The Four Tops
The Four Tops
R & B/pop vocal group
The Four Tops have been one of the most successful vocal groups to emerge from the pantheon of great singers nurtured at Motown Records. After signing with Motown, they generated 19 Top 40 singles, from 1964 through the early 1980s, and have continued touring steadily into the 1990s. As stated in The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, “The group’s immaculate choreography and harmonies have ensured them ongoing success as a live act from the mid-1960s to the present day.” The Four Tops are also one of the most stable vocal groups in history, having never changed personnel since forming in 1953.
Levi Stubbles, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, and Lawrence Payton all grew up in tough Detroit neighborhoods. They officially became a group after getting a popular reception while singing together at a birthday party. Soon they were harmonizing at graduation parties, church and school functions, and one-night gigs. After becoming attached to a talent agency in 1954, they began doing more serious performances at small supper clubs in Detroit and environs. Meanwhile,
Members include Renaldo “Obie” Benson (born in 1947 in Detroit, MI); Abdul “Duke” Fakir (born December 26, 1935, in Detroit); Lawrence Payton (born in 1938 in Detroit); and Levi Stubbs (born Levi Stubbles in 1938 in Detroit).
Group formed as the Four Aims in Detroit, 1953; sang backup or as opening act for Brook Benton, Count Basie, Delia Reese, and Billy Eckstine, 1950s; changed name to the Four Tops and recorded first single, 1956; recorded for Chess, Red Top, Columbia, and Riverside labels, 1956-1962; toured with Larry Stelle Revue, ending in 1959; signed with Motown Records, 1963, and recorded “Baby I Need Your Loving,” 1964; recorded three albums with the Supremes, beginning in 1970; signed with Casablanca Records, 1981; performed in Motown’s 25th anniversary television special, 1983; resigned with Motown, c. 1983; signed with Arista Records, 1988.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1990.
Addresses: Record company —Arista Records, 6 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
the foursome continued to expand their repertoire of jazz and popular standards.
By the mid-1950s, the group was opening for or backing up such noted jazz and pop performers as Brook Benton, Count Basie, Delia Reese, and Billy Eckstine. They changed their name from the Four Aims to the Four Tops in 1956 to avoid being confused with the Ames Brothers, and Stubbles shortened his name to Stubbs. After several years of undistinguished touring, the group recorded “Kiss Me Baby/Could It Be You” for the Chess label, but the song failed to click with the public. The quartet continued to work on vocal arrangements and dance routines and toured with the Larry Stelle Revue through 1959. Another single went no-where on the charts, but the Tops’ riveting harmonies and gliding synchronized dance moves began to attract attention. Legendary talent scout John Hammond signed them to record “Ain’t That Love” for his label, Columbia, but sales remained poor.
Finally, after 10 years of relative obscurity, the Four Tops got their big break—they met Berry Gordy, Jr., head of Detroit’s Motown Records. Gordy signed the foursome to Workshop, Motown’s jazz subsidiary, for an advance of $400 in 1963. Soon the group was enjoying the famed family atmosphere of the company, hobnobbing with the likes of the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha Reeves, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
The Four Tops’ early Motown recordings were indeed jazz-oriented, and the group also sang backup for other Motown acts. Their careers shifted into high gear when the legendary Motown songwriter/producer team of Holland-Dozier-Holland saw the group perform at Detroit’s 20 Grand Club. Eddie Holland invited them into the studio after the performance to hear him sing a number he thought might be right for them. The moonlighting session paid off, and The Four Tops recorded “Baby I Need Your Loving,” their first hit. The song relied heavily on gifted lead Levi Stubbs’s tough yet soulful sound, as well as the group’s carefully constructed harmonies.
With golden-touch Holland-Dozier-Holland guiding the quartet’s career, the Four Tops became one of Motown’s most popular acts and as such, churned out a string of hits. Part of their success was due to their ability, nurtured over many years of performing, to switch smoothly from ballads to soul to rock—or even to country. After “I Can’t Help Myself” reached Number One in the U.S. in 1965, the group began a tour of the United Kingdom and Europe, where they would become even more popular than in their own country.
The foursome’s fame spiked a mighty peak with “Reach Out I’ll Be There” in 1966. Featuring an unusual instrumental mix of flutes, oboes, and Arab drums, “Reach Out” soared to the top of the U.S. charts. According to the Guinness Encyclopedia, it was “the pinnacle of the traditional Motown style, bringing an almost symphonic arrangement to an R & B love song.” The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rocknoted that the song, in fact, “established Motown as [a] force in contemporary music.”
In 1967 the Tops demonstrated their versatility with soulful cover versions of hits like the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” When Holland-Dozier-Holland left that year to form their own record company after a disagreement with Motown over royalties, it looked as if the group’s phenomenal winning streak might end. After their “Greatest Hits” album was released in 1968, the Four Tops began to feel underappreciated as the Motown hierarchy focused increasingly on the more rock-oriented Temptations. Stubbs and company managed some success with Motown producer/writers Frank Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Ivy Hunter, and Johnny Bristol and in 1970, they teamed up with the Supremes for the first of three collaborative albums.
When Berry Gordy, Jr., relocated Motown’s main operations to Hollywood, the Four Tops chose to stay behind in Detroit. They signed a new deal with the Dunhill label, thus ending a partnership that had brought them more than 15 Top 40 singles. But the group clearly remained worthy of the hit parade, marching to Number Four with “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” in 1973, which became yet another million seller. With Dunhill, the Tops were able to reclaim the style that had made their name in the mid-1960s.
Appearing ready to settle into the “oldies” nostalgia concert circuit by the end of the 1970s, the Four Tops gained new life after signing with Casablanca Records in 1981. As with the switch to Dunhill, the move proved fortuitous and led to an immediate Number One soul hit, “When She Was My Girl.” The Harmony Encyclopedia deemed their 1981 album, Tonight, “a classy collection of relaxed pop-soul songs that recaptured [a] great deal of the magic of the Tops’ great days.”
The quartet made two albums for Casablanca before their appearance on the Motown 25th anniversary television special in 1983 set the stage for a renewal of business with Gordy. After resigning with Motown, they toured the U.S. and abroad with the Temptations. Stubbs added to his resume—and demonstrated a flair for acting—when he providing the voice for the man-eating plant Audrey in the film version of the stage musical “The Little Shop of Horrors.” Although some of their recordings for Motown during the 1980s were produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the renewed collaboration largely failed to capture the old glory. The group defected once again, this time to Arista, where they produced another pair of successful singles.
By 1993 the Four Tops were still performing up to 200 gigs a year, often with the Temptations. By then they had generated a catalog of 36 albums peppered with numerous classic hits. In a review of a 1993 Tops concert, the New Yorker called the performance “less of an oldies show than a master class in the golden age of Motor City soul.” Clearly, the success and longevity of the Four Tops have earned them a unique niche in R & B history.
“Baby I Need Your Loving,” Motown, 1964.
“I Can’t Help Myself,” Motown, 1965.
“Reach Out I’ll Be There,” Motown, 1967.
“Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got),” Dunhill, 1973.
“When She Was My Girl,” Casablanca, 1981.
Four Tops Second Album, Tamla/Motown, 1966.
Reach Out, Tamla/Motown, 1967.
Still Waters Run Deep, Tamla/Motown, 1970.
(With the Supremes) The Magnificent Seven, Tamla/Motown, 1971.
Main Street People, Dunhill/Probe, 1973.
Tonight, Casablanca, 1981.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Vol. II, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness, 1992.
The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony Books, 1988.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
Billboard, February 28, 1987.
Jet, November 13, 1989; February 5, 1990.
New Yorker, August 1993.
People, March 9, 1987.
Rolling Stone, February 9, 1989; February 20, 1992.
Wilson Library Bulletin, April 1992.
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