The four members of the Four Tops first met while they were high school students in Detroit. Two, Levi Stubbs and Abdul “Duke” Fakir, were students at Pershing High and two, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton, were students at Northern High. They teamed up to sing at a local birthday party and decided to form a quartet, which they called The Four Aims. Chess Records, based in Chicago, signed the group in 1956 and suggested a name change to the Four Tops.
They performed regularly and also changed labels several times in search of success, but there was no major breakthrough, until, in 1963, Berry Gordy Jr. persuaded them to come to Motown Records. The following year Holland, Dozier, Holland came up with a song for them, “Baby I Need Your Loving”, which reached number 11 on the Billboard Pop Chart. Their next release did less well but “Ask the Lonely” (1965), written and produced by Motown A&R head William “Mickey” Stevenson with Ivy Jo Hunter of the Funk Brothers, was a Top 30 pop hit and a Top 10 R&B hit in early 1965.
Finally, in June 1965, with “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” the Four Tops made it to number 1 and followed up with a series of successful singles, including “Reach Out I’ll Be There” in 1966. Although lead singer Levi Stubbs was a baritone, Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote most of the lead vocals in the tenor range, near the top of Stubbs’ comfort zone, to increase the dramatic impact of his voice. The plan clearly worked, as “Reach Out I’ll Be There” became a massive hit, number 1 on the U.S. Pop and R&B Charts and also on the UK chart. It was soon followed by “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966) and “Bernadette” (April 1967), both Top 10 U.S. hits. Unfortunately, when Holland, Dozier, Holland left in 1967, the Four Tops were unable to maintain the success of the previous two years.
The Four Tops were the most successful male Motown act in the UK, whereas in the USA they were second to the Temptations. Amazingly the same four friends sang together for forty-four years, from 1953 until 1997, without any change of personnel, until Lawrence Payton died on June 20, 1997. On July 1, 2005, Renaldo “Obie” Benson died of lung cancer. Payton’s son Roquel Payton replaced him. Levi Stubbs died on October 17, 2008.
Alexander Morris, Ronnie McNeir, Roquel Payton and Abdul Fakir, the only surviving member of the original group, are still performing as the Four Tops.
Not surprisingly, the Four Tops have been recognised by their peers for the outstanding contribution they have made to music. The list of awards is impressive and includes:
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1990)
Hollywood Walk of Fame (1997)
Grammy Hall of Fame (Reach Out I’ll Be There (1998) and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” (2018)
Vocal Group Hall of Fame (1999)
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2009) at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards Ceremony
What an amazing career!
Photo: Ron Kroon / Anefo (Wikimedia Commons)