One of the premier soul groups of all time, the Four Tops were a mainstay of the Motown sound. Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, and Lawrence Payton were boyhood friends in Detroit who gave it a go at a friend’s birthday party in 1954 and found they were pretty good at it. They stared practicing the next day and called themselves the Four Aims. Starting with school parties and church socials they worked their way onto the small club circuit and with the help of a talent agency began performing as a backup group for Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton, and Della Reese, among others.
By 1956 they became the Four Tops, thus avoiding confusion with THE AMES BROTHERS, and singed for one single with Chicago’s Chess Records. They were then singed by John Hammond to Columbia (in 1960), but only lasted long enough to cut one less-than-exciting single called “Ain’t That Love.”
By 1962 Levi and company were working on Las Vegas with Billy Eckstine when the Tops recorded a version of “Pennies from Heaven” for the jazz-based Riverside label. Still, they were unable to find a radio audience until they met up with Berry Gordy, Jr. and his hot Motown label.
Working first in a jazz vein, the group was used mainly to back up THE SUPREMS until Berry and company could find the right song and musical direction for them. Their first hit turned out to be the Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” (#23).
In 1964 Motown songwriting stars Holland, Dozier, and Holland came up with a song for the Tops called “Baby I Need Your Lovin’.” Its charting in August went to number 11 Pop and R&B.
In early 1965 the Tops issued “Ask the Lonely,” one of their finest records. Though not one of their biggest hits (#24 Pop, #9 R&B), the gospeltinged inspirational rhythm ballad piqued the ears of listeners and set the Tops up for their first monster hit. In the spring of 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself” spent two weeks at number one Pop (#1 R&B, #23 U.K.). The contagious, pounding rhythm of the song most buyers called “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” helped establish the Tops as mid-‘60s favorites in the music world. In a throwback to music business style of the ‘50s, fast-moving Motown recorded their follow-up, “The Same Old Song,” on a Thursday and had it on radio by Saturday and in the stores on Monday. It reached number five Pop and number two R&B Soul hits like “Something About You” (#18 Pop, #9 R&B), “Shake Me, Wake Me” (#18 Pop, #5 R&B), and Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever” (#45 Pop, #12 R&B) made the Tops familiar faces across the country. They also were popular in England, and when they went there in 1965, that part of their tour was handled by Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
In the late summer of 1966 their most outstanding single was issued. With a Middle Eastern sound grafted on to an American soul beat, “Reach Out” made it to number one on both the pop and R&B charts, edging THE ASSOCIATION’s “Cherish” out of first place on October 15th. It also made number one in the U.K., becoming the fourth of 29 chart appearances there (by 25 different singles), making them second only to THE BEACH BOYS in the number of British hits by an American vocal group.
While Motown had the Supremes doing light, breezy material and THE TEMPTATIONS recording mostly easygoing pop-soul, Berry Gordy reserved the rockers for the Tops. “Reach Out” was followed by series of similarly driving recordings like “Standing in the Shadows (of Love)” (#6 Pop, #2 R&B), “Bernadette” (#4 Pop, #3 R&B), and “Seven Rooms of Gloom” (#14 Pop, #10 R&B).
In 1967 the group diversified their sound and cut an uncharacteristic live LP that contained standard songs like “Climb Every Mountain” and “If I Had a Hammer.” This was followed by an LP called The Four Tops on Broadway that offered several covers of show tunes.
By the end of 1967 Holland, Dozier, and Holland had left Motown to form their own label and the Tops were turning to other sources for songs. Focusing on covers of other artist’ songs, the group hit with the Left Banke’s 1966 number five hit “Walk Away Renee” in 1968 (#14 Pop, #15 R&B) and Bobby Darin’s 1966 winner (#8), “If I Was a Carpenter” (#20 Pop, #17 R&B) also in 1968.
In 1970 the historic pairing of the four Tops and the Supremes in an LP titled The Magnificent Seven yielded a soul version of Phil Spector’s Ike and Tina Turner classic, “River Deep, Mountain High” (#14 Pop, #7 R&B).
In 1972 Motown moved to Los Angeles, and the Tops, after 30 Pop hits and 28 R&B winners with Gordy’s company, moved over to Dunhill. They did this largely because of the writing talents of Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who in the late fall of 1972 had had a hit with Tops on their song “Keeper of the Castle” (#10 Pop, #7 R&B). Lambert and Potter’s “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)” kept their star rising in 1973 (#4 Pop, #2 R&B) while “Are You Man Enough” (from the film Shaft in Africa) finished at number 15 Pop and number two R&B.
In 1976 they moved over to Dunhill’s parent label ABC for a few good sides, most notably “Seven Lonely Nights” (#71 Pop, #13 R&B) and “Catfish” (#71 Pop, #7 R&B).
In 1981 they moved again, this time to Casablanca, and their release “When She Was My Girl” was their first R&B number one hit since “Reach Out” (also going to number 11 Pop).
In 1983 the Tops performed on Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV spectacular and soon after resigned with Gordy’s company while touring internationally with Temptations.
Their last Motown R&B charter was “Sexy Ways” (#21). In September 1988 they signed with Arista Records, and the single “Indestructible” became their 45th Pop hit (#35).
In 1986 Levi became the voice of Audrey II, the man-eating plant in the film version of Little Shop of Horrors.
In 1991, more than 35 years after they started, the same four vocalists were still recording and performing. Unlike other acts who had their biggest successes in the ‘60s, whenever a new Four Tops record came out it was treated like the release of a hot new group.
~ Jay Warner
The Four Tops are the most stable, consistent, and dependable of the successful R&B/pop vocal acts to emerge from Motown Records in the 1960s. Unlike the Temptations, they have had no personnel changes; unlike the Supremes and the Miracles, their lead singer never felt the need to step out on his own. At the same time, the Four Tops personified the musicalhybridMotown sought — they had the grittiness of gospel and R&B, but they were smooth enough to appeal to pop audiences.
The group was formed in Detroit in 1953 by lead singer Levi Stubbs Jr., Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Lawrence Payton, and Abdul “Duke” Fakir when they were still in high school. They recorded for several labels before signing to Motown in 1963. “Baby, I Need Your Loving” (July 1964), written and produced by the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, was their first substantial hit, setting the pattern for a series of songs showcasing Stubbs’ emotive wail set against the Benson-Payton-Fakir harmony line. Need and longing would be the hallmarks of Stubbs’ singing on such songs as “Ask the Lonely” (January 1965), which launched a string of R&B Top Ten/pop Top 40 hits over the next two years. Its follow-up, “I Can’t Help Myself” (April 1965), hit number one and was itself followed by “It’s the Same Old Song” (July 1965), “Something About You” (October 1965), “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” (February 1966), “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” (May 1966), “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” (a second number one, August 1966), “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (November 1966), “Bernadette” (February 1967), “7 Rooms of Gloom” (May 1967), and “You Keep Running Away” (August 1967).
At that point, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team left Motown, depriving the Four Tops of their writing and producing talent. The label at first had some trouble finding material for them, having them cover songs like “Walk Away Renee” and “If I Were a Carpenter.” In 1970, however, they rebounded with “It’s All in the Game,” “Still Water (Love),” a duet with the Supremes on “River Deep-Mountain High,” and “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life),” all of which made the R&B Top Ten and the pop Top 40. They scored one more R&B Top Ten on Motown with “(It’s the Way) Nature Planned It” before moving to Dunhill (later acquired by ABC, then by MCA Records), where they enjoyed another string of hits, including “Keeper of the Castle” (October 1972), the gold-selling “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)” (January 1973), “Are You Man Enough” (June 1973), “Sweet Understanding Love” (September 1973), “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison” (April 1974), and “Midnight Flower” (July 1974). They returned to the R&B Top Ten with “Catfish” (August 1976), and moved to Casablanca (since acquired by PolyGram) for the R&B number one “When She Was My Girl” (September 1981).
The Four Tops returned to Motown in 1983, and by 1988 were signed to Arista. Their hit-making days presumably behind them, they remain a solid concert act with a repertoire of favorites and a catalog that continues to be repackaged successfully.
— William Ruhlmann