The Four Tops - Biography

By Lee Hildebrand


        The Four Tops are not only one of the most successful singing groups in the history of American popular music, but they have been one of the longest lived. The Detroit quartet maintained the consistent lineup of Levi Stubbs, Adbul "Duke" Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and Renaldo "Obie" Benson from its inception in 1954 until illness forced lead vocalist Stubbs to retire in 1995. Payton died in 1997, Benson in 2005, and Stubbs in 2008, but Fakir has kept the group going with Theo Peoples singing lead and Payton's son Lawrence "Roquel" Payton Jr. and Ronnie McNeir rounding out the harmonies.


            Stubbs and Fakir were students at Detroit's Pershing High School when they hooked up with Northern High School students Benson and Payton at a party and began harmonizing together. They called themselves the Four Aims and in 1955 made their recording debut, doing backgrounds on singles by Caroline Hayes and Delores Carroll, both on the Chateau label. With help from Payton's first cousin, songwriter Roquel Billy Davis, they signed with Chess Records in 1956 and, in order to avoid confusion with pop vocal group the Ames Brothers, changed their name to the Four Tops. They recorded eight songs, but only one 45,"Could It Be You?"/"Kiss Me Baby," was issued at the time. The Chicago company, according to Davis, was less interested in the group than in his services as a songwriter. Leonard Chess had signed the Four Tops in exchange for Davis' agreement to write material for The Flamingos and The Moonglows.  (Davis would become especially valuable to Chess during the '60s, as a writer and producer for The Dells, Etta James, Little Milton, Billy Stewart, and others.) Dropped by Chess, the Four Tops cut  one-off singles for Columbia and Riverside but wouldn't have a hit until signing with Motown in 1963 and scoring the following year with "Baby I Need Your Loving," their first 45 for the Detroit firm.


            Although they had no hits during their first decade, the four men did not want for work. With Benson's bass/baritone voice at the bottom, Fakir's tenor on top, Stubbs' baritone in the middle, and Payton singing second tenor and handling the arrangements, the quartet's harmonies were different from those of most African American vocal groups of the period, more akin to the close jazz harmonies of The Four Freshmen than to doo-wop. With an eclectic repertoire of pop, jazz, R&B, and country tunes, the Four Tops performed in both black and white clubs. They were particularly popular in Montreal. Billy Eckstine caught their act at the Thunderbird in Las Vegas and hired them to tour as part of his revue. 


            Davis had tried for some time to interest Berry Gordy Jr., with whom he had co-authored the Jackie Wilson hits "Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want to Meet)," "To Be Loved," "Lonely Teardrops," "That's Why (I Love You So)," and "I'll Be Satisfied," in the group. Gordy finally brought the Four Tops into his rapidly expanded Motown stable and recorded them singing jazz-tinged pop tunes such as "Stranger on the Shore" and "Young and Foolish" that were staples of their club act. The now-ultra-rare album, Breaking Through, was issued in 1963 on Motown's short-lived Jazz Workshop label and failed to break anywhere, not even on jazz radio programs.  Motown also used the foursome for background vocals on some of its soul sessions. Among them were The Supremes' 1963 recording of "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," a No. 23 pop charter penned and produced by Brain Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, and a little-known single from the same year, "What Goes Up Must Come Down," issued as by Holland and Dozier with the Four Tops and the Andantes. 


            Gordy then transferred the group to the Motown label and placed them in the creative hands of Dozier and the Holland brothers. "Baby I Need Your Loving'' firmly placed the Four Tops in the soul camp and rose to No. 11 on Billboard's pop chart. (The trade magazine published no R&B lists during that period.) Dozier had encouraged Stubbs to sing his lead at the top of his range, resulting in a raspier, more urgent sound than before, and Andantes (a Motown session group comprising Marlene Barrow, Louvain Demps, and Jackie Hicks) augmented Fakir, Payton, and Benson's harmonies. The quartet's association with the production team yielded seven Top 10 R&B hits, of which 1965's "I Can't Help Myself" (often identified by its "sugar pie, honey bunch" opening line) and 1966's "Reach Out, I'll Be There"  topped both the R&B and pop charts. The others were "It's the Same Old Song," "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)," "Standing in the Shadows of Love," "Bernadette," and "7 Rooms of Gloom."


            Holland, Dozier, and Holland created the quintessential Motown sound by crafting deceptively simple songs with instantly memorable hooks and unorthodox chord structures, then wedding them to throbbing beats and orchestral instrumentation. Their three-minute soul symphonies managed to take the gospel-rooted sounds of black America to unprecedented levels of cross-cultural acceptance and yet retain enough ghetto grit to still appeal to African American audiences. That they could simultaneously fashion chart-busters for the soft, sensual voice of The Supremes' Diana Ross and for the gruff, church-hewn shout of Four Tops baritone Stubbs was further evidence of their ingenuity.  


            The Four Tops' three-year streak of hit singles ended with the departure of Holland, Dozier, and Holland from Motown in late 1967. In 1969, after witnessing a violent confrontation between police and hippies at People's Park in Berkeley, California, bass singer Benson began working on a protest tune titled "What's Going On," which he completed with arranger Al Cleveland. The other Tops passed on recording the song, however. Benson next tried to interest folksinger Joan Baez in it, but Marvin Gaye ended up cutting what would become one of the most memorable social-protest songs in the history of popular music.


            The quartet finally returned to the R&B Top 10 with five hits between 1970 and '72: a treatment of the Tommy Edwards oldie "It's All in the Game," "Still Water (Love)," and "Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)," and "(It's the Way) Nature Planned It" -- all produced by Frank Wilson, the middle two in collaboration with group member Payton --  and a summit meeting with The Supremes on a remake of the Ike & Tina Turner classic "River Deep, Mountain High," produced by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.


            During their eight years at Motown, the Four Tops placed eight times in the Top 10 on Billboard's R&B album chart: peaking at No. 1 with The Four Tops (1964), at No. 3 with Four Tops' Second Album (1965), at No. 2 with On Top (1966), at No. 1 with Four Tops Live! (1966), at No. 3 with Reach Out (1967), at No.; 7 with Yesterday's Dream (1968), at No. 3 with Still Waters Run Deep, and at No. 4 with Nature Planned it (1972).


            The Four Tops joined the ABC/Dunhill label in 1972. Their first two singles for the company made the pop and R&B Top 10 --  "Keeper of the Castle" and "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got," both written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter and produced by them in partnership with Steve Barri -- after which the group remained a staple of the R&B hit lists through 1976, with the songs "Are You Man Enough," "Sweet Understanding Love," "One Chain Don't Make No Prison," "Midnight Flower," and "Catfish" -- but never again cracked the pop Top 10.


            A switch to Casablanca Records paid off immediately for the Tops when their first single for the label, 1981's David Wolfert-produced "When She Was My Girl," topped the R&B chart and landed at No. 11 pop. Unfortunately, the group never had another major hit.   Motown re-signed the Tops in 1983. Gordy himself served as executive producer of the album Back Where I Belong, for which he reunited them with Holland, Dozier, and Holland on four selections and brought in The Temptations, as well as the Tops' old Detroit neighbor Aretha Franklin, as guest vocalists for one track apiece. The disc, however, yielded on significant hits. A second Motown album did even less well,, and a third was recorded but never released.  By 1988, the group was on Arista and again sang with Franklin, on the single "If a Love There Ever Was," which proved to be the final chart entry for the Four Tops, stalling at No. 31 R&B.


            Stubbs, who easily could have left the group and had a successful solo career, as had David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and Dennis Edwards from the rival Temptations, stuck by his singing mates until illness forced him to retire from touring. He did, however, accept an offer in be the voice of a man-eating plant named Audrey II in the 1986 motion picture musical Little Shop of Horrors. His performance of the song "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space" was released on a soundtrack album released by Geffen Records. Stubbs also served from 1989 to '91 as the voice of Mother Brain in the Saturday morning NBC-TV cartoon series "Captain N: The Game Master."


            Stubbs was briefly reunited with the other Tops in 2004 on a public televisio program celebrating the group's golden anniversary. Motown also marked the occasion with Four Tops Anthology: 50th Anniversary (2004-Hip-O/Motown), a two-CD retrospective of their work for Motown, ABC/Dunhill, and Casablanca. Theo Peoples, a onetime member of the Temptations, now sings Stubbs' old parts in the Fakir-led Four Tops. 


            The Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. They also have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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