Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison”

These posts are about the songs that fell just short of crossing the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

Like many of the acts that regularly took their Motown singles to the upper reaches of the pop charts in the nineteen-sixties, the Four Tops were feeling neglected as a new decade dawned. When label Berry Gordy Jr. announced that Motown’s operations were moving from Detroit to Los Angeles, making it easier for him to pursue a sideline of producing movies, the artists on the label’s roster were told they had to pull up stakes, too. That dictate roughly coincided with the label trying to lowball the the group on a new contract. The Four Tops decided to take their chances with a different showbiz home.

The Four Tops signed with ABC/Dunhill, a label stacked with rock acts such as Three Dog Night, the James Gang, and Steppenwolf. Knowing the Four Tops had their greatest success when the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team was specifically catering to the act’s strengths, label execs wanted to immediately establish a new writers-performers partnership. Luckily, the label’s payroll already including the songwriting duo Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who were itching to give soul music a whirl. The assignment was made, and it yielded quick success. “Keeper of the Castle,” the Four Tops’ debut single on ABC/Dunhill, became their first Billboard Top 10 single in five years. The next three singles also made the Top 40. The Four Tops were apparently onto something when they complained that hits were harder to come by after Holland-Dozier-Holland departed Motown and no one was handing them custom-made songs any longer.

Lambert and Potter could churn out songs quickly, but they weren’t hesitant to recycle older wares. One song they dug out of the archives was “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison.” It was first recorded by a San Jose band called People!, a one-hit wonder band that made it into the Top 40 with a cover of the Zombies’ “I Love You.” People! were a short-lived band in part because there was evidently a lot of infighting over which members were sufficiently devoted to Scientology. Lambert and Potter reclaimed the song and gave it to the Four Tops. Released as a single, it didn’t fare quite as well as some of its predecessors, missing the Top 40 by one place. In general, the Four Tops’ resurgence was all but done. In the years ahead, they made the Top 40 only two more times.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

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