The Four Tops

  • R&B/Soul vocal quartet from Detroit Michigan formed in 1953. The original members of the group were Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton. Fakir is the lone surviving member, still performing with Ronnie McNeir, Alexander Morris and Lawrence Payton Jr. (son of original member Lawrence Payton).
  • Stubbs and Fakir were high school students at Detroit’s Pershing High, while Benson and Payton were classmates at Northern High. They met at a birthday party, and they were encouraged to sing together. They felt an immediate chemistry, and they continued to rehearse together, calling themselves the Four Aims. Payton’s cousin had connections in the music industry, and in 1956 they were signed to a recording contract. They changed the name of the group to the Four Tops, to avoid confusion with the vocal quartet The Ames Brothers.
  • From 1956 to 1962, they released four singles, but they were unable to make a hit record. In 1963, Barry Gordy convinced them to join Motown Records. During their early years there, they recorded jazz standards for an album that was scrapped, and they sang backup for other Motown artists. In 1964, Motown decided to return them to R&B, and they were given a song that they took to #11 on the Hot 100 chart – Baby I Need Your Loving. The success of the single led to their debut studio album, the self-titled Four Tops. The album topped the R&B albums chart, and two more singles charted – Without the One You Love (Life’s Not Worth While) and Ask the Lonely. 
  • The group released 13 more albums with Motown between 1965 and 1972, including three that were collaborative albums with The Supremes. Twenty-five singles from these albums charted on the Hot 100, including #1 singles I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and Reach Out I’ll Be There. Both of these songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Other major hits were It’s the Same Old Song (#5 on the Hot 100, #2 on the R&B chart), Standing in the Shadows of Love (#6 and #2 respectively) and Bernadette (#4 and #3).
  • In 1972, they left Motown Records when the label moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. They signed with another label, and they released nine albums from 1972 to 1982. While not as popular as their earlier work, they managed top ten hits with Keeper of the Castle and Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got). Seven other singles reached the top ten of the R&B chart, including When She Was My Girl, which topped the R&B chart in 1982.
  • In 1983, they rejoined Motown and released three albums between 1983 and 1986, and a studio album with another label in 1988. Their final studio album was a Christmas album with Motown in 1995. They continued to perform in concert, with plenty of past hits to make their concerts popular. They often toured with other 60s musical acts, and for many years, they have toured with the Temptations.
  • The original lineup performed together for 44 years, until the death of Lawrence Payton of liver cancer in 1997. Stubbs left the group in the early 00s after a stroke, and he briefly performed in a wheelchair with the group at their 50th anniversary concert in 2004. He died in 2008. Benson performed until 2005, when he died of lung cancer. Fakir still performs today, in his mid-80s.
  • On Rolling Stones’ list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the Four Tops had four songs make the list – Baby I Need Your Loving, I Can’t Help Myself, Reach Out I’ll Be There and Standing in the Shadows of Love. 
  • While only receiving one Grammy nomination for their work, the group received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Rolling Stone ranked them at #79 in the Greatest Artists of All Time list in 2010. During the days when R&B music was defined by Motown, the Four Tops was the premier group for the label, along with the Temptations, the Miracles and the Supremes. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ll go with Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got) and Reach Out (I’ll Be There). Here’s the Four Tops performing the latter in 1966 on The Ed Sullivan Show.

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