Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Can’t Help Myself (Sugarpie, Honey Bunch) by The Four Tops

My dad is one of the most important musical influences in my life. He never learned how to play musical instruments, he does not have the greatest singing voice and he probably could not understand most concepts in music theory. What he taught me is more important than all of that. He showed me that the love of music is the only thing that is truly relevant in being a musician. He gave an understanding of music’s role in society and showed me the power it has to enrich our lives every day.

My parents drove me to school almost every day until I started driving myself in high school. In middle school, my dad drove to school almost every morning and we would listen to the local oldies radio station. One of my favorite memories of my dad and I rocking out to “I Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops on the way to school.

If you listen to this song and you don’t smile or get a little bit of joy out of this song you either got to be dead or have a heart smaller then the Grinch’s. The beginning bass line leads up to the third notes, which accents the offbeat throwing the momentum forward and settles into an irresistible but simple groove. Like most jazz music and many Motown songs of the 1960s the groove lies less in the drum set but in the bass player who drives the beat forward.

Most popular songs have a verse/chorus form alternating between verses and a chorus often with bridge later in the song. This song’s form is simpler. The form is made of a repeated 8-measre phrase that the producers skillfully varied in each repetition. The first three repetitions features Levi Stubbs the lead singer. This is followed by the fourth repetition which is a saxophone solo (or back-up singer feature on the clip). The fifth and sixth sections go back to singing and then there is a break down. The instruments thin out and the music builds. This section is only six measures long, building momentum into the final repetitions. The form maintains a level of predictability with just enough variation to keep the listen engaged.

Levis Stubbs is one of the greatest singers in popular music. While most groups utilized a higher tenor voice to sing lead, The Four Tops featured the lower baritone voice of Levi Stubbs. His gravely voice seemed to border the line between singing and shouting without sounding forced. Even through his rough voice, there is clarity and energy like that of a Baptist preacher. He makes the words “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” so genuine and heartfelt that we forget how silly those words are. Next time you are around a male friend, see how manly they sound when they call their significant other by their pet name.

Levi Stubbs could make anything sound manly, and I mean anything (if you listen to The Four Tops’ cover of “Macarthur Park” you will cry when Levi sings “Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it Cause it took so long to bake it and Ill never have that recipe again!”). And more importantly he made you believe in what he sang about through his unbridled expression, humanity and charm.

The subject of this song is pretty straightforward. A man is infatuated with a woman, he sometimes thinks of leaving her but he can’t help himself. You can always tell when you are falling in love with someone because you think about them all the time and you bring them up in conversation without realizing it. It’s the greatest kind of torture when your heart will not let your mind forget how good it feels to be with that person. Levi gets that from his “Sugarpie Honeybunch” and I get that feeling from my “Boo-Bear.”

Sometimes I try to imagine what it was like for my dad growing up as a teen in the 1960s in Taiwan listening to American pop music. I imagine it represented youth, freedom and the American Dream. The term “American Dream” is not some singular path that all Americans have but rather the individual hopes and ideas that my father had about America.

One of my dad’s dreams was to own a Ford Mustang. In the 1950s and 1960s the Ford Mustang was an incredible machine that epitomized the best in American engineering and freedom of American youth. Unfortunately, by the time my dad got to America in the late 1970s and bought his dream car of a Ford Mustang, the American auto industry had taken a down turn and the Mustang was a shadow of the great car it used to be. That dream may have failed my dad but I like to think that the music did not.

He introduced my brother and I to the music of Motown which represented some of the best music of that my dad’s youth. My dad derives so much infectious joy from that music and Motown music became a cornerstone to how I identified what it meant to be American.

From Motown, came my infatuation with the Beatles, which led to my interest in the music of the 1990s, jazz, classical, show tunes and many other genres of music that solidified my love of the art of music. The more music I listen to the more I come back to the idea that music’s power to connect us with certain times in our lives and dreams in our hearts is central to the musical experience. “I Can’t Help Myself” lyrically has nothing to do with my dad, and was created seventeen years before I was born. It has no innate reason that it connected with me or my dad but it did and I can’t really explain why that happened but I can tell you how wonderful it is to hear this song play and think back at great moments I had with my dad.

If you ever met my dad before then I guarantee you’ve seen him smile. There are many things my dad has taught me but one of the most important things I learned from him is how great life is and how important it is to enjoy life sharing the simple moments with the people you love.

Thanks dad for making the effort to drive me to school all the times you did. I would not have had it any other way. Thanks for introducing the world of Motown into my life, which has brought me more joy then I can describe. And Thanks for teaching me what it means to truly love music and how important it is in shaping our dreams and connecting us people in our lives. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music I’ve shared with you and I can’t wait until the next time we get to rock out in the future.

Oh, and the signature Four Tops dance move (about 1 minutes 12 seconds into the clip), my dad totally owns that.

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