Monday, 6 August 2012

Tops with Felix

I love this particular clip, this performance. You can't quite see that it's introduced by Julie Felix, so presumably it comes from one of those Saturday night BBC Light Entertainment shows of the sort favoured by Bill Cotton - think she had a series called Once More With Felix - but it could so easily have been Cliff or Rolf or Cilla doing the honours. It was included in a recent repeated compilation show of Motown acts at the BBC.

Why is it so good? Well, it sounds like the vocals are live for a kickoff, even though with those mikes for the backing singers you can't be sure. And Levi Stubbs' mike seems to pick up every note, despite its being tossed back and forth all the time.

Maybe the main thing which makes the difference to the performance on this occasion is that even if the backing band is the Beeb's, and it's audibly not Motown, nevertheless some genuine excitement is conveyed, which perhaps affects the audience (unseen) who reflect something back to the performers, and/or vice versa. And the balance of vocals and instruments seems pretty good. Or maybe that big backing sound spurs the Tops on regardless, or maybe they're just enjoying getting the chance to do their bit rather than miming, or ... who knows? But what I can say is that there is a clip of a similar vintage (click here) where the backing is more leaden, and it doesn't work in the same way.

In the Felix show there is also a sense of their being tightly wound, of their eagerness, their anticipaton: at the beginning Stubbs makes a gesture which seems to signal a camera to get closer, or the audience in the studio, or something - I'm not sure, but the group really seem to be enjoying themselves from the word go. In the BBC compilation programme (though not in this clip) you hear what sounds the tail end of an introduction by Julie Felix, and her pleasure is palpable. Maybe they've been bouyed up by whatever she said.

Linked to this, perhaps, is the fact that the choreography is ... well, approximate. I wrote in a piece about Ben E King about his displaying the ghost of long-ago-learnt Cholly Atkins moves, and I suspect whoever taught the Tops (was it Atkins?) might tut at what is no longer a well-oiled machine - but it feels human: like Archie Bell and the Drells, they dance just as good as they want.

And it's also that there is a general air of excitement, which may be related to something that day. Maybe an inordinately long wait before the recording? There is a sense of the group suddenly being let out in front of an audience and loving it - and it's unfortunate that we never see them, perhaps lifted by the Tops' excitement.

Which has now set me off on a quest for other clips. Okay,  here for an earlier one (1967) from a Belgian TV show. Now, this is faster, so ought to be more exciting, but somehow isn't. Maybe what appeals about the clip embedded in this post - and this is only guesswork - is that the group are fighting against the decorous setting, that Levi Stubbs' gesture at the start is really about pulling away the metaphorical gauze which ... oh, I don't know. But I'd like to think it affected the studio audience and felt like something removed from their normal fare: that the Tops were - well, closer.

I do remember that whenever you saw audiences in those middle of the road music shows on the Beeb they always seemed strangely distant and uninvolved, especially when it was the Spinners (no, not the Detroit ones) who were singing the songs. When I discovered Ken Tynan's criticism, a phrase he used in some other context, "real potato-faced people you see at the bus stop" called to mind those shots of the Spinners' audience. No doubt unfairly. But it's a fair bet that the audience for Once More With Felix would have been older than the average Motown fan - and maybe on that occasion they went in, all guns blazing, to conquer them. And at the end the Tops seem to be acknowledging, thanking the audience, so presumably they were won over.

Or - and this is doubtless part of it - the four members of the group simply liked to sing together, had sung before Motown, and would continue to sing together, the quartet unchanged, long after Berry Gordy upped sticks and the Tops elected not to go with him. To quote from that Ben E King piece again:
"Your buddies, the guys who did it with you, they were your heart. You could get so in tune it seemed you all had but one heart between you. Man, you knew when all the other guys were gonna breathe."

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