FEW SOUNDS are as exhilarating as four soul singers blending hurt, desire and F affection into emotional harmony even as they blend falsetto, tenor, baritone and bass voices into musical harmony. Such harmonies require a delicate chemistry of the right voices, the right songs and the right rhythm section. Because so many ingredients are involved, the key figure is usually the producer who acts as the chemist.
This chemistry has never been as potent as it was at Motown Records from 1964 through 1967. During those four short years, the Temptations, Four Tops and Miracles harmonized on some of the most compelling records ever made. With Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield doing the bulk of the writing and producing, the songs, musicians and voices bonded together like indestructible molecules. That chemistry proved very fragile, however. When the groups separated from their producers, their special sound faltered. Their careers languished in the '70s, and comebacks have been hard.
Producer Smokey Robinson has made the best comeback with three consecutive knockout soul albums, the latest being this year's "Being With You" (Tamla, T8-375M1). Producer Lamont Dozier -- now working separately from Eddie and Brian Holland -- fell short of a comeback with his latest solo album: "Working on You" (Columbia, ARC 37129). Dozier's voice is pleasant but not distinctive. The album's greatest asset is Dozier's rhythm arrangements, which have that old Motown snare-drum snap. Accordingly, the ballads tend to droop, but the uptempo tunes -- especially "Cool Me Out" -- stand out. The few good dance cuts don't salvage this inconsistent album.
The Temptations scored a modest comeback last year. Motown founder Berry Gordy produced their successful return to psychedelic soul with the hit "Power." This year the Temptations have turned to producer Thom Bell to record "The Temptations" (Gordy, G8-1006M1). This is ironic because Bell, Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble ascended to soul dominance when Motown (and the Temptations) faltered in the early '70s.
This collaboration between Motown and Philly soul only illustrates how tired and bereft of new ideas each side is. They pull out all the old ideas -- psychedelic soul, string-laden production numbers and falsetto love ballads -- but Bell and the Temps have both done far better before. The Temptations long ago lost their best lead singers -- David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. Instead of changing their emphasis to ensemble harmonies, though, the Temptations still rely too much on Dennis Edwards' pedestrian tenor.
Former Temptation Eddie Kendricks fares much better on his new solo album: "Love Keys" (Atlantic, SD 19294). Kendricks has turned to Alabama producer Randy Richards, who uses a firmly understated rhythm section and a muscular Muscle Shoals Horns. The contrast between these no-fuss southern soul musicians and Kendricks' smooth, urbane tenor works quite well. Each side opens with an Eddie & Brian Holland song. The rhythm section sets up the old Motown rhythmic pattern with offbeat accents. Kendricks comes cruising in over the top with a creamy voice that straddles the border between tenor and falsetto. Kendricks' voice flies up into an intoxicating falsetto for two songs by the famous falsetto squealer: Lou Courtney. The record works because his voice promises ideal romance while the horns and drums hint something more earthbound is at hand.
Less successful are the falsetto squeals of Russell Thompkins on the Stylistics' "Closer Than Close" (TSOP, FZ 37458). This Philadelphia quartet was one of Thom Bell's pet projects in the early '70s. Both the producer and the singers seem to have run out of inspiration. Thompkins' stratospheric falsetto never comes close enough to earth to have any gravity. The group's breathy singing flutters above the band and never settles on a specific direction for any song. The only exception is "It's Only Love," a fine ballad written by Bell's co-producer, Dexter Wansel.
The Four Tops' "Tonight!" (Casablanca, NBLP 7258) ranks with Robinson's "Being With You" as the best of this year's Motown comebacks. This is especially gratifying because few Motown acts sell as low as the Four Tops did during the '70s. Their old chemistry is reignited on a new album. Served up a great song like "When She Was My Girl," lead singer Levi Stubbs sinks his teeth in deep. He establishes the snapping rhythm and catchy melody before breaking away into his classic gruffness. His warm growl injects real soul into the clever top song.
L.A. producer David Wolfert has assembled a surprisingly consistent set of nine clever pop tunes from different writers. Stubbs charges through each one with his three partners close behind, pumping out harmony syllables with piston precision. Jerry Knight's "Don't Walk Away" has the kind of toe-tapping beat and jingly melody that make it the logical follow-up to the album's first hit single, "When She Was My Girl." Two Wolfert and Sandy Linzer songs -- "Let Me Set You Free" and "Something to Remember" -- are aggressive, up-tempo songs that give Stubbs a chance to holler as desperately and effectively as he once did on "Reach Out (I'll Be There)."