Founded in Detroit, Michigan as The Four Aims, lead singer Levi Stubbs (a cousin of Jackie Wilson and brother of The Falcons' Joe Stubbs), and groupmates Abdul "Duke" Fakir, Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton remained together for over four decades.
Among a number of groups who helped define the Motown Sound of the 1960s, including The Miracles, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, and The Supremes, the Four Tops were notable for having Stubbs, a baritone, as their lead singer; most groups of the time were fronted by a tenor. The group was the main male vocal group for the songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who crafted for the group a stream of hit singles, including two Billboard Hot 100 number-one hits: "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" and "Reach Out I'll Be There". After Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in 1967, the Four Tops were assigned to a number of producers, primarily Frank Wilson. When Motown left Detroit in 1972 to move to Los Angeles, California, the Tops stayed in Detroit and moved over to ABC Records, where they continued to have charting singles into the late-1970s. Since the 1980s, the Four Tops have recorded for, at various times, Motown, Casablanca Records and Arista Records. Today, save for Indestructible (owned by Sony BMG), Universal Music Group controls the rights to their entire post-1963 catalog (through various mergers and acquisitions).
The musical group was finally forced to undergo a line-up change when Lawrence Payton died on June 20, 1997. Initially the band continued as a three-piece under the name The Tops, before Theo Peoples (formerly of The Temptations) was eventually recruited as the new fourth member. Peoples later replaced Stubbs, who suffered from a stroke in 2000, and Ronnie McNeir assumed Peoples's spot. On July 1, 2005, Benson died of lung cancer with Payton's son Roquel replacing him. As of 2006, Fakir, McNeir, Payton, and Peoples were still performing together as the Four Tops. Levi Stubbs died on October 17, 2008. Fakir is now the only surviving founder 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 christened themselves 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 Four Tops to avoid confusion with The Ames Brothers. Over the next seven years, The Tops endured unsuccessful tenures at Chess, Red Top, Riverside Records and Columbia Records. Without any hit records to their name, The Tops toured frequently, developing a polished stage presence and an experienced supper club act. 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 filled in time by singing backup on Motown singles such as The Supremes' "Run, Run, Run" and "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes".
In 1964, Motown's main songwriting/production team of 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 lyric-less instrumental track. Upon its mid-1964 release, "Baby I Need Your Loving" made it to #11 on the United States Billboard pop charts. However, the song proved to be much more popular on trend-setting radio stations in key U.S. markets; Baby I Need Your Loving was a strong top 10 hit on both WMCA in New York, and WKNR in Detroit, stations that were watched by other radio people all over the country, because these stations broke new artists and songs. After the single's success, The Tops were pulled away from their jazz material and began recording more records in the vein of "Baby I Need Your Loving."
The first follow-up single, "Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)", missed both the pop and R&B Top 40 charts by only three positions. "Ask the Lonely", released early in 1965, was a Top 30 pop hit and a Top Ten R&B hit, and the from there, the Tops' fortunes began to improve.
After scoring their first #1 hit, the often-recorded and revived "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" in June 1965, the Four Tops began 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 The Funk Brothers. Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote most of Levi Stubbs' 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. In addition, H-D-H used additional background vocals from female background vocalists The Andantes on many of these songs, to add a high end to the low-voiced harmony of The Tops, with "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" being one of the few exceptions.
August 1966 brought the release of the Four Tops' biggest hit, and one of the most popular Motown songs ever: "Reach Out I'll Be There", which hit #1 on the U.S. pop charts and soon became The Tops' signature song. It was almost immediately followed by the similar sounding "Standing in the Shadows of Love"; its depictions of heartbreak reflected the polar opposite of the optimism expressed in "Reach Out". It was another Top 10 hit for the Tops.
The Top 10 U.S. hit "Bernadette" centered around a man's complete 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 H-D-H, the quality of the Four Tops' output, like that of most of Motown, began to decline, and 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 an early ancestor to 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. While the albums themselves did not do well on their 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 #3 on the UK charts.
The Motown company began to change in a number of ways during the early 1970s. Older acts such as Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and The Marvelettes were being slowly placed aside 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 was slowly moving many of 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 to Los Angeles, 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 backing band, Martha Reeves, and the Four Tops.
The Tops departed Motown for ABC-Dunhill, where they were assigned to songwriter-producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, with The Tops' own Lawrence Payton also serving as a producer and arranger. "Keeper of the Castle" was their first pop Top 10 hit since "Bernadette" in 1967; follow-ups such as "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)",(another top 10 pop hit), the Top 20 "Are You Man Enough" (from the movie "Shaft In Africa"), "Sweet Understanding Love", "Midnight Flower", and "One Chain Don't Make No Prison" all hit the R&B Top Ten between 1972 and 1974. By the release of "Catfish" in 1976, the hits had dried up again, and the group disappeared into obscurity in the late-1970s. Scoring a deal with Casablanca Records in 1980, the Four Tops made a comeback in 1981 with the #1 R&B hit "When She Was My Girl", which just missed the Billboard Pop Top 10, peaking at # 11.
By 1983, The Tops had rejoined Motown, and were featured on the company's television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. One of the highlights of the show was 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 a semi-regular joint tour; as of 2007, the two groups continue to play dates together.
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 Holland-Dozier-Holland, including the R&B Top 40 single "I Just Can't Walk Away". Only two more Tops albums would be released by Motown, 1985's Magic and 1986's Hot Nights, as the group and the label began to quarrel on matters of marketing and musical direction. In 1987, the Four Tops decided to leave Motown again, this time for Arista Records, buying back the masters they had recorded for an in-progress album and bringing them with them. The result was 1988's Indestructible, the title track of which was the group's final Top 40 hit. It was also featured in the 1988 Sci-Fi cop film, Alien Nation.
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 performed 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.
Since the late-1980s, the Four Tops have focused on touring and live performances, only recording one album, 1995's Christmas Here With You, released on Motown. On June 20, 1997, 59-year-old Lawrence Payton died as a result of liver cancer, after singing for forty-four 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 join the act to restore the group to a quartet. By the turn of the century, Stubbs had become ill from cancer; Ronnie McNair was recruited to fill in the Lawrence Payton position, and Peoples stepped into Stubbs' shoes as lead singer. Stubbs died in his sleep after a long illness, 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. 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 new bass (Roquel could be seen in the pledge break interviews of Motown: The Early Years). The group performed as part of the Eat to the Beat concert series at Epcot in Lake Buena Vista, Florida in October of 2006. At Epcot, The Four Tops set list featured "Baby I Need Your Loving," "When She Was My Girl," "Ask the Lonely," "Walk Away Renee," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Bernadette," "Standing in the Shadows of Love," and "(Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) I Can't Help Myself."
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 Magazine ranked them #79 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
After similar releases in the Motown "Definitive DVD" series on The Miracles , The Temptations , The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye , The Four Tops' Motown Definitive DVD, "Reach Out", will finally be released on Nov.11th 2008.
For a detailed listing of albums and singles, see Four Tops discography.
The following singles reached the top thirty of the singles charts.
|"Baby I Need Your Loving"||11||11||-||-|
|1965:||"Ask the Lonely"||24||9||-||-|
|1965:||"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"||1||1||-||10|
|1965:||"It's the Same Old Song"||5||2||-||34|
|1965:||"Something About You"||19||9||-||-|
|1966:||"Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)"||18||5||-||-|
|1966:||"Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever"||45||12||-||21|
|1966:||"Reach Out I'll Be There"||1||1||-||1|
|1966:||"Standing in the Shadows of Love"||6||2||-||6|
|1967:||"7-Rooms of Gloom"||14||10||-||12|
|1967:||"You Keep Running Away"||19||7||-||26|
|1967:||"If I Were a Carpenter"||20||17||-||7|
|1968:||"Walk Away Renée"||14||15||-||3|
|1968:||"I'm In a Different World"||51||23||-||27|
|1969:||"What is a Man"||53||-||-||16|
|1969:||"Do What You Gotta Do"||-||-||-||11|
|1969:||"Don't Let Him Take Your Love From Me"||45||25||-||-|
|1970:||"Still Water (Love)"||11||4||-||10|
|1970:||"It's All In The Game"||24||6||39||5|
|1971:||"River Deep - Mountain High" (The Supremes & the Four Tops)||14||7||-||6|
|1971:||"Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)"||40||9||-||36|
|1971:||"You Gotta Have Love in Your Heart" (The Supremes & the Four Tops)||55||41||-||25|
|1971:||"In These Changing Times"||70||28||-||-|
|1971:||"MacArthur Park (part 2)"||38||27||-||-|
|1972:||"A Simple Game"||90||34||-||3|
|1972:||"It's the Way Nature Planned It"||53||8||-||-|
|1972:||"Keeper of the Castle"||10||7||-||18|
|1973:||"Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)"||4||2||14||-|
|1973:||"Are You Man Enough"||15||2||-||-|
|1973:||"Sweet Understanding Love"||33||10||41||29|
|1974:||"I Just Can't Get You Out of My Mind"||62||18||-||-|
|1974:||"One Chain Don't Make No Prison"||41||3||-||-|
|1975:||"Seven Lonely Nights"||71||13||-||-|
|1975:||"We Gotta All Stick Together"||97||17||-||-|
|1981:||"When She Was My Girl"||11||1||9||3|
|1981:||"Don't Walk Away"||-||-||-||16|
|1983:||"I Just Can't Walk Away"||71||36||18||-|
|1988:||"Loco In Acapulco"||-||-||-||7|
|1988:||"If Ever a Love There Was" (Aretha Franklin & the Four Tops)||-||31||26||-|
"The Four Tops:Reach Out" Motown/Universal Definitive DVD (release date Nov.11 2008)