survived as late as 1997 with its original roster intact.

Compare that to The Temptations, which has had 21 members in 19 different lineups since it launched in 1960, or The Beach Boys, which has had 20 separate iterations since it began in 1961.

Though all three groups were technically ensembles, they became famous for certain breakout stars: Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, both deceased, in the case of The Temptations; the late Levi Stubbs (the voice of the man-eating plant Audrey II in the 1986 movie musical "Little Shop of Horrors") in the case of The Four Tops. The Beach Boys are most associated with the brothers Wilson: Carl and Dennis, both gone, and Brian, the reclusive "genius" of the group, who only lately has gotten past years of mental trouble to appear onstage with the band for last year's 50th anniversary tour.

So how does a 60-year-old act, with mostly newer recruits, maintain quality control? A good work ethic is key, Payton Jr. says. "You have to be a cut above the rest," he says. "That's the hardest thing to get newer members to understand. Your harmonies have to be a little better. There are all these little intricacies."

Of such things, an act's identity is made. And that identity is especially important for vocal groups that hit it big in the 1950s and early '60s.

Many acts in those early days, apart from the occasional token TV appearance, were known mostly by voice. Nor were matters helped by racism: Album covers frequently didn't show black artists, for fear of turning off white buyers. Fans, thus, often had no real idea of who their favorites were. In later years, it became all too easy to palm off any group of middle-aged black men as The Coasters or The Drifters.

And palmed off they were: Unauthorized rival "versions" of top acts, with not a single connection to the original, criss-crossed the country for years. Jon Bauman (Sha Na Na's "Bowzer"), of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame's Truth in Music Committee, estimated that at one time there were 120 groups calling themselves The Platters.

Wary of copycats

It's only in recent years, and state-by-state, that the Truth in Music Law (now in 33 states, including New Jersey) began stipulating that acts performing under a trademarked name needed to have a minimum of one original performer -- or at least a clear legal title to the name.

Such copycatting (The Four Tops have also been victims) can only be fought two ways. One is a lawsuit. The other is to make sure your own group always sounds like what it is: the real thing. That's one reason the Four Tops, new members and old, are always determined to sound their best.

"We went to London, and somebody mentioned, 'You know, you guys were just playing such-and-such a place,' where we didn't play," says Payton Jr.

"We started checking into it. There was a court battle, and of course we won. But it really makes you think."



WHAT: The Temptations and The Four Tops.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday.

WHERE: BergenPAC, 30 N. Van Brunt St., Englewood; 201-227-1030 or

HOW MUCH: $39 to $99.

Originally published by Email:

(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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