'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch?' Why The Four Tops Didn't Like 'I Can't Help Myself'

Entertainment | December 4, 2018

Portrait of the Four Tops featured on the cover of The Four Tops Second Album (1965).

Released on June 19, 1965, "I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" thrust The Four Tops into the mainstream with their first chart-topping hit. The quartet, formed in 1953, had been around the block a few times, with several record labels, before eventually landing at Motown, where they sang jazz standards and backup vocals on some of their label-mates' hits. In 1964, the Four Tops nearly made the Billboard Top Ten with "Baby I Need Your Loving," which peaked at #11 on the Hot 100. "Baby I Need Your Loving" was a composition of Motown's famous Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team; noting its success, Motown began to think that the Four Tops could be a significant act for the label. Then came "I Can't Help Myself" and its maddeningly catchy first line of "Sugar pie, honey bunch," which proved Motown's hunch beyond all doubt.

For Starters, The First Reason They Hated It Was...

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It's often said that, in the music business, you're only as good as your last hit. For the Four Tops, having a chart-topper after so many years of toiling in obscurity meant that they were very good indeed. Perhaps better than they believed was possible after a decade of frustration. "I Can't Help Myself" stands with "Baby Love" by the Supremes, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye, "I Can't Get Next To You" by the Temptations and a handful of others that defined the Motown Records sound at its 1960s catchiest.

It was a career-making single for the Four Tops, and yet, that opening lyric -- "Sugar pie, honey bunch" -- it takes a special kind of nerve to kick off a song with something that sappy.

Even though the song changed the lives of The Four Tops forever, they had a hot and cold relationship with it. They never liked the track, from the lyrics to the vocal take selected, but they could always rely on the song to reignite interest from the public (it was periodically re-released as a single or used as a B-side throughout the '60s and '70s). As childish as the lyrics sound, their origins are freakier than you think, and the drama surrounding the song is just as intense.

10) Levi Stubbs Had To Push His Voice Too Much For The Song

The Four Tops in 1967. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The single pushes the baritone voice of Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of the Four Tops, into his highest register, making him sound like he’s pleading with a lover – something that adds resonance to the saccharine lyrics of the song. The de facto leader of the Four Tops, Stubbs was one of the strongest voices in the Motown stable. His syrupy baritone could make any lyrics sound good, but he didn’t think "I Can’t Help Myself" was adult enough to actually be popular. Not only that, he didn’t like his vocal take on the final recording.

After recording two takes of the track, he wanted to redo the whole thing, and even though writer and producer Brian Holland told Stubbs that the group could take another stab at the song in another session, that never happened, and the group’s second attempt at the song was released as a single. 

9) The Song Is Really 'I Can't Help Myself.' 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch' Was Added Later

On the original Motown single from 1965, the Four Tops's #1 single is listed as "I Can't Help Myself." It's listed the same way on Second Album, the LP by the Four Tops, released later that year, that included the single. It's listed the same way on The Four Tops Greatest Hits, released in 1967. In fact, the title doesn't seem to have picked up the parenthetical "(Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" part until the early '70s. Was that because "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch" is sort of a... dopey name for a song? But perhaps at some point, an artist (or more to the point, a profit-driven record company) is bound to cave to public misperception. If everyone thinks the title is "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch," well, then, maybe that's what the title should be. Even if it is a phrase that very, very few grown men (aside from songwriter Lamont Dozier's grandfather) are comfortable uttering in public.

8) The Only Song That Was A Bigger Hit In 1965 Had An Even "Dumber" Name

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In 1965 “I Can’t Help Myself” was all over the charts – people just couldn’t get enough of it. Not only did the song hit number one on the R&B charts, but it also hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart twice. First, the song knocked off “Back in My Arms Again” by The Supremes before “Mr. Tambourine Man” showed up. When the Four Tops muscled their track back to number one it sat there for a week before The Rolling Stones released “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

The track was so popular that it was even the first single by The Four Tops to crack the Top 40 in the UK, something the song would do again in 1970 when it hit #10. 

In the year-end Hot 100 list, "I Can't Help Myself" came in at #2 -- behind only "Wooly Bully" by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs.

7) Columbia Records Tried To Piggyback Off 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch'

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Before the Four Tops were signed to Motown, they released the song "Ain’t That Love" on Columbia Records in 1960. The single floundered -- and that was that for the group's stint with Columbia. Once they were signed to Motown they managed to score a respectable hit with the #11 "Baby, I Need Your Loving," and followed it up with the massive chart-topper of "I Can’t Help Myself." Columbia decided to capitalize on the band’s newfound success.

The label re-released "Ain’t That Love," which pissed off everyone at Motown (especially the Four Tops). In damage-control mode, Motown had Holland-Dozier-Holland write a new track, "It’s the Same Old Song," which was basically a variation on "I Can’t Help Myself." The track was recorded and pressed in the same day, and it went to number 5 on the Hot 100. The re-release of "Ain’t That Love" stalled at number 93.

Dozier told Performing Songwriter that when the news about Columbia’s plan came out he thought, "'What’s the quickest way to squash this thing? It's to come up with what we've come up with before.' So I took the bass figure in 'I Can’t Help Myself' and turned it around. The chords were different, but basically, we kept the same feeling."

6) Brilliant, Yet Totally Obvious: Motown Made Fast Music For Teenagers

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In an interview with The Guardian, songwriter Lamont Dozier explained that the reason the “I Can’t Help Myself” (as well as the rest of his songs) are so uptempo is so young people would get into them. He explained, "The songs had to be fast because they were for teenagers - otherwise it would have been more like something for your parents. The emotion was still there, it was just under cover of the optimism that you got from the up-tempo beat."

Remember this the next time you feel old. If you’re listening to a Holland-Dozier-Holland track you’re still young at heart.

5) The Songwriters Love 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch' -- Even If The Singers Don’t

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Even though the Four Tops weren’t into singing about teenage feelings (they were grown men after all), the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland says that the track holds a special place in their heart. While speaking with Songwriting Universe, writer Brian Holland counts the song, along with “Baby Love” and “How Sweet It Is” as one of his favorite songs that he’s ever written. 

4) How The Rushed Production Of 'I Can't Help Myself' Made The Song Better

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To hear writer Lamont Dozier tell it, songs that went through the Motown songwriting process took a while to actually make it to tape. They were written and then slowed down a little before being fine-tuned and recorded. That’s not how things went for “I Can’t Help Myself.” Dozier told Performing Songwriter, "The song was started with a bass figure, with me sitting at the piano. It wasn't slowed down, like the usual songs. The bass line was the whole song, at that tempo. When I said, 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,' it was over with. We went right in and cut it."

3) Some Consider 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch' A Knockoff Of Another Motown Classic

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If the track, written by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland strikes you as sounding similar to another Motown classic, you’re not wrong. “I Can’t Help Myself” is almost identical to “Where Did Our Love Go” which was performed by The Supremes. This isn’t a case of a rampant copycat running around Motown, it’s simply that the song was written by the same guys (Holland-Dozier-Holland) and they were so into the melody that they wanted to do something else with it.

Can you blame them? Both songs are complete bangers, and they aren’t the only songwriters who’ve plagiarized themselves for the sake of pleasing the public.

2) The Song Made A Big Comeback In The '80s

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"I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" made yet another come back in 1988, more than 20 years after it was initially released, although the hit had some noticeable changes. Rather than break into the charts again, a version of the song can be heard prominently in a commercial for Duncan Hines. The commercial shows a family bonding over a Duncan Hines chocolate fudge truffle cake to the sweet, sweet sounds of the Four Tops. Although this time around the lyrics is a little different. A vocalist sings, “Chocolate fudge and chocolate mousse/can’t help myself/It’s Duncan Hines and nobody else.” It’s cheesy, but at least they got paid.

And is "chocolate fudge and chocolate mousse" any cheesier than "sugar pie, honey bunch?" This one's a tie.

1) 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch' Is About Lamont Dozier’s Grandfather

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The sappy first line of "I Can't Help Myself" could just as easily be the kind of baby talk that you hear in modern pop songs. You know, lyrics that don’t sound like anything but that work well together. That’s not the case for this song. According to Lamont Dozier, the primary lyricist for the track, he based the song around something his grandfather used to say when Lamont was a child.

Dozier explained, “I stayed with my grandmother when I was a kid. She owned her own home beauty shop, and when the women would come up the walkway to get their hair done, my grandfather would be pedaling around in the garden. He was a bit of a flirt, and would say, 'How you doin', sugar pie? Good morning, honey bunch.' He was one of those types of guys.”

He continued, saying that he remembered his grandfather’s flirtations when he was writing for Motown. “Years later, at Motown, I'm sitting at the piano. I'd take these mind trips back to my childhood, and I'm trying to see what this piano part is telling me. Sure enough, there my grandfather is, pedaling in the garden. That memory comes to my mind's eye, and I know where the song is supposed to go. I hear him saying, 'Good morning, sugar pie. How you doin', honey bunch?' That's what started it."

Tags: 1965 | Four Tops | Music In The 1960s | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | Sugar Pie Honey Bunch | The 1960s

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.