On March 2, 1938, Lawrence Payton was born in Detroit, Michigan, one of 11 children. His name may not come to mind as one of pop music’s greatest singers, but with Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Levi Stubbs, he was one-fourth of one of the greatest and most enduring acts in pop music history.
The four were friends at Detroit’s Northern High School who originally got together in 1953 to sing at a birthday party. At the urging of their friends, they decided to continue singing together, and signed a deal with Chicago’s Chess Records in 1956. They had been performing as the Four Aimes for three years, but when they signed to Chess, the label suggested they change their name to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers, a popular white act. That’s when they became the Four Tops.
For the next seven years, the ‘Tops recorded for a number of labels, including Columbia, but couldn’t buy a hit. To keep themselves alive, they toured constantly and continued to develop their stage act. Finally, in 1963, Berry Gordy convinced them to sign with his new record company, Motown. The rest, as they say, is history.
Even Motown wasn’t sure what direction the group should go, and they spent the first couple of years with the label recording jazz tunes and singing backup for other performers. That changed in 1964, when Motown let the ‘Tops record a tune from their master songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland…the classic “Baby, I Need Your Loving.” The song features the voice of each of the Four Tops, but when Levi Stubbs took control of the last verse, there was no doubt that the group would help Motown make history.
The Four Tops continued to tour through the 1960’s, and kept cranking out hit after hit for Motown. After the the beautiful “Ask The Lonely” made it into the Top 40, their first #1 came in June, 1965 with the smash “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”. The rest of 1965 and early 1966 continued to be a great period for the ‘Tops, with hits like “It’s The Same Old Song”, “Something About You”, “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)”, and more from the Holland-Dozier-Holland hit-making machine.
August, 1966, was a defining moment for the Four Tops, and in pop music history, in the form of Motown single #M-1098. The Holland-Dozier-Holland team had come up with a grand slam called “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”. The Funk Brothers (Motown’s group of studio musicians) provided an incredibly unique sound for the track, and Stubbs’ vocals alternate between singing and shouting. The rest of the ‘Tops, along with the female group The Andantes, provide the perfect background blend (just check out the incredible a capella mix included at the end of this entry). Thus, the Four Tops’ signature song was born.
The Tops continued taking songs into the charts for the rest of the 60’s, with classics like “Bernadette” and “Standing In The Shadows of Love”. But by the early 1970’s, Motown had announced that it was moving operations from Detroit to Los Angeles. Their older artists, who were already feeling neglected, were told that they had to move to LA in order to stay with the label. A few acts chose to stay behind in Detroit, including the Four Tops. The group left Motown as a result, and signed with ABC-Dunhill Records where they revived their career by taking songs like “Keeper of the Castle” and “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got)” into the Top 10. The early 70’s were good to them, but by the middle of the decade, the hits once again were slow in coming. After signing with Casablanca Records in 1980, they had their last big hit with “When She Was My Girl”.
The group continued to perform, including successful tours with the Temptations. But age and declining health were starting to take their toll. Lawrence Payton was the first to pass in 1997 from liver cancer. Around 2000, Levi Stubbs was unable to continue touring due to cancer, but it was Obie Benson who was the next to pass, in 2005, as a result of lung cancer. After suffering a stroke, the great Levi Stubbs died in 2008. Duke Fakir, the only surviving original member, still tours with a group of ‘Tops that includes Lawrence Payton’s son, Roquel.
It’s an incredible story for an incredible group. They performed together for 44 years without a membership change. They had 18 Top 20 hits, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and have received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In my opinion, if they had just given the world “Reach Out”, “Bernadette” and “Ask The Lonely”, that would have been plenty.