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The Four Tops Biography

The Four Tops were one of soul music’s most popular and long-lived vocal groups. This quartet from Detroit endured for more than 40 years without a single change in personnel. Moreover, they charted hits at every stage in their lengthy career. Although they’re best remembered for the records they made at Motown in the Sixties, the Four Tops also had substantial success at such labels as ABC, Casablanca and Arista in subsequent decades. They even returned twice to Motown later in their career. All the while they remained a solid draw on the touring circuit, performing 100 shows per year.

The Four Tops consisted of lead singer Levi Stubbs, first tenor Abdul “Duke” Fakir, second tenor Lawrence Payton, and baritone Renaldo “Obie” Benson. Working closely with the in-house songwriting and production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, the Four Tops cut some of Motown’s most memorable singles during the label’s mid-Sixties zenith. The list of classics recorded by the Four Tops during this fruitful period includes “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette.” Between 1964 and 1988, the Four Tops made Billboard’s Hot 100 chart 45 times and its R&B chart 52 times. Twenty-four of their singles made the Top 40, and seven of those entered the Top 10.

While their career took off at Motown, the Four Tops had a significant prehistory before arriving at the label, having already logged nearly a decade in show business. Stubbs and Fakir attended Pershing High School in Detroit’s North End, while Payton and Benson attended Detroit’s Northern High School. The four young men met at a friend’s birthday party, where they first sang together. They formed the Four Aims soon after graduating high school in 1954. Modeling themselves after such harmony groups as the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers and the Four Freshmen, the Aims evolved into a versatile nightclub act. With a natural talent for arranging harmonies, Payton became the group’s musical director. Also closely affiliated with the group was Payton’s cousin, Roquel “Billy” Davis, who provided management, material and even vocal assistance in the formative years.

To avoid possible confusion with the Ames Brothers, the Four Aims renamed themselves the Four Tops. In 1956, they signed to Chess Records, for which they recorded one single (“Kiss Me Baby”). They also released a single apiece on the Columbia (“Ain’t That Love,” 1960) and Riverside (“Pennies from Heaven,” 1962) labels. During this stage in their career, they sang in close harmony, with no single voice standing apart from the others. In their pre-Motown years, they opened or sang backup for the likes of Della Reese, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Betty Carter and Brook Benton.

Berry Gordy approached them about signing to Motown in 1962, but they didn’t ink a deal for nearly two years. (The group later said they wanted to be sure that Gordy’s upstart independent label would survive.)  “Their vocal blend was phenomenal,” Gordy wrote, recalling his initial impressions of the Four Tops in his autobiography, To Be Loved. “Smooth, classy and polished, they were big stuff. I wanted them bad. I could see how loyal they were to each other, and I knew they would be the same way to me and Motown.”

Their first project for Motown was an album of show tunes, entitled Breaking Through, that the label chose not to release. At this point, with failed singles on three labels and an unreleased album on a fourth, the Four Tops’ future seemed uncertain. Then came the successful union with Holland-Dozier-Holland, which yielded a hit, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” on the first try.

Levi Stubbs’ bold, dramatic readings of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s tailor-made material set a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-Sixties. It was the songwriting trio’s idea to reshape the Four Tops from a close-harmony group to one with a distinct lead vocalist (Stubbs), while Payton, Benson and Fakir provided harmonies, background vocals, and occasional leads or co-leads. In addition, it was decided to highlight Stubbs’ upper range, where his raspy, anguished vocals most soulfully communicated the passion of Eddie Holland’s lyrics. “Sometimes we cut in keys a little high for him to force him to reach for the notes,” Holland told writer Stu Hackel.

The Four Tops hit Number One in mid-1965 with “I Can’t Help Myself,” an infectious Motown classic that spotlighted the group’s call-and-response vocals. However, the apex of their work with Holland-Dozier-Holland was “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” From its dramatic neoclassical arrangement to Stubbs’ thunderous vocal, it was one of Motown’s greatest recordings. It was the Four Tops’ second Number One hit, remaining on the charts for nearly four months.

The prolific union of the Four Tops and Holland-Dozier-Holland lasted from 1964 through mid-1967, ending when the songwriters left Motown in a financial dispute with Gordy. The Four Tops’ last work with the trio included the originals “7 Rooms of Gloom” and “You Keep Running Away” and memorable covers of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.”

The Four Tops remained at Motown for five more years, working with various staff producers but forging their closest union with Frank Wilson. Their later Motown hits included “Still Water (Love),” co-written by Wilson and Smokey Robinson, and artful covers of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” and the Fifties pop standard “It’s All in the Game.” This stage of the Four Tops career also included a pair of albums recorded with the Supremes – The Magnificent Seven (1970) and The Return of the Magnificent Seven (1971) – and the thematically ambitious albums Still Waters Run Deep (1970) and Nature Planned It (1972).

Moving to Dunhill/ABC in 1972, the Four Tops found themselves in the capable hands of another dynamic songwriting and production trio, consisting of Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter and Steve Barri. The reinvigorated quartet enjoyed immediate success with the singles “Keeper of the Castle” (Number 10 pop, Number Seven R&B), “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)” (Number Four pop, Number Two R&B) and “Are You Man Enough” (Number 15 pop, Number Two R&B). They remained at ABC until the end of the decade. In 1981, they moved to Neil Bogart’s Casablanca label, where they enjoyed another return to the upper reaches of the charts with the breezy pop-soul hit “When She Was My Girl” (Number 11 pop, Number One R&B).

For 1983’s Motown 25 TV special, the Four Tops and the Temptations held a show stopping “battle of the bands,” amicably trading songs. The concept was so well-received that the two groups frequently toured together thereafter. In 1985, the Four Tops recorded a final album for Motown, entitled Magic. A year later, Levi Stubbs served as the singing voice of the man-eating plant in the popular film Little Shop of Horrors. The Four Tops’ last charting single was “Indestructible” (Number 35 pop), released on Clive Davis’s Arista label in 1988. Its B side – “If Ever a Love There Was,” a collaboration with Aretha Franklin – reached Number 31 on the R&B chart.

Only death could stop the original lineup of the Four Tops. Lawrence Payton died of cancer in 1997. The Four Tops continued to tour, eventually replacing Payton with Theo Peoples (formerly of the Temptations). Renaldo “Obie” Benson succumbed to cancer in 2005, and Levi Stubbs died from stroke-related complications in 2008.

Duke Fakir, the quartet’s sole surviving member, has kept the Four Tops alive. In addition to Fakir and Peoples, Lawrence Payton, Jr. (son of founding member Lawrence Payton) and Ronnie McNair (a Motown acquaintance) round out the revamped lineup. "They have the same feeling as the original Tops - as close you can get without being the real thing,” Fakir said in a 2010 interview.