The Four Tops

            When people think of Motown and the myriad of popular musical groups that were coming out of Detroit during the 1960s, many names may come to mind. Among those names should be Levi Stubbs, Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, and Lawrence Payton. This was the original lineup of the Four Tops, although their lineup would change over the years. For instance, the death of Lawrence Payton in 1997 led to his replacement by Theo Peoples, formerly of the Temptations. However, it is safe to say that the hits for which they are most commonly associated are not from the late 1990s, but rather from the earliest years of their career.

Like many Motown groups, the Four Tops had humble beginnings. Originally known as the Four Aims, they generally performed on street corners or at school dances. In fact, the first event at which the original four members of the group performed together was a simple birthday party. The quartet did not even have a name until after they had already sung together. They quickly decided to sign with a record company in 1956, changing their name to the Four Tops out of respect for the Ames Brothers. Berry Gordy, producer and manager of Motown, discovered the young singers in 1963 through a connection with Lawrence Payton’s cousin, songwriter Roquel Davis.

The Four Tops were known for their versatility, able to sing virtually any style that could accommodate a four-party harmony. They knew gospel, R&B, and the standard doo wop songs with which Motown had become largely associated in its earlier years. Levi Stubbs was often the front man of the group, with a highly recognizable voice and an amazing vocal range. If any one member of the group needed to stand out, it was usually Stubbs. Yet he was still able to blend with his fellow singers to create the harmonies needed for many of their hits.

One of the major contributors to the success of the Four Tops was that they usually had quality writers behind them. The legendary songwriting team of Holland, Dozier and Holland was responsible for hits such as “Bernadette,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” The team was also responsible for one of the most popular Four Tops numbers of all time, “Baby I Need Your Loving.” The group also popularized the song “Still Water (Love),” written for them by Frank Wilson and Smokey Robinson. In 1973, they recorded “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got),” another highly successful tune.

The Four Tops did not become legends without a great deal of hard work. Bear in mind that they were up against big-name competitors such as the Miracles and the Temptations, but they still managed to carve out a place for themselves on the charts and in the hearts and minds of American music-lovers. Most of these groups relished each other’s success, becoming fast friends rather than bitter rivals. According to Smokey Robinson, the Tops were as generous in personality as they were gifted in song.

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