|Also known as||Four Tops, the Four Aims, the Tops|
|Origin||Detroit, Michigan, U.S.|
|Members||Abdul "Duke" Fakir|
Lawrence Payton Jr.
|Past members||Levi Stubbs|
Renaldo "Obie" Benson
The Four Tops are an American vocal quartet from Detroit 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 other male and mixed vocal groups of the time were fronted by tenors.
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. The group continued to have chart singles into the 1970s, including the million-seller "Ain't No Woman" (1973).
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 its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
The Four Tops continue to perform with Fakir as the last surviving original member.
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 "Billy" 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 Jazz Records label. In addition, they sang backup on Motown singles by the Supremes ("Run, Run, Run", 1964), 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 Hot 100.
The first follow-up single, "Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)" (1964), just missed both the pop and R&B Top 40 charts, but "Ask the Lonely" (1965), written and produced by Motown A&R head William "Mickey" Stevenson with Ivy Jo Hunter, was a Top 30 pop hit and a Top 10 R&B hit in early 1965.
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" (1965), "Something About You" (1965), "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)" (1966), and "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" (1966).
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 Jo Hunter's "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" (1966) 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 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, Jr.
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 Jo 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' Renaldo "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 7 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 chart.
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, Jr. 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" (1972) was their first pop Top 10 hit since "Bernadette" in 1967. Follow-ups included the 1973 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" (1973), (from the 1973 movie Shaft in Africa). "Sweet Understanding Love" (1973); "Midnight Flower (1974); and "One Chain Don't Make No Prison" (1974) 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 number 1 R&B hit "When She Was My Girl". Produced by David Wolfert, it just missed the Billboard pop Top 10, peaking at number 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". In 1982, their song "Back to School Again" appeared in both the movie Grease 2 and its soundtrack.
By 1983, The Tops had rejoined Motown, where their former ABC-Dunhill producer, Barri was vice-president of A&R. They were featured on the company's 1983 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, Jr. 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 (1983). A whole side of the album was produced by the Holland-Dozier-Holland production team, 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 number 21 in mid-1985. In July of that year, the group performed at the Live Aid concert, singing five of their hit songs.
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 number 7 in early 1989. The Arista contract provided an opportunity to pair Levi Stubbs with fellow Arista artist, another R&B vocalist from Detroit, Aretha Franklin, who was at the height of her own 1980s hit streak. This pairing resulted in the 1988 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 1988 motion picture I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.
In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 (a disaster known as the Lockerbie bombing) 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 British television show Top of the Pops caused them to oversleep and miss the ill-fated flight which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, after a terrorist bomb was detonated on board. They left London on a later British Airways flight.
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 other Motown groups, never had a single lineup change until then. At first, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, and Abdul "Duke" Fakir toured as a trio called The Tops. In 1998, they recruited former member of the Temptations 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 Theo 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 Levi Stubbs using a wheelchair, and a memorial to Lawrence Payton, announced by Renaldo "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.
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. The Four Tops were inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2005.
The Four Tops sang the National Anthem before the start of game 5 for the 2011 baseball American League Championship Series (ALCS) between the Texas Rangers & Detroit Tigers on October 13, 2011 in Detroit, MI. When singing the last line of "The Star-Spangled Banner", "... and the home of the brave", they quickly sang the words "Ain't No Country Like the One I Got", before singing the last word, "brave". The Four Tops were honored with an induction into the R&B Music Hall of Fame at the Inaugural ceremony held at Cleveland State University's Waetejen Auditorium on Saturday August 17, 2013.
The Four Tops were among hundreds of artists whose material was destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
The Four Tops have won many awards, including the following:
In early 2018, The Four Tops' 1965 #1 Pop Hit, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" became their second song to be inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame.
Main article: Four Tops discography
The following singles reached the top 30 of the U.S. and UK singles charts.
|Year||Title||Peak chart positions|
|1964||"Baby I Need Your Loving"||11||4||—||—|
|"Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)"||43||17||—||—|
|1965||"Ask the Lonely"||24||9||—||—|
|"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"||1||1||—||10|
|"It's the Same Old Song"||5||2||—||34|
|"Something About You"||19||9||—||—|
|1966||"Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)"||18||5||—||—|
|"Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever"||45||12||—||21|
|"Reach Out I'll Be There"||1||1||—||1|
|"Standing in the Shadows of Love"||6||2||—||6|
|"7 Rooms of Gloom"||14||10||—||12|
|"You Keep Running Away"||19||7||—||26|
|"If I Were a Carpenter"||20||17||—||7|
|1968||"Walk Away Renée"||14||15||—||3|
|"I'm in a Different World"||51||23||—||27|
|1969||"What Is a Man"||53||—||—||16|
|"Do What You Gotta Do"||—||—||—||11|
|"Don't Let Him Take Your Love from Me"||45||25||—||—|
|1970||"Still Water (Love)"||11||4||—||10|
|"It's All in the Game"||24||6||39||5|
|1971||"River Deep – Mountain High"
(The Supremes & Four Tops)
|"Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)"||40||9||—||36|
|"You Gotta Have Love in Your Heart"
(The Supremes & Four Tops)
|"In These Changing Times"||70||28||—||—|
|"MacArthur Park (part 2)"||38||27||—||—|
|1972||"A Simple Game"||90||34||—||3|
|"(It's the Way) Nature Planned It"||53||8||—||—|
|"Keeper of the Castle"||10||7||—||18|
|1973||"Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)"||4||2||14||—|
|"Are You Man Enough"||15||2||—||—|
|"Sweet Understanding Love"||33||10||41||29|
|1974||"I Just Can't Get You Out of My Mind"||62||18||—||—|
|"One Chain Don't Make No Prison"||41||3||—||—|
|1975||"Seven Lonely Nights"||71||13||—||—|
|"We Gotta All Stick Together"||97||17||—||—|
|1981||"When She Was My Girl"||11||1||9||3|
|"Don't Walk Away"||—||—||—||16|
|1983||"I Believe in You and Me"||—||40||—||—|
|"I Just Can't Walk Away"||71||36||18||—|
|1988||"Reach Out I'll Be There '88"||—||—||—||11|
(Four Tops & Smokey Robinson)
|"Loco in Acapulco"||—||—||—||7|
|"If Ever a Love There Was"
(Aretha Franklin & the Four Tops)