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Four Tops, The

Four Tops, The

Four Tops, The, Motown chart-toppers of the 1960s. Membership: Levi Stubbs (Stubbles), lead voc.(b. Detroit, June 6, 1936); Abdul“Duke” Fakir, voc. (b. Detroit, Dec. 26, 1935); Renaldo“Obie” Benson, voc. (b. Detroit, c. 1937); Lawrence Payton Jr., voc. (b. Detroit, c. 1938; d. Southfield, Mich., June 20, 1997).

Performing with their original members for over 40 years, The Four Tops were the most stable and consistent vocal group to emerge from Motown Records in the 1960s. Scoring a series of major pop and smash R&B hits between 1964 and 1967, almost all written by the songwriting-production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, The Four Tops featured the gruff pleading voice of lead vocalist Levi Stubbs. Acclaimed for their polished close-harmony singing, precise choreography, and complex stage routines, The Four Tops were the most popular Motown act in Great Britain, yet they were overshadowed by The Supremes in the United States. Persevering despite the departure of Holland- Dozier-Holland from Motown in 1967, the group recorded for a number of different labels beginning in 1972 while maintaining their status as a popular supper club act. The Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Born and raised in Detroit, the members of The Four Tops began singing together as high school students and later performed in local nightclubs. Known as The Four Aims since their formation in 1953, the group changed their name to The Four Tops upon signing with Chess Records in 1956. Their sole single for the label failed to sell, and they subsequently recorded for Red Top, Riverside, and Columbia. Performing at top nightclubs since the 1950s, The Four Tops toured with the Billy Eckstine revue in the early 1960s. Signing with the infant Motown Records aggregation in March 1963, The Four Tops initially recorded for the company’s short-lived jazz-oriented Workshop label, but their debut album was never released.

Switching to the parent label Motown and assigned to the songwriting- production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Four Tops scored major R&B and pop hits with H-D-H’s“Baby I Need Your Loving” and William Stevenson’s“Ask the Lonely” from their eponymous debut album. Their Second Album yielded a top pop and R&B hit with the classic“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and smash R&B and pop hits with“It’s the Same Old Song” and“Something about You,” all written by H-D-H.“Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” became a major R&B and pop hit and“Reach Out, I’ll Be There” proved a top pop and R&B hit, as well as a top British hit. The Four Tops subsequently achieved crossover hits with“Standing in the Shadows of Love” and“Bernadette,” and hits with“Seven Rooms of Gloom” and“You Keep Running Away.”

H-D-H left Motown in late 1967, and by 1968, The Four Tops were covering The Left Banke’s“Walk Away Renee” and Tim Hardin’s“If I Were a Carpenter.” They did not achieve another major pop hit until 1970, when they scored with a remake of“It’s All in the Game” and Smokey Robinson and Frank Wilson’s“Still Water (Love).” In the early 1970s, The Four Tops recorded three albums with The Supremes, scoring a major pop and R&B hit with them on a remake of “River Deep-Mountain High.”

Renaldo“Obie” Benson coauthored Marvin Gaye’s smash“What’s Going On” and The Four Tops managed a R&B near-hit with“(It’s the Way) Nature Planned It” in 1972. However, when Berry Gordy moved the Motown organization to Los Angeles in 1972, they declined to go. They signed with ABC-Dunhill Records, where they worked with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter and achieved major pop and R&B hits with“Keeper of the Castle,”“Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got),” and“Are You Man Enough” from the movie Shaft in Africa. Subsequent R&B successes through 1976 included“Sweet Understanding Love,”“One Chain Don’t Make No Prison,” and“Midnight Flower” for Dunhill and“Catfish” for ABC.

The Four Tops scored another top hit with“When She Was My Girl” in 1981 on Casablanca. Levi Stubbs was the voice of the voracious plant Audrey II in the 1986 musical movie Little Shop of Horrors. Following their sensational appearance with The Temptations at the 25th anniversary celebration of Motown Records in 1983, The Four Tops resigned with their old label and toured with The Temptations. However, their next moderate hit did not come until“Indestructible” in 1988 on Arista Records. They recorded a Christmas album for 1995 release, but, on June 20, 1997, Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer at his home in the Detroit suburb of Southfield. He was 59 years old.

Discography

The Four Tops (1965); Second Album (1965); On Top (1966); Live! (1966); On Broadway (1967); Reach Out (1967); Yesterday’s Dream (1968); Now (1969); Soul Spin (1969); Still Waters Run Deep (1970); Changing Times (1970); Nature Planned It (1972); Keeper of the Castle (1972); Main Street People (1973); Meeting of the Minds (1974); Live and in Concert (1974); Night Lights Harmony (1975); Catfish (1976); The Show Must Go On (1977); At the Top (1978); Tonight (1981); One More Mountain (1982); Back Where I Belong (1983); Magic Motown (1985); Indestructible (1988); Christmas Here with You (1995). The Four Tops and The Supremes: The Magnificent Seven (1970); The Return of the Magnificent Seven (1971); Dynamite (1972); The Best of the Supremes and The Four Tops (1991).

—Brock Helander

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