Spotlight on …… The Four Tops

The Four Tops are a vocal quartet from Detroit, Michigan, USA, who helped to define the city's Motown sound of the 1960s. The group's repertoire has included soul music, R&B, disco, adult contemporary, doo-wop, jazz, and show tunes.

Founded as the Four Aims, lead singer Levi Stubbs, Abdul "Duke" Fakir, Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton remained together for over four decades, performing from 1953 until 1997 without a change in personnel.

The Four Tops were among a number of groups, including the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Temptations, and the Supremes, who established the Motown Sound heard around the world during the 1960s. They were notable for having Stubbs, a baritone, as their lead singer, whereas most male and mixed vocal groups of the time were fronted by a tenor.

The group was the main male vocal group for the highly successful songwriting and production team of Holland–Dozier–Holland, who crafted a stream of hit singles for Motown. These included two Billboard Hot 100 number-one hits for the Tops: "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" in 1965 and "Reach Out I'll Be There" in 1966. After Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in 1967, the Four Tops were assigned to a number of producers, primarily Frank Wilson, but generally with less success.

When Motown left Detroit in 1972 to move to Los Angeles, California, the Tops stayed in Detroit but signed a new recording deal with ABC Records' Dunhill imprint. Recording mainly in Los Angeles, they continued to have chart singles into the late 1970s, including the million-seller "Ain't No Woman", their second release on Dunhill, produced by Steve Barri and the composers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter.

In the 1980s, the Four Tops recorded for Casablanca Records, Arista Records and Motown, returning to that label on two occasions for brief stays. Apart from their album Indestructible (owned by Sony Music Entertainment), Universal Music Group controls the rights to their entire post-1963 catalog (through various mergers and acquisitions) and also their 1956 single, "Could It Be You".

A change of lineup was forced on the group when Lawrence Payton died on June 20, 1997. The group initially continued as a three-piece under the name the Tops, before Theo Peoples (formerly of the Temptations) was recruited as the new fourth member. Peoples eventually took over the role of lead singer when Stubbs suffered a stroke in 2000, with Ronnie McNeir then joining the group. On July 1, 2005, Benson died of lung cancer. Payton's son Roquel Payton replaced him. Levi Stubbs died on October 17, 2008.

Fakir, McNeir, Roquel Payton, and Harold "Spike" Bonhart, who replaced Peoples in 2011, are still performing together as the Four Tops. Fakir is the only surviving founding member of the group.

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 named the group 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 the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers. Over the next seven years, the Tops had unsuccessful tenures at Chess, Red Top, Riverside Records and Columbia Records. Without any hit records to their name, they toured frequently, developing a polished stage presence and an experienced supper club act, as well as supporting Billy Eckstine. 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, the Four Tops recorded jazz standards for the company's Workshop label. In addition, they sang backup on Motown singles by the Supremes ("Run, Run, Run"), Martha and the Vandellas (on the 1966 hit "My Baby Loves Me") and others.

In 1964, Motown's main songwriting and production team, 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 instrumental track. On its release in mid-1964, "Baby I Need Your Loving" made it to number 11 on the Billboard pop chart. However, the song proved to be much more popular on trend-setting radio stations in key U.S. markets and has since grown in popularity over the years to be one of the group's classic tracks. After the single's success, the Tops were pulled away from their jazz material and began recording more material in the vein of "Baby I Need Your Loving".

The first follow-up single, "Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)", just missed both the pop and R&B Top 40 charts, but "Ask the Lonely", written and produced by Motown A&R head Mickey Stevenson with Ivy Hunter, was a Top 30 pop hit and a Top 10 R&B hit in early 1965. From there, the group really began to make its mark.

=
After their first number 1 hit, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" in June 1965, the Four Tops released 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 studio band, the Funk Brothers.

Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote most of Levi Stubbs's 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. They also wrote additional background vocals for a female group, the Andantes, on many of the songs, to add a high end to the low-voiced harmony of the Tops. Ivy Hunter's "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" was one of a few exceptions.

August 1966 brought the release of the Four Tops' all-time biggest hit and one of the most popular Motown songs ever. "Reach Out I'll Be There" reached number 1 on the U.S. pop and R&B charts[2] and the UK chart and soon became the Tops' signature song. It was almost immediately followed by the similar-sounding "Standing in the Shadows of Love"; its depiction of heartbreak reflecting the opposite of the optimism in "Reach Out". It was another Top 10 hit for the Tops.

The Top 10 U.S. hit "Bernadette" centered around a man's all-consuming obsession with his lover, continued the Four Tops' successful run into April 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 (mid-1968 in the U.S.) 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 Holland-Dozier-Holland, the 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 a forerunner of 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. Whilst the albums themselves did not perform really well on the 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 number three on the UK charts.

Motown as a company began to change during the early 1970s. Older acts such as Martha and the Vandellas and The Marvelettes were slowly moved aside or dropped to focus on newer acts, such as Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, Rare Earth, and the now-solo Diana Ross. In addition, the company moved 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 west 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, including The Funk Brothers studio backing band, Martha Reeves, and the Four Tops.

The Tops departed Motown for ABC-Dunhill, where they were assigned to writer-producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter and the label's head of A&R, Steve Barri as producer, with The Tops' own Lawrence Payton later also serving as a producer and writer. He also took over lead vocal duties on several tracks.

The group's first release on the label, "Keeper of the Castle" was their first pop Top 10 hit since "Bernadette" in 1967. Follow-ups included the million-selling "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)", also a top 10 pop hit and their third R&B number 1, and the Top 20 hit, "Are You Man Enough", (from the movie "Shaft in Africa"). "Sweet Understanding Love"; "Midnight Flower"; and "One Chain Don't Make No Prison" all reached the R&B Top 10 between 1972 and 1974. Two ABC/Dunhill singles, 1974's "I Just Can't Get You Out of My Mind" and 1975's "Seven Lonely Nights" have become popular tunes in the southeast Beach/Shag Club Dance circuit.

After the release of "Catfish" (a top 10 R&B hit) in 1976, the major hits started to dry up and the Tops left ABC after an album recorded in Philadelphia with the MFSB musicians resulted in only minor chart success in 1978. The group disappeared from the recording scene until the early 1980s. Signing a deal with Casablanca Records, the Tops made a comeback in 1981 with the #1 R&B hit "When She Was My Girl". Produced by David Wolfert, it just missed the Billboard pop Top 10, peaking at #11. The group also scored a UK Top 10 hit with the song and had another hit there with the follow-up, "Don't Walk Away".

By 1983, The Tops had rejoined Motown, where their former ABC-Dunhill producer, Steve Barri was vice-president of A&R. They were featured on the company's television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, taking part in one of the highlights of the show - a battle-of-the-bands between The Tops and The 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 semi-regular joint tours.

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 the Holland-Dozier-Holland, including the R&B Top 40 single, "I Just Can't Walk Away". Only one more Tops album would be released by Motown, Magic in 1985. The lead single from that album, "Sexy Ways", was almost a Top 20 R&B hit, peaking at #21 on the Soul Charts in mid-1985. In July of that year, the group performed at the Live Aid concert, singing three of their hit songs. The album Hot Nights was completed in 1986, but was then cancelled, as the group and the Motown label began to disagree over marketing and musical direction. The following year, the Four Tops decided to leave for Arista Records, buying back several masters they had recorded for Hot Nights. It's not clear how many songs from Hot Nights were used on Indestructible, but the 2001 box set, Fourever includes the title track (previously released as a single), Red Hot Love and The Four of Us (previously released outside the U.S. on a CD single of "Loco in Acapulco"), as well as Indestructible.

The title track of 1988's Indestructible was the group's final Top 40 hit, reaching No. 35. It was also featured in the 1988 science-fiction cop film, Alien Nation. Another track, "Loco in Acapulco", written and produced by British pop musician Phil Collins and former Motown composer-producer Lamont Dozier, climbed into the UK Top 10 and made #7 in early 1989. The Arista contract provided an opportunity to pair Levi Stubbs with fellow Arista artist, another legendary R&B vocalist from Detroit, Aretha Franklin, who was at the height of her own 1980s hit streak. This pairing resulted in the song "If Ever A Love There Was", which became a popular R&B and Adult Contemporary hit, as well as being featured on the soundtrack of the motion picture I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.

In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 became the group's scheduled return flight to the U.S. for Christmas after completing their European tour. A prolonged recording session and a performance at the television show Top of the Pops caused them to oversleep, thus, missing the ill-fated flight which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, after a terrorist bomb was detonated on board. They left London however using a later British Airways flight.

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 film Grease 2, and Levi Stubbs provided the vocals for the man-eating plant Audrey II in the 1986 musical film, Little Shop of Horrors; and the voice of the evil Mother Brain on the Nintendo-based NBC Saturday morning cartoon Captain N: The Game Master from 1989 to 1991.

From the late 1980s, the Four Tops focused on touring and live performances. They recorded only one album, returning again to Motown for 1995's Christmas Here with You. On June 20, 1997, 59-year-old Lawrence Payton died as a result of liver cancer, after singing for 44 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 restore the group to a quartet. By the turn of the century, Stubbs had become ill from cancer; Ronnie McNeir was recruited to fill the Lawrence Payton position and Peoples stepped into Stubbs' shoes as lead singer. Stubbs later died on October 17, 2008 at his home in Detroit.

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 (available on DVD). 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 the new bass (Roquel could be seen in the pledge break interviews of Motown: The Early Years). Theo Peoples also left the Tops to form his own group and was replaced by Harold 'Spike' Bonhart as lead singer.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked them #79 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

 

PREVIOUS SPOTLIGHT GUESTS

The Temptations

Buddy Holly

Joan Baez

Sarah Vaughan

Martha and the Vandellas

Rod Stewart

Bruce Forsyth

Bob Dylan

Jackie Wilson

Aretha Franklin

Winifred Atwell

Stevie Wonder

Dusty Springfield

Karen Carpenter

The Searchers

Gerry and The Pacemakers

The Shirelles

Mary Hopkin

Mamas and Papas

Isley Brothers

Prince

Sir George Martin

Terry Wogan

Tom Jones

Nana Mouskouri

Richard Harris

Slim Whitman

Scott Walker

The Seekers

Ray Charles

Dave Allen

Johnny Rivers

Otis Redding

Dave Clark Five

The Walker Brothers

Rolf Harris

Paul Anka

Perry Como

Louis Armstrong

Jake Anthony Smith

Judy Garland

Maureen & Harry Carruthers - Revised

Malcolm Vaughan

Johnny Cash

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme

Frankie Vaughan

The Tokens

Herman's Hermits

Acker Bilk

Dionne Warwick

Duke Ellington

Mick Finn

Jim Reeves

Dorothy Squires

Joe Francis

Dinah Washington

Tricia Lockett

Simon & Garfunkle

Neil Diamond

The Hollies

Kay Starr

Tubby Hayes

Garry Williams

Frank Ifield

Robert Humphries

Bing Crosby

Ted & Lilian Knightley

Bobby Vee

Buddy Greco

Connie Francis

Cyril Ornadel

Ian Billingham

Geoff Love

Robert McCloud

Neil Sedaka

Jack Jones

Jeff Green

Cyril Stapleton

Mike Bloomfield

Eartha_Kitt

Vic Damone

Sebastian Lassandro

Strange Lady In Town

Martin Farbrother

Lulu

Mel Torme

Joshua De Gray

Willie Nelson

Peggy Lee

Michael Holliday

Wanda Jackson

Dinah Shore

Helen Shapiro

Geraldine Vine

Sue Parker

Complete Singles

Vera Lynn

Nancy Sinatra

Cilla Black

Nina Simone

Maureen & Harry Carruthers

Humphrey Lyttelton

Val Doonican

Keith Good

Bobbie Gentry

Sandra Tindall

Bobby Darin

John Higton

Adam Faith

Marian Down

Kenny Rogers

Steve Woof

Glen Campbell

Richard Moore - Interview

Dame Shirley Bassey

Al Martino

Ella Fitzgerald

Jo Stafford

Lena Horne

June Christy

Nancy Wilson

Johnny Dankworth

Anthony Newley

Andy Williams

Vikki Carr

Missing Matt 2

Michael Ball

Petula Clark

Michele Monro

Lena Horne

Missing Media

George Martin

Dusty Springfield

Richard Moore

Tommy Bruce

Alma Cogan

Kathy Kirby

Tony Bennet

Johnny Mathis

Joe Longthorne

Frank Sinatra

Sammy Davis Jr.

Dean Martin

Nelson Riddle

Tony Christie

Nat King Cole

Steve Woof

Matt Monro Jnr.

Roy Leslie

Ken Dodd

Julie London

Sid Feller