Four Tops

TrackAlbum
Baby I Need Your LovingFour Tops
I Can't Help MyselfFour Tops Second Album
It's The Same Old SongFour Tops Second Album
Loving You Is Sweeter Than EverOn Top
Reach Out I'll Be ThereReach Out
Standing In The Shadows Of LoveReach Out
BernadetteReach Out
Still Water (Love)Still Waters Run Deep
Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got)Keeper Of The Castle
When She Was My GirlTonight

Four Tops photo 2

The Four Tops (l to r): Abdul Fakir, Renaldo Benson, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton – photo: Michael Ochs Archives

 

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Four Tops playlist

 

 

Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

While no longer the band that has gone the longest time without a single line up change, just the fact the Four Tops were made up of the same four men from 1953 to 1997 alone makes them worth taking a look, or listen, to. They can still lay claim to the longest four man band at 44 years, as ZZ Top’s 49 years was achieved with only three men. Golden Earring is the same four guys taking the stage that did so in 1969, but they’ve added a fifth member a couple of different times. A fifth member who has come and gone. So that seems a little like cheating.

Anyway, the Four Tops.

Lead singer Levi Stubbs, along with Lawrence Payton, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Abdul “Duke” Fakir formed the Four Aims in 1953, before eventually changing their name to the Four Tops. As they planned to shoot for the top. And they stayed that way until 1997 when health and old age started to take its toll. And while the last studio release was 1995, Fakir, at 83, still tours along with Payton’s son and Ronnie McNeir, who replaced Stubbs in the late 1990s.

From the early 1950s until the early 1960s, they were a very popular local group in Detroit who couldn’t seem to break out of the local group mold. They recorded some sides for Columbia Records but those went absolutely nowhere. Eventually, after years of trying, like many Detroit vocal groups they found success on Motown Records. They had an amazing run during the years the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland took over the reins and supplied songs for the Tops. The group scored 11 top 20 singles in the US while working with the writing team, who also produced them, and 5 in the UK between 1964 and 1967. And while they recorded another dozen top 40 singles in the US from late 1967 into the 1980s, they were never the same really after that very magical collaboration ended. It wasn’t just the writing that made them special though, The Tops set themselves apart from many of the other Motown male or mixed vocals group by having a baritone, as opposed to a tenor, as the lead singer. It gave them a signature sound the other groups really couldn’t reproduce.

In many ways most Motown group were mixed vocal groups, as many Motown singles used three women known as the Andantes as backing vocalists. They appeared on countless Motown tracks, and practically all the Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown tracks. In the late 1960s they even subbed for some of the Supremes. Unsung heroes, much like Motown backing band, the Funk Brothers, they added an extra layer to the Tops music.

The Four Tops were very much a singles group, with the only album ever cracking the Top 5 in the States being a Greatest Hits compilation. So unlike a lot of groups their Toppermost is filled with “The Hits”. Which is not to say there aren’t some amazing deep tracks. But for all his mistakes in other arenas of owning a label, Berry Gordy knew a hit when he heard it.

The Tops hit a home run out of the gate with their first single Baby I Need Your Loving in 1964. It’s nearly impossible not to recognize the song in the first few seconds. The little drum rumble and then the four of them harmonizing together without the use of actual words. Words and music by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Funk Brothers as the backing band and those four, or should we say seven, voices. It’s truly one of the best songs ever. Certainly, one of the best from that genre and era.

They scored two more classics on their aptly named second album from 1965, Four Tops Second Album. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) used the same winning combination of writers, musicians and vocal group. A little more up tempo than their first big hit, it became their first number 1 in the U.S. Stubbs baritone backed by the other three members harmonizing is fantastic. And the Funk Brothers, especially the sax, really add to the party.

It’s The Same Old Song was subject to some big time marketing. After the Tops had topped the charts with their previous single, Columbia released a single the group had recorded for the label in 1960 (which at the time was a colossal flop) hoping to capitalize on their success. Gordy demanded another Tops’ single be released immediately to counteract Columbia’s release. Somehow the story got around the song had been written and recorded within a 24 hour period. But as a demo of the song by the Supremes, done months earlier, has been found since then the story was clearly false. Probably something Gordy thought up to push the song along. It really didn’t need it. Stubbs’ vocals are so strong in the song, but never overpowering. And again, a really good sax part. Rock ‘n’ roll needs more sax these days. It’s something we are really lacking in 2019.

Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever is the only song on my list that wasn’t a huge hit for the Tops. It stalled just outside the top 40, and was one of the few early singles not written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. The cut, co-written and produced by Ivy Jo Hunter. His co-writer, and the drummer on the track, was a 16-year-old kid named Stevie Wonder. Wonder went on to a pretty solid career himself. But that isn’t the reason it’s on my list. I’ve just always liked the song, no matter who did it.

Reach Out I’ll Be There, from Reach Out (1967), is the second song on my list I’ll boldly call one of the best songs ever. Supposedly, Eddie Holland, the one member of the writing group that wasn’t that involved in the producing, felt that when Stubbs was pushed to the peak of his vocal range there was a sound that strongly suggested pain, so Holland pushed him towards that peak. Also, when he sang “Just look over your shoulder” it wasn’t in the original lyrics. Stubbs improvised that gem during the recording session. Almost a perfect song. The writing team often pushed his gospel flavored vocals to a point where it felt the words were being sung by someone in deep heartache. It isn’t something the group had after the writing team left Motown.

Standing In The Shadows Of Love is another song from Reach Out, possibly the best album of the Motown era. It features a lot of the same sort of arrangements as Reach Out I’ll Be There. But why not? No reason to mess with a good thing.

A third single from the album, Bernadette, is the group’s last top ten from the 1960s and has a spectacular finale. It has essentially a false ending where the Funk Brothers drop out and the other Tops and the Andantes hold their notes before Stubbs shouts “Bernadette”. A bit of a trick perhaps, but devastatingly effective.

It was around this time that Gordy got into a really badly managed argument with Holland-Dozier-Holland over songwriting royalties; a very bad move on his part as, although the Tops managed to find gold a few more times in their career, it was never as consistent as it was with the songwriting team.

At this point Motown pushed them towards some covers, with varying degrees of success. They had a couple sneak into the Top 20 in the late 1960s with songs like If I Were A Carpenter and Walk Away Renée. But it didn’t have the same Tops magic,

Motown has a couple other aces, songwriting-wise, up its sleeve though. In 1970, the Tops recorded a Smokey Robinson tune called Still Water (Love). It’s a whole different sound for the group, and although written, and produced, by Smokey and Frank Wilson, parts of it had a real Marvin Gaye feel for me.

A year or so after the single, which was their biggest hit in three years, Gordy decided to move the label to Los Angeles and decreed all artists had to follow. A few acts, the Four Tops and the Funk Brothers being the biggest, declined. The Tops then left Motown for ABC. There, after working with a few producers first, Payton started producing the group. He even took lead vocals on a few songs.

Their first album for ABC was a big hit, producing two Top 10 singles. One being their last classic single, Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got). Most bands are lucky to have one out and out classic, the Tops had at last three. It’s a great song, but unfortunately, their last one for some time. After the single Are You Man Enough off the Shaft In Africa soundtrack the following year, the Tops only managed one more top twenty single over 25 or so years covering around 15 albums. A return to Motown, and a battle of the band segment with the Temptations on Motown’s 25th Anniversary Special convinced the two bands that it was in both of their best interests to go out on tour together. A practice that is still going on today in 2019. It was on one of those tours, sometime in the mid 80s, that I actually got to see the original Tops lineup perform along with the Temptations, who brought along two original members in Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and, very important to the group’s legacy, Dennis Edwards.

In 1981, the Four Tops released When She Was My Girl, which was their last big hit and deservedly so. It may not have been as good as their best work from the 1960s, but it was certainly a standout in the R&B world of America in the early 1980s. Stubbs’ voice was still strong as ever and the Tops were in sync as much as they had ever been. They scored a few more minor hits on the R&B charts, and broke into the top 40 one last time in the late 80s with a song recorded with Smokey Robinson. But for the most part they never came close to the amazing run from 1964 to 1967.

Their luck held in other ways. In December of 1988, the band was scheduled to return to the U.S. for the Christmas holiday on Pan Am Flight 103 after the end of a European tour. They overslept, after working on a Top Of The Pops segment late into the night, and missed the flight, which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland after a terrorist bombing.

Payton succumbed to cancer in 1997, and the three remaining members toured for two years as The Tops before Theo Peoples came over from the Temptations. McNeir replaced Stubbs, who also lost a battle to cancer, and the band hasn’t recorded a studio album since.

But from 1964-1967, with the Funk Brothers, the Andantes and Holland-Dozier-Holland, there was absolutely nobody better.

 

 

Levi Stubbs (1936–2008)

Renaldo Benson (1936–2005)

Lawrence Payton (1938–1997)

 

Four Tops poster

 

Four Tops facebook

Four Tops discography

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: The Four Tops

The Andantes (Wikipedia page)

Four Tops biography (iTunes)

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital” published in 2018 by The History Press. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Calvin has written on many artists for this site including Gene Clark, Nanci Griffith, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk.

Read the posts on some of the other Motown artists on this site:
Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, Marvelettes, Temptations, Stevie Wonder

TopperPost #795

9 Comments

  1. Mick Tarrant
    Jun 10, 2019

    Great overview of their career, much enjoyed the read. Agreed on the “Still Water” song, elements of the new Motown sound (introduced by Marvin Gaye) definitely present. I would have loved to see them take their music in that direction. Meanwhile, gotta get in an honourable mention of this extended mix of “Ask the Lonely”, Levi’s vocal so emotional.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 10, 2019

    Calvin. A superb Toppermost. Brilliant singers, great songs – what more could you ask for?

  3. David Lewis
    Jun 10, 2019

    Loved this article. In fact, you could say ‘how many of the Motown acts of the mid sixties really were the best?’ ‘Four, tops’.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Jun 10, 2019

    Did strike me that Smokey and The Miracles might be in there as competition for the very best of the Motown groups.
    And, if I had to pick my all-time favourite Motown song by a group, a few of theirs and ‘Just My Imagination’ by the Temptations might be in the mix.

  5. Alex Lifson
    Jun 10, 2019

    Great list. Even though The Band covered “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”, it does not hold a candle to the Tops’ version. Also did not know that Stevie Wonder co-wrote it. Great essay.

  6. Peter Viney
    Jun 11, 2019

    I agree with your list. Excellent, and I agree with Alex that The Band’s ‘Lovin’ You Is sweeter than ever’ doesn’t get near The Four Tops. Also that Reach Out is one of the greatest soul singles. But I’d have to have an 11th, Walk Away Renee. It is partly a UK / US difference as The Left Banke version was never a British hit, so we know and love The Four Tops cover.
    I’m glad you avoided Loco in Acapulco. And 7 Rooms of Gloom, which a friend’s band did and it never really worked. It started me thinking back, and “Shake Me, Wake Me” may not get in the Ten but is worthy of consideration.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Jun 12, 2019

    Speaking of ‘Lovin’ You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ I would put in a word for Marvin’s great cover:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCElTZHGAT4

  8. David Lewis
    Jun 12, 2019

    The other thing which I didn’t know was the longevity of the band. An incredible effort. ZZ Top has often bragged of its longevity but as you say it’s a trio. Queen had 22 years making them new boys. I suspect the Bee Gees are up there but Robin left at one point. Just incredible. And kudos to Golden Earring too.

  9. Dave Stephens
    Jun 16, 2019

    A great Topper, Calvin. I’ve never forgotten the fact that, at the height of the US West Coast psych era in the late sixties to which I succumbed, hook, line and sinker, I also went out and bought a Four Tops best-of LP, having also fallen for the “Reach Out” single. And I can assure you that that LP got played with high regularity. The Tops are often characterised as more muscular than other Motown groups but they, more than the others, showed stronger continuity to previous R&B vocal groups cf. King era Drifters “There Goes My Baby”.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓