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, theFour Tops recorded
jazz standards for the company's Workshop label. In addition, they filled in time by singing backup on Motown
singles such asThe 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
After scoring their first #1 hit, the often-recorded and revived "I Can't Help Myself
(Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)", in April 1965, theFour
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 theFour 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 theFour
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 success.
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
The Motown company began to change in a number of ways during the early 1970s. Older
acts such asMartha Reeves & the
Marvelettes were being slowly placed aside to focus on newer
acts such as Michael Jackson andThe Jackson
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, includingThe Funk
Brothers backing band, Martha Reeves, and theFour 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 andThe
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 together.
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 filmGrease 2, and Levi Stubbs performed the
vocals for the man-eating plant Audrey II in the 1986 musical filmLittle
Shop of Horrors; and the voice of the evil Mother Brain on the
Nintendo-based NBC Saturday morning cartoonCaptain N: The Game
Master from 1989 to 1991.
Since the late-1980s, theFour 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
The group was inducted into theRock 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 of 72.