Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over) (1966)
The Four Tops
Listening to the Four Tops’ canon is like wandering through an antique vineyard in a classical landscape. The vines, the wine, ruins of temples to love and lust, the earthiness, and the terraced hills overcome you with emotions that are timelessly human: natural but well-tailored.
The Tops bottled much deep, rich wine from their start (under another name) in 1953 through their heyday until they finally had to make their first personnel change in 1997. (Ponder that – 44 years without one alteration.) They were spectacularly successful from 1964 through 1968, cranking out a dozen top 30 chart hits, a few lesser hits, then returning in 1973 twice and once in 1981 with top 20 hits again. Same guys, making big songs over a 17-year span.
You can still drink deep the wine of their monster smashes though some have grown paler with time. But they created songs that were as much a part of the soundtrack of the 1960s as the musical holy trinity of the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys, the songs that came out of your car radio and framed a world.
Listen to “Shake Me, Wake Me”
All the weapons of the Four Tops are deployed in “Shake Me, Wake Me.”
There are the laser-pointer lyrics of the team Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, (at right) who wrote more hits than there are grains of sand on a beach.
Lead singer, baritone Levi Stubbs, perhaps the greatest R&B singer after Otis Redding, is shouting, preaching, pleading, denying, hoping and describing a pain so deep you pray no one in reality ever feels this way but are glad to hear of it in song.
The opening bass line of piano and guitar, joined by a piercing tambourine rattle establishes the emotional mood. Then the orchestration builds. And builds. And builds. Until the cries of desperation of a man not only jilted by his lover, and subjected to the gossip mill for good measure, reaches a fevered revival-meeting pitch. Somebody help this man!
Stubbs eventually fights vocally with the voice of the other Tops, the needling female background singers, and the whole ensemble of instruments – pounding piano, basso-continuo guitars, manic drums, operatic strings, the whole smash. Sometimes, purposely, his voice seems almost swamped by the music.
The entire work is in the mold of a Greek tragedy. The singer moves in a dream state, stunned into believing that the facts cannot possibly be true. The chorus – like the Harpies of old calamity – acts as his friends and neighbors, melodically slapping him. They want him to wake up but he can’t. He pleads and pleads for ever-more help in rising from the nightmare. When he implores, we sense he has lost belief in everything.
All through this long and sleepless night
I hear my neighbors talking, “She don’t love him”
Saying that out of my life
Into another’s arms, you’ll soon be walking
Somebody shake me
Wake me, when it’s over, when it’s over
Somebody tell me that I’m dreamin’
And wake me when it’s over, when it’s over
A touch of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart also creeps in:
Through these walls so thin, I hear my neighbors when
They say, “She don’t love him, she don’t love him”
The bass lines hammer as if there is a pounding heart – the singer’s own heart, driving him to distraction. How is it possible that what cannot be actually is happening? Self-doubt, recrimination, fear and disbelief are carried on the broad wings of Stubbs’ rough-cut baritone that, in “Shake Me,” is constantly dragged toward the top of his range, verging on the tenor side.
Many Four Tops songs went higher on the charts. Many are pitched as being up there on this “greatest” list or that. “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” as well as “Bernadette” and “It’s The Same Old Song” are undeniably hall-of-famers. But that is the problem with cookie-cutter thinking when ranking the top 500 Rock songs of all time. Time changes taste.
“Shake Me, Wake Me” is the wine that continues to surprise, decades and decades after it was produced. Like a truly fine vintage, it becomes more appealing with age and its stature grows. Each time you open it up it sounds better and better.
When the relatively wishy-washy break is terminated, the song is lifted an octave and the story becomes fervent, haunting, clawing at your sleeve so you will bear witness to the pain:
Restlessly, I pace the floor
Listening to my neighbors criticize
What a fool I am not to realize
You don’t want me by your side
So perfectly do all the parts mesh that the listener can’t help but be stunned by the level of professionalism infusing every aspect of the song. Blues, old-time Rock-N-Roll, Gospel, and Opera blend seamlessly.
That “Shake Me” is relentlessly up-tempo lends a good part of the magnificence to the tune. We effortlessly visualize the singer’s agitation, as if he is fleeing the truth that he knows he will have to face eventually.
- After two of the original members of the Four Tops had died, one of those who lived on, Obie Benson, said of the departed: “It’s like having one body with two limbs missing.”
- “Shake Me, Wake Me” charted about middling on the lavish Four Tops’ scale of hits, clocking in at #19 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Other songs by the Tops reached #1, #4 and #6 in 1966.