The song was written by the wildly successful Motown team of Lamont Dozier
, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland, who wrote most of The Supremes hits. The melody of this song is very similar to "Where Did Our Love Go
," which Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote for The Supremes. According to Lamont Dozier, the title came about because he couldn't help himself from working with the same tune.
Lamont Dozier told the story behind this song in a behind-the-scenes video for his 2018 Reimagination album: "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. My grandmother had a big bay window to the front of the house. She'd say, 'Look at that old codger - he thinks I don't see. I know what he's doing.' He was just flirting with his big smile. I'm sitting there on the porch watching this - I'm probably 11 or 12. I was like a sponge, soaking it up.
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."
This was the first US #1 hit for The Four Tops, and it was a big one, topping the Hot 100 for two weeks and the R&B chart for an amazing nine. The group had paid their dues: they formed in 1953 and didn't get a Motown deal until 10 years later. Their first Motown single, "Baby I Need Your Loving
," did very well, but this one established them as one of the top acts in the company.
The Four Tops were signed to Columbia Records in 1960, releasing one single: "Ain't That Love." After "I Can't Help Myself" hit, Columbia re-released "Ain't That Love," which set a fire under Motown, which needed a follow-up so Columbia couldn't steal their thunder. They had Holland-Dozier-Holland quickly come up with a new song, which was essentially a rewrite with the apropos title "It's the Same Old Song
." Recorded and pressed in just one day, it reached #5 on the Hot 100, while "Ain't That Love" stalled at #93.
Like many listeners who felt the lyrics were a little too sugary, lead singer Levi Stubbs hated this song - the quartet cut it at the insistence of producer Brian Holland. After recording the song, Stubbs was still upset. Holland reassured him that they could re-record it the following day, but there was no second try and take 2 was released as the single.
In an interview with Performing Songwriter magazine, Lamont Dozier explained how this came together: "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."
This was one of the songs The Four Tops played at Live Aid in 1985. The concert was held simultaneously in Philadelphia and England, and raised over $100 million to aid famine victims in Africa. They were the third band to play the Philadelphia stage, after Joan Baez and The Hooters.
In the UK, this was the group's first single, issued with their American Motown debut, "Baby I Need Your Loving," as the B-side. It was released to coincide with their first European tour in the summer of 1965, and reached #23. In 1970, it was re-released in the UK and hit #10.
This was used in the movies Into the Night (1985), My Blue Heaven (1990), Forrest Gump (1994), Rat Race (2001) and Shark Tale (2004).
A version by Donnie Elbert went to #22 US in 1972; Bonnie Pointer's cover made #40 in 1980. Dolly Parton also recorded the song on her 1984 CD of cover tracks The Great Pretender.
When this hit #1 in America on June 19, 1965, it bumped off another song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland: "Back in My Arms Again
" by The Supremes.