The Spotlight Is On The Four Tops
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With so many great groups of the Motown era, my favorite has always been The Four Tops.
After hearing "Baby I Need Your Loving," in 1964, I immediately bought the 45 and actually wore it out. Thus they
have always been my favorite. So as a personal memory for me and an opportunity for all of you to look back
to this outstanding Motown group, I have selected The Four Tops as the Spotlighted Artist this month.
All four members of the group began their careers together while they were high school students
in Detroit. At the insistence of their friends, Pershing High students Levi Stubbs and Abdul "Duke" Fakir performed
with Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton from Northern High at a local birthday party. The quartet decided to
remain together, and christened themselves The Four Aims. With the help of Payton's songwriter cousin Roquel Davis,
The Aims signed to Chess Records in 1956, changing their name to Four Tops to avoid confusion with The Ames
Brothers. Over the next seven years, The Tops endured unsuccessful tenures at Chess, Red Top, Riverside Records and
Columbia Records. Without any hit records to their name, The Tops toured frequently, developing a polished stage
presence and an experienced supper club act. In 1963, Berry Gordy, Jr., who had worked with Roquel Davis as a
songwriter in the late-1950s, convinced The Tops to join the roster of his growing Motown record company.
During their early Motown years, the Four Tops recorded jazz standards for the
company's Workshop label. In addition, they filled in time by singing backup on Motown singles such as The
Supremes' "Run, Run, Run" and "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes".
In 1964, Motown's main songwriting/production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland created a complete
instrumental track without any idea of what to do with it. They decided to craft the song as a more mainstream pop
song for the Four Tops, and proceeded to create "Baby I Need Your Loving" from the lyric-less instrumental track.
Upon its mid-1964 release, "Baby I Need Your Loving" made it to #11 on the United States Billboard pop charts.
However, the song proved to be much more popular on trend-setting radio stations in key U.S. markets; "Baby I Need
Your Loving" was a strong top 10 hit on both WMCA in New York, and WKNR in Detroit, stations that were watched by
other radio people all over the country, because these stations broke new artists and songs. After the single's
success, The Tops were pulled away from their jazz material and began recording more records in the vein of "Baby I
Need Your Loving."
The first follow-up single, "Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)", missed both the
pop and R&B Top 40 charts by only three positions. "Ask the Lonely", released early in 1965, was a Top 30 pop
hit and a Top Ten R&B hit, and the from there, the Tops' fortunes began to improve.
After scoring their first #1 hit, the often-recorded and revived "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)", in
April 1965, the Four Tops began a long series of successful hit singles. Among the first wave of
these hits were the Top 10 "It's the Same Old Song", "Something About You", "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)",
and "Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever". Four Tops records often represented the epitome of the Motown Sound: simple
distinctive melodies and rhymes, call-and-response lyrics, and the musical contributions of The Funk Brothers.
Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote most of Levi Stubbs' vocals in a tenor range, near the top of his range, in order to
get a sense of strained urgency in his gospel preacher-inspired leads. In addition, H-D-H used additional
background vocals from female background vocalists The Andantes on many of these songs, to add a high end to the
low-voiced harmony of The Tops, with "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" being one of the few exceptions.
August 1966 brought the release of the Four Tops' biggest hit, and one of the
most popular Motown songs ever: "Reach Out I'll Be There", which hit #1 on the U.S. pop charts and soon became The
Tops' signature song. It was almost immediately followed by the similar sounding "Standing in the Shadows of Love";
its depictions of heartbreak reflected the polar opposite of the optimism expressed in "Reach Out". It was another
Top 10 hit for the Tops.
The Top 10 U.S. hit "Bernadette" centred around a man's complete obsession with his lover,
continued the Four Tops' successful run in February 1967, followed by the Top 20 hits "7-Rooms of
Gloom", and "You Keep Running Away". By now, The Tops were the most successful male Motown act in the United
Kingdom (in the United States, they were second to The Temptations), and began experimenting with more mainstream
pop hits. They scored hits with their versions of Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter" in late 1967 and the Left
Banke's "Walk Away Renée" in early 1968. These singles and the original "I'm In a Different World" were their last
hits produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, who left Motown in 1967 after disputes with Berry Gordy over royalties and
ownership of company shares.
Without H-D-H, the quality of the Four Tops' output, like that of most of Motown, began to decline, and hits became
less frequent. The group worked with a wide array of Motown producers during the late-1960s, including Ivy Hunter,
Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Norman Whitfield, and Johnny Bristol, without significant chart
Their first major hit in a long time came in the form of 1970's "It's All in the Game", a pop
Top 30/R&B Top Ten hit produced by Frank Wilson. Wilson and The Tops began working on a number of innovative
tracks and albums together, echoing Whitfield's psychedelic soul work with The Temptations. Their 1970 album Still
Waters Run Deep was an early ancestor to the concept album. It also served as an inspiration for Marvin Gaye's 1971
classic album What's Going On, the title track of which was co-written by The Tops' Obie Benson.
In addition to their own albums, The Tops were paired with The Supremes, who had just replaced
lead singer Diana Ross with Jean Terrell, for a series of albums billed under the joint title "The Magnificent
Seven": The Magnificent Seven in 1970, and The Return of the Magnificent Seven and Dynamite! in 1971. While the
albums themselves did not do well on their charts, The Magnificent Seven featured a Top 20 version of Ike
& Tina Turner's "River Deep - Mountain High", produced by Ashford & Simpson.
The 1971 single "A Simple Game" featured backing vocals from members of The Moody Blues. The
song did not fare well on the U.S. charts, but reached #3 on the UK charts.
The Motown company began to change in a number of ways during the early 1970s. Older acts such as Martha
Reeves & the Vandellas and The Marvelettes were being slowly placed aside to focus on
newer acts such as Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, Rare Earth, and the
now-solo Diana Ross. In addition, the company was slowly moving many of its operations from Detroit to Los Angeles,
California, where Berry Gordy planned to break into the motion picture and television industries. In 1972, it was
announced that the entire company would move to Los Angeles, and that all its artists had to move as well. Many of
the older Motown acts, already neglected by the label, opted to stay in Detroit, including The Funk
Brothers backing band, Martha Reeves, and the Four Tops.
The Tops departed Motown for ABC-Dunhill, where they were assigned to songwriter-producers
Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, with The Tops' own Lawrence Payton also serving as a producer and arranger.
"Keeper of the Castle" was their first pop Top 10 hit since "Bernadette" in 1967; follow-ups such as "Ain't No
Woman (Like the One I've Got)",(another top 10 pop hit), the Top 20 "Are You Man Enough" (from the movie "Shaft In
Africa"), "Sweet Understanding Love", "Midnight Flower", and "One Chain Don't Make No Prison" all hit the R&B
Top Ten between 1972 and 1974. By the release of "Catfish" in 1976, the hits had dried up again, and the group
disappeared into obscurity in the late-1970s. Scoring a deal with Casablanca Records in 1980, the Four Tops made a
comeback in 1981 with the #1 R&B hit "When She Was My Girl", which just missed the Billboard Pop Top 10,
peaking at # 11.
By 1983, The Tops had rejoined Motown, and were featured on the company's television special
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. One of the highlights of the show was a battle-of-the-bands between The Tops
and The Temptations, patterned after similar competitions Berry Gordy had staged during the 1960s.
Levi Stubbs and Temptation Otis Williams decided the Temptations/Tops battle would be a good one to take on the
road, and both groups began a semi-regular joint tour; as of 2007, the two groups continue to play dates
The first of The Tops' albums under their new Motown contract was Back Where I Belong. A whole
side of the album was produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, including the R&B Top 40 single "I Just Can't Walk
Away". Only two more Tops albums would be released by Motown, 1985's Magic and 1986's Hot Nights, as the group and
the label began to quarrel on matters of marketing and musical direction. In 1987, the Four Tops decided to leave
Motown again, this time for Arista Records, buying back the masters they had recorded for an in-progress album and
bringing them with them. The result was 1988's Indestructible, the title track of which was the group's final Top
40 hit. It was also featured in the 1988 Sci-Fi cop film, Alien Nation.
In addition to their own recordings, the Four Tops also worked in the fields of television and
motion pictures. The group as a whole performed a song for the 1982 film Grease 2, and Levi Stubbs
performed the vocals for the man-eating plant Audrey II in the 1986 musical film Little Shop of Horrors;
and the voice of the evil Mother Brain on the Nintendo-based NBC Saturday morning cartoon Captain N: The Game
Master from 1989 to 1991.
Since the late-1980s, the Four Tops have focused on touring and live
performances, only recording one album, 1995's Christmas Here With You, released on Motown. On June 20, 1997,
59-year-old Lawrence Payton died as a result of liver cancer, after singing for forty-four years with the Four
Tops, who, unlike many Motown groups, never had a single lineup change until then. At first, Levi Stubbs, Obie
Benson, and Duke Fakir toured as a trio called The Tops. In 1998 they recruited former Temptation Theo Peoples to
join the act to restore the group to a quartet. By the turn of the century, Stubbs had become ill from cancer;
Ronnie McNair was recruited to fill in the Lawrence Payton position, and Peoples stepped into Stubbs' shoes as lead
The group was featured in several television specials during this time, including Motown 45, and
several by PBS, including a 50th anniversary concert dedicated to the group. The concert turned out to be
bittersweet; it featured a brief appearance of the wheelchair-bound Levi Stubbs, and a memorial to Lawrence Payton,
announced by Obie Benson. Benson appeared on one more PBS special, and died on July 1, 2005, from lung cancer. The
final PBS special, titled Motown: The Early Years, featured a message of Benson's passing following the credits.
Lawrence Payton's son Roquel (real name Lawrence Payton, Jr.) replaced Benson as new bass (Roquel could be seen in
the pledge break interviews of Motown: The Early Years). The group performed as part of the Eat to the Beat concert
series at Epcot in Lake Buena Vista, Florida in October of 2006. At Epcot, The Four Tops set list featured "Baby I
Need Your Loving," "When She Was My Girl," "Ask the Lonely," "Walk Away Renee," "Reach Out I'll Be There,"
"Bernadette," "Standing in the Shadows of Love," and "(Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) I Can't Help Myself."
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame in 1990, and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked them #79 on
their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
It is of great sadness that on October 17, 2008, lead singer Levi Stubbs passed away at the age
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