The Day The Moody Blues Jammed With the Four Tops

The Moody Blues didn't just write some songs for the Four Tops, they backed them.

The Moody Blues and The Four Tops in 1970
Photo: Getty Images

The Moody Blues and the Four Tops, two legends of music, once worked together in an international collaboration in the early 1970s. At the time, Motown and the British Invasion artists reigned on the radio, and the two groups were at the forefront of the airwaves. The Moody Blues were reborn into a new sound with the addition of guitarist Justin Hayward, transforming their post-“Go Now” sound into the explorations of symphonically-infused rock and the new sonic possibilities of stereo. The Four Tops were one of the bands to establish the Motown Sound. The legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team continued to develop the group’s dynamic vocal range through the changing times, tastes, and sound technology.

It was a common practice of the era for bands to record and perform covers. Aretha Franklin famously recorded a version of “Let It Be,” which turns 50 this year, after hearing a demo Paul McCartney sent. The Beatles didn’t play on it (Duane Allman did, though). The Moody Blues keyboardist Mike Pinder wrote “Simple Game,” and he and the band’s guitarist Hayward recorded the backing. “Simple Game” was released as a B-side for The Moody Blues but went on to become a British hit for The Four Tops. Hayward, who released his latest EP One Summer Day/My Juliette on March 27, spoke about the sessions with Den of Geek.

“[Tamla-Motown head] Berry Gordy liked ‘Simple Game,’ that was the plain truth of it,” Hayward tells us. “He came over to meet with Tony Clarke, our producer, and then Tony was assigned The Four Tops, which was like a dream for all of us.”

Clarke was dubbed the sixth Moody Blue in the May 30, 1970 Disc And Music Echo article reporting the collaboration as a jam session. He brought the musicians together with the songs. According to Hayward “the rest was done by an arranger called Arthur Greenslade, an English arranger.” Greenslade was best known for his work with “Son of a Preacher Man” singer Dusty Springfield. He translated the rock songs to suit the Four Tops, but British musicians did the playing.

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“I certainly played on them, and I loved every moment of it, and just being in their company and the fun and the laughs,” Hayward tells us. “They were kind of grown up as well. They were a few years older than us.”

By this time The Moody Blues, which also included bassist John Lodge, reed and flute player Ray Thomas, and drummer Graeme Edge, were well known in the U.S. “Go Now,” “Nights in White Satin,” and “Tuesday Afternoon,” had all charted on their singles charts and their newest release, To Our Children’s Children’s Children, was the best-selling album they had in America at that point. The band played Detroit the previous November and toured the Motown Records recording studio for the fun of it. But the collaboration didn’t happen at Hitsville.

“We did those sessions in North London,” Hayward remembers. “They weren’t done in Detroit, although we did do some things there and we recorded different things in Detroit and in Chicago. But I think we’re just talking about miscellaneous things like Coke commercials and stuff like that that everybody was doing at the time.”

Two other tracks were recorded during the session.“You Stole My Love,” which Hayward co-wrote with Clarke. The guitarist was working under the alias Gurron, when the song was issued as the B-side to “Simple Game.” The other was Pinder’s sexually charged “So Deep Within You,” from Threshold Of A Dream. Hayward believes “it was probably only myself and Mike that played on those records.”

The Moody Blues’ version of “So Deep Within You” lets John Lodge grind an insatiable Motown bass line through Graeme Edge’s tight high-hat to tease a sound reminiscent of The Temptations. Pinder’s vocals anticipate a promise. Stubbs is grinding before the drums kick in on The Four Tops’ version. In their respective versions of “Simple Game” the Moodies want freedom. The Four Tops demand emancipation.

The sessions didn’t end the Moody Blues’ producer’s affiliation with the Detroit label. ”Motown approached Tony Clarke, our producer, and then he was taken on by them.” Hayward says. Clarke worked briefly with Motown rock act Rare Earth, and suggested they write their own songs. The band released their signature hit “I Just Want to Celebrate” very shortly after their association.

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Propelled by hits like “Standing in the Shadows of Love” written by their usual, legendary, songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, and Lawrence Payton, The Four Tops were huge in England at the time. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein presented their UK debut at his Saville Theatre in November 1966, and John Lennon, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards were at the afterparty. The Four Tops first topped the British charts with “Reach Out I’ll Be There” in 1966, and regularly performed at concerts and made U.K. TV appearances.

The Four Tops went into London’s Wessex Sound Studios on May 5, 1970. Their scheduled performances had fairly recently been extended to accommodate a command appearance. A confidential informant told local law enforcement he saw drugs and ammunition in Stubbs’ luggage, according to the author of The Motown Story. The police interrupted a March 12 press conference the Four Tops held at the Mayfair Hotel to ask about it. Stubbs was charged with illegally possessing cocaine and live ammunition the following day. He copped to the bullets at trial but testified the drugs were not his. The jury acquitted him and he paid a fine for a dozen wayward bullets.

Tamla Motown issued “Simple Game” in the U.K. in September 1971, where it hit number 3 on the charts. Motown released it as the single “A Simple Game” in the U.S. in January 1971 where it hit the R&B charts at 34, and cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at 90. The Moody Blues released their version of “Simple Game” as the B-side to Lodge’s “Ride My See-Saw.” The song would go on to win an Ivor Novello award. It was also covered by Billy Ocean in the 1980s.

The songs of Justin Hayward have had numerous interpretations. His “Story in Your Eyes” was told by Stiv Bators and Adam Schlesinger’s Fountains of Wayne. Nada Surf rendered a powerful and intimate version of “Question.” Hayward’s “Nights in White Satin” has been covered by Eric Burdon and War, Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge, Nancy Sinatra, and the Dickies.

“My favorite is Bettye Lavette’s version of ‘Night in White Satin,'” Hayward tells us. “She did a version of Nights, which was truly wonderful. And then just lately, somebody did some sample version of ‘Question,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s absolutely brilliant.’ They’re called The Goodie Mob.” [The song is “Power” from the album Age Against The Machine].”

The Moody Blues are icons of symphonic progressive rock. A majority of their most recognizable songs were written and sung by Hayward, who has been with the band for over 50 years. He’s also maintained a steady solo career, beginning with his 1978 album Songwriter.  While he gives some “consideration” to whether a song would be tailored for the band or his own project, the basics are the same. 

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“A song is a song,” he tells us. “There are specific Moody Blues songs that start in that quiet way. I’ve had so many small parts of songs that I’ve just enjoyed playing, and it takes me a while to realize: ‘This is a song. If I just work at it a bit more, I’ve got a whole song here.’ Inspiration has to find you working, and not just toying around. So it’s a question of prompting myself to actually use some of the bits I’ve been enjoying on the guitar and make a song out of them.” 

Eagle Rock Entertainment released Hayward’s latest EP, One Summer Day/My Juliette, on all digital formats. He hasn’t announced whether it is part of a new album, though. Hayward says he is still trying “to make some cohesive sense out of all of these small parts.”