The Four Tops
Levi Stubbs – circa 1964
“It’s the same old song / But with a different meaning since you’ve been gone” – ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ (Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland)
There’s a secret to the performance of Levi Stubbs, the lead vocalist of African-American vocal group The Four Tops. Stubbs is a naturally deep-voiced baritone, yet he is asked to sing in the high range of a tenor. This produces a straining effect that gives the songs of The Four Tops their distinctively urgent feeling.
Levi Stubbs (born Levi Stubbles, 6 June 1936 – 17 October 2008) grows up in Detroit, Michigan, in the United States of America. He attends Pershing High School and it is there he meets Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir (born 26 December 1936). Duke’s rather exotic real name is a legacy of his Bangladeshi and Ethiopian ancestry. Duke explains that “Levi and I came together by playing football in the neighbourhood, but I didn’t know he was a singer then.” It’s only after he sees Levi perform in a talent contest that Duke learns of his friend’s vocal ability. Although Levi is quite a burly character, he claims that “All I really want to do is sing.” Duke is an athlete in school, playing football and basketball and running in the track team. Levi tags along and the two often encourage cheerleaders and teammates to sing along with them. From these experiences, the two boys begin to get more serious about their singing ambitions. They form a vocal quartet with a couple of other guys, but it doesn’t work out so well and soon Levi and Duke are on their own.
At nearby Northern High School in Detroit, another pair of students are nursing their own dreams about becoming famous singers. Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson (14 June 1936 – 1 July 2005) and Lawrence Payton (2 March 1938 – 20 June 1997) are their names.
In 1953 Levi Stubbs, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson and Lawrence Payton find themselves all attending the birthday party of a mutual friend. “In those days there was always a group singing at those parties,” recalls Duke. The four youths sing together for the first time at this party. They like the collective sound of their voices and decide to work together as a vocal quartet.
“From 1954 to 1956, it was The Four Aims,” ‘Duke’ Fakir says. They came up with the name because, as Duke puts it, “We were shooting for the stars, aiming for something.”
Roquel Davis, Lawrence Payton’s cousin, sometimes sings with the group in the early days. He helps them get an audition with Chess Records in 1956. Roquel Davis is a budding songwriter and Chess are actually more interested in signing him to a contract…but they also sign up The Four Aims. Chess have a problem with the group’s name though. They are worried that The Four Aims will be confused with The Ames Brothers, a white vocal act. The group’s musical director, Maurice King, talks it over with the quartet. They restate that they chose the name because they are aiming high. King suggests they are aiming for the top and offers The Four Tops as a new cognomen and the foursome agrees. The Four Tops release just one single for Chess, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ in 1956, and it is ‘an unequivocal flop.’
Over the next few years, The Four Tops wander around the industry, recording for various labels. They pass through the hands of Singular, Red Top, and Riverside. Although their fortunes are poor at all these enterprises, The Four Tops are popular with Detroit audiences attending their shows. One such fan is Lamont Dozier. He will soon have an important role to play in the story of The Four Tops.
In 1960 The Four Tops move to Columbia Records. Here they are pushed in ‘a supper club direction, singing jazz and pop standards. This too fails.’
In 1963, Berry Gordy, the boss of Motown Records, takes on The Four Tops. He places them on Motown’s ‘jazz-oriented Workshop subsidiary’ imprint. An album, to be titled ‘Breaking Through’ is completed, but Gordy scraps it and wisely has The Four Tops return to a more rhythm and blues-influenced style on the main Motown label itself. It is melodic pop music, but with some underlying grit.
Berry Gordy had worked on an automobile assembly line in a Detroit car factory. He bought a record store and branched into songwriting. He began independently producing songs and leasing them to Chess Records, The Four Tops’ former home. In 1960 he released his first single on his own Tamla label. Motown is created soon after and is sometimes known as Tamla Motown. The ‘Motown’ sobriquet is a contraction of ‘motor town’, in recognition of Detroit’s reputation as the home of the U.S.A.’s motor car industry.
Significantly, Berry Gordy is an African-American and so are the acts on Motown. This is one of the earliest examples of a music business owned by an African-American and featuring African-American acts. Yet Gordy pushes Motown as ‘The Sound of Young America’, not ‘The Sound of Black America.’ It may be African-American, but it wants to sell records to everyone, everywhere, rather than being stuck in a ‘ghetto’, seen as a specialised label peddling ‘race’ records. Levi Stubbs observes that “When Motown first started, it was more of a family-oriented thing which made it different from any other record company in the world.”
Berry Gordy hands The Four Tops to the songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (HDH). Brian and Eddie Holland are siblings. Eddie Holland had a brief career at Motown as a vocalist, starting in 1962, before switching to behind-the-scenes work. Lamont Dozier, as may be recalled, was a fan of The Four Tops back in the late 1950s. He became involved in the local music scene and joined Motown without really making his mark until he joined forces with the Holland brothers. The first gig for HDH is working with female vocal group Martha And The Vandellas in April 1963. In July 1964, The Supremes (another female vocal act) are turned into Motown’s highest-profile act thanks, in part, to HDH. One month after that breakthrough, in August 1964 HDH furnish The Four Tops with their first hit single. “Those guys were phenomenal,” Levi Stubbs says, gratefully acknowledging the contribution of HDH.
As a purely vocal group, The Four Tops also require musicians to play on their recordings. Almost like Detroit’s automotive industry, Motown has a virtual assembly line of its own. A cadre of regular musicians are wheeled through sessions for just about all of Motown’s acts. Latterly, this collective of musicians comes to be known as The Funk Brothers. The shifting aggregation includes: Robert White (guitar), Joe Messina (guitar), Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson, Sr. (bass) and Benny Benjamin (drums).
In summary, what is heard on records by The Four Tops is not just the vocal quartet, but the songwriting and production of HDH and the playing of The Funk Brothers.
Amongst The Four Tops themselves, Levi Stubbs is clearly the main voice. Motown’s other well-known male vocal group, The Temptations, switched back and forth from Eddie Kendricks’ high voice to David Ruffin’s lower voice. With The Four Tops, the focus is set on Levi Stubbs. His ‘rough, sanctified tones’ never disappoint. Yet, for all that he is the star of the show, Stubbs never accepts star billing or considers parting with his comrades to go solo. “I couldn’t possible conceive [of] that,” he says, without hesitation. When The Four Tops finally achieve commercial success, they have already been working as a group for a decade.
The Four Tops first showing at Motown is as backing vocalists for The Supremes on the latter’s ‘When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’ in September 1963. This is, naturally, a HDH job.
The first hit for The Four Tops is ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ (US no. 11) in August 1964. The HDH lyrics give Levi Stubbs a good showcase for his agonised singing style: “Although you’re never near / Your voice I often hear / Another day, another night / I long to hold you tight / ‘Cos I’m so alone.” It’s hard to say which soars higher, the violins in the background or The Tops precision backing vocals. With this beachhead, The Four Tops (and HDH) begin a string of hits.
The follow-up, ‘Without The One You Love (Life’s Not Worthwhile)’ backed with ‘Love Has Gone’ is launched in November 1964. It’s much less successful, but the group soon recovers.
The debut album, ‘Four Tops’ (1965) (UK no. 2), is released in January 1965. As well as ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’, it is home to the third single, February’s ‘Ask The Lonely’ (US no. 24). This melodramatic piece improves on the second single, even if it doesn’t equal the first. ‘Ask The Lonely’ is penned by Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Hunter, two other regularly employed songwriters in the Motown machine.
The real rebound comes with ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’ (US no. 1, UK no. 10) in May 1965. “In and out of my life / You come and you go,” mourns Levi Stubbs, “Leaving just your picture behind / And I’ve kissed it a thousand times.” The melancholy lyrical tone is totally contradicted by an addictive piano riff, a rattling tambourine, and a hooting saxophone break. It is probably this musical quality that fills dance floors, even if those gyrating about are paying little attention to the words. Part of Berry Gordy’s philosophy at Motown ‘dictates follow-ups that only slightly alter the elements of the previous hit.’ Some fun is had with this by HDH when The Four Tops’ next single, in August 1965, is ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ (US no. 5, UK no. 34), a ‘cheery rewrite’ of ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’. At least they are honest about it – and it is too successful (and enjoyable) to argue against. Both these sound-alike tracks are on ‘The Four Tops Second Album’ (1965) (US no. 20) issued in November – and its title is another triumph for truth in advertising. An additional single is pulled from this disc in the same month, ‘Something About You’ (US no. 19). An itchy rhythm guitar chases a honking saxophone through this tale of the mystique that keeps a woman attractive.
March 1966 sees the release of the single ‘Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)’ (US no. 18). Insistent drum beats and bass piano keys accompany Levi Stubbs as he sings “All through this long and sleepless night I hear my neighbours talkin’ (She don’t love him) / Saying that out of my life and into another’s you’ll soon be walkin’.” In June, Ivy Hunter shares songwriting duties with young Motown star Stevie Wonder for The Four Tops’ dreamy ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ (US no. 45, UK no. 21). Both of these songs are included on the album ‘On Top’ (1966) (UK no. 9) issued in July.
The single released by The Four Tops in September is their all-time best. ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) has a whistling upper register and a palpitating rhythm below. Amidst backing grunts and yells, Levi Stubbs exhorts “Now if you feel that you can’t go on / Because all of your hope is gone / Darlin’…reach out.” He gives an electrifying yelp of “Reach out for me!” This song is described as a ‘landmark record’, ‘undoubtedly their best’, a ‘virtual soul symphony’ and the ‘creative peak of the group’s career and one of Motown’s finest singles ever.’ Legendary record producer Phil Spector calls it ‘black Dylan’, a reference to 1960s rock icon Bob Dylan, an artist renowned for his lyrical depth and inventive musical style.
‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love’ (US no. 6, UK no. 6) in December 1966 continues this dramatic new approach. Despite the singer “Getting ready for the heartaches to come,” he petitions, “Didn’t I treat you right, now baby, didn’t I? / Didn’t I do the best I could now, didn’t I?”
The Four Tops head into 1967 with ‘Bernadette’ (US no. 4, UK no. 8) b/w ‘I Got A Feeling’ in March. The A side tells the woman of the title, “Some go on searching their whole lives through / And never find the love I found in you.” But insecurities plague the narrator. “They pretend to be friends,” he says of male acquaintances while fearing “They want you…Other men long to control you.” Benson, Payton and Fakir chorus “Aah-aah-aah” in the background. The flipside, ‘I Got A Feeling’, has an energetic swing to it: “I’m crazy ‘bout you love, buttercup / Your kind of love I can’t get enough.” ‘7 Rooms Of Gloom’ (US no. 14, UK no. 12) in June is ‘a frantic heart on sleeve melodrama’: “I see a house / A house of stone / A lonely house / ‘Cos now you’re gone.” Another 1967 hit is the groovy, psychedelic ‘You Keep Running Away’ (US no. 19, UK no. 26).
‘Reach Out’ (1967) (US no. 14, UK no. 6), released in July, is The Four Tops’ best album. It brings together a run of fine singles – ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love’, ‘Bernadette’ and ‘7 Rooms Of Gloom’ – as well as the toe-tapping ‘I’ll Turn To Stone’. The album includes a number of cover versions. This is attributed to the group’s hectic schedule creating a shortfall in new original material. The tunes selected are surprising since they are mostly white folk rock contemporary tunes – hardly the kind of material with which The Four Tops are associated. They assay two 1967 hits for The Monkees, ‘I’m A Believer’ and ‘Last Train To Clarksville’; Time Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, a hit for Bobby Darin in 1966; The Association’s ‘Cherish’ from 1966; and The Left Banke’s ‘Walk Away Renee’ from 1966. The Four Tops’ versions of ‘Walk Away Renee’ (US no. 14, UK no. 3) and ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ (US no. 20, UK no. 7) are released as singles in, respectively, December 1967 and March 1968.
The Four Tops’ next album is ‘Yesterday’s Dream’ (1968). The title track, ‘Yesterday’s Dream’ (US no. 49, UK no. 23), is issued as a single. ‘I’m In A Different World’ (US no. 51, UK no. 27), also from this album, is released in October. ‘I’m In A Different World’ is the last Four Tops single from Holland-Dozier-Holland. The trio leaves Motown to start their own Invictus Records. Levi Stubbs comments, “To say we were shocked when HDH split from Motown would be like saying you’re surprised after your home burns down.” This heralds ‘a rough couple of years when top-drawer material is in short supply.’
In 1969 The Four Tops offer the albums ‘Four Tops Now’ (1969) and ‘Soul Spin’ (1969). Three singles are issued: ‘What Is A Man’ (US no. 53, UK no. 16), ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ (UK no. 11) and ‘Don’t Let Him Take Your Love From Me’ (US no. 45).
Frank Wilson takes over production duties for The Four Tops and this results in ‘a resurgence’ in their fortunes. It begins with the album ‘Still Waters’ (1970) (US no. 21) in March. Then comes a cover of Tommy Edwards’ ‘pop standard’ from 1951, ‘It’s All In The Game’ (US no. 24, UK no. 5) in May 1970. ‘Still Water (Love)’ (US no. 11, UK no. 10) in September, is a single that uses Levi Stubbs’ deepest voice for a ‘meditative’ number. Another album is released that year, ‘Changing Times’ (1970).
Fellow Motown vocal group The Supremes are now without their lead vocalist, Diana Ross. The three girls carrying on as The Supremes join forces with The Four Tops for a trio of albums: ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1970), ‘The Return Of The Magnificent Seven’ (1971) and ‘Dynamite’ (1971). A cover of the 1966 Ike And Tina Turner hit, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ (US no. 14, UK no. 11), from the first of these joint projects is a popular song.
On their own, The Four Tops 1971 releases include the singles ‘Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)’ (US no. 40, UK no. 36), ‘Simple Game’ and ‘MacArthur Park (Part II)’ (US no. 38), and the album ‘MacArthur Park’ (1971).
Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson of The Four Tops co-writes Marvin Gaye’s watershed 1971 hit song ‘What’s Goin’ On’.
After a singing in the shower opening, ‘Walk With Me, Talk With Me, Darling’ turns into an energetic clap-along piece punctuated by horns. This comes from ‘Nature Planned It’ (1972), the final Four Tops album for some time on Motown Records. Motown relocates its head office from Detroit to Los Angeles and this proves to be the last straw for the Detroit natives, The Four Tops, who have struggled since the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland.
The Four Tops find a new home at ABC Records where Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter ‘do their best to re-create the group’s trademark Motown sound.’ For this label, The Four Tops record the albums ‘Keeper Of The Castle’ (1972) (US no. 33), ‘Main Street People’ (1973), ‘Meeting Of The Minds’ (1974), ‘Night Lights Harmony’ (1975), ‘Catfish’ (1976), ‘The Show Must Go On’ (1977) and ‘At The Top’ (1978). Their most successful singles from the 1970s are ‘Keeper Of The Castle’ (US no. 10, UK no. 18) in 1972, and two 1973 songs, ‘Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)’ (US no. 4) and ‘Are You Man Enough’ (US no. 15). The last-named single is featured in the movie ‘Shaft In Africa’.
The Four Tops move to Casablanca Records in the 1980s. The 1981 single, ‘When She Was My Girl’ (US no. 11, UK no. 3), is the best thing they’ve done in years. Its parent album, ‘Tonight’ (1981) (US no. 37), is ‘a classy collection of relaxed pop-soul songs.’ However it’s also their last album to make the Top Forty charts. Another single, ‘Don’t Walk Away’, in 1982, is followed by the album, ‘One More Mountain’ (1982). They return to Motown for ‘Back Where I Belong’ (1983) and ‘Magic’ (1985) but ‘wind up leaving Motown amid confusion over proper musical direction.’
In 1986 Levi Stubbs provides the voice for Audrey II, the man-eating plant, in the film version of the musical ‘Little Shop of Horrors’.
The Four Tops release one album, ‘Indestructible’ (1988), on Arista Records. The single, ‘Indestructible’ (US no. 35, UK no. 55) is their last hit. The Four Tops return to Motown for ‘Christmas Here With You’ (1995).
Lawrence Payton dies from liver cancer on 20 June 1997. For a while, the surviving members carry on as a three-piece under the name of The Tops. Theo Peoples (born Theopolis Peoples III, 21 January 1961) replaces Lawrence Payton in 1998. After Levi Stubbs suffers a stroke, he steps aside and Ronnie McNair (born 14 December 1951) joins the act in June 1999. However McNair does not become lead vocalist; Theo Peoples is promoted to that position. Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson dies of lung cancer on 1 July 2005. Roquel Payton, the son of the late Lawrence Payton, is brought in to fill out the ranks of The Four Tops. The retired Levi Stubbs, suffering from cancer, dies in his sleep on 17 October 2008. Theo Peoples leaves The Four Tops in 2011, making way for Harold ‘Spike’ Bonhart. Only one of the original crew, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, is still alive and touring with The Four Tops.
From 1953 to 1997, forty-four years, The Four Tops went without a single change in membership. “We just like each other,” Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir once claimed. A bond established when they were schoolboys held The Four Tops together. Yet, their success was also the success of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (HDH). Until HDH entered the picture, The Four Tops were going nowhere. After they left, The Four Tops were only fitfully interesting. Although The Supremes combination with The Four Tops may have used the title of ‘The Magnificent Seven’, the real magnificent seven was The Four Tops and HDH. Levi Stubbs vocals were the hallmark of this potent combination. ‘The Four Tops, in their time, produced some superb and memorable music, much of which has achieved classic status.’ ‘Built around lead singer Levi Stubbs’ dramatic, piercing vocal delivery, The Tops – HDH hits came nonstop for almost four years.’
- wikipedia.org as at 17 June 2013
- ‘All Things Considered’ (U.S. radio program, Hawaii Public Radio) – Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir interview conducted by Dave Lawrence (August 2010)
- allmusic.com, ‘Four Tops’ by Steve Huey as at 28 July 2013
- ‘American Bandstand’ (U.S. television program) – The Four Tops interview conducted by Dick Clark (1981)
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 87
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Motown’ by Joe McEwen, Jim Miller (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 280, 281, 282, 286, 290, 291
- ‘Blues & Soul’ magazine, Issue 1061 – Levi Stubbs interview conducted by Pete Lewis (October 1992) (reproduced on bluesandsoul.com)
- ‘Soul Legends – Four Tops’ – Sleeve notes by Lois Wilson (Universal Music International, 2006) p. 2, 3, 4
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 86, 98, 148, 240, 290, 291
Song lyrics copyright Jobete Music Co. with the exceptions of ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ and ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ (both Stone Agate Music Corp.
Last revised 19 November 2013