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Four Tops

Motown soul group legends don’t come much greater than the mighty FOUR TOPS, an integral part of the “Big 4” alongside The TEMPTATIONS, The SUPREMES and SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES; and for the R&B-fixated 60s, downtown Detroit was the place to be. Guaranteeing a lifetime of airplay for their heartache-honed harmonies on `Baby I Need Your Loving’, `I Can’t Help Myself’ (their inaugural chart-topper), `Reach Out I’ll Be There’ (their second!), `Standing In The Shadows Of Love’, `Bernadette’, `Walk Away Renee’ and many, many more, booming baritone Levi Stubbs and the ‘Tops rolled off hit after hit from the Tamla Motown conveyor belt. British indie-folk icon BILLY BRAGG put his take on their most prominent star, delivering an equally emotional `Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ to the UK charts in 1986; that same year, saw Levi, himself, shoot out from the buds of Audrey, the man-eating plant in the movie musical of Little Shop Of Horrors.
Way back in 1953, high school students Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo “Obie” Benson performed together as a vocal group at a friend’s birthday party. Deciding to take it a dance-step further, the Detroit, Michigan teenagers formed as The Four Aims. But after only one single, `If Only I Had Known’, and in order to avoid confusion with the clean-cut trad-pop Ames Brothers, the quartet subsequently changed their name to The FOUR TOPS, cutting a further platter, `Could It Be You?’ – penned by Payton’s cousin Roquel “Billy” Davis – (b/w `Kiss Me Baby’) for the burgeoning Chess independent in 1956.
Forced out to the margins of the industry while other similar vocal acts began their trek towards stardom, Columbia Records gave The FOUR TOPS another lifeline in 1960, but in Stubbs’ `Ain’t That Love’ (a minor hit in ‘65), their time had not yet arrived. It was much the same a few years on when Riverside Records of New York pushed out the crossover doo-wop soul of `Pennies From Heaven’.
Happily hopping on the Motown gravy train to successville, the FOUR TOPS were picked up by long-time acquaintance, Berry Gordy Jr., to sign for his hot-to-trot Motown operation. As astute as ever, Gordy paired them up with his crack writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. The resultant `Baby I Need Your Loving’ (reputedly the inspiration for the Mann/Weil-penned RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS classic, `You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’) narrowly missed the Top 10 in autumn 1964. This served notice that Gordy and Motown had yet another ace up their sleeve in their bid for total domination of the pop/soul scene as the 60s began to swing into action. The song also unveiled the emotionally fired-up tour de force that was Stubbs in full vocal flight, singing his pain against the towering harmonies of Messrs Benson, Payton and Fakir. Further Top 50 entries, `Without The One You Love (Life’s Not Worth While)’ and `Ask The Lonely’, previewed the slightly underrated eponymous debut LP, FOUR TOPS (1965) {*6}, which introduced other songsmiths Ivy Jo Hunter and William “Mickey” Stevenson.
Summer ‘65 found the vocal quartet top of the charts as the glorious `I Can’t Help Myself’ (also No.23 in the UK) worked its soulful magic. `It’s The Same Old Song’ stirred up the pot again when it cracked the Top 5, while `Something About You’ made it three hits in succession from the appropriately-titled SECOND ALBUM (1965) {*7}. Once again dominated by the HDH scribes and the outstanding instrumental in-session players, The FUNK BROTHERS, the Tops’ “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” charm had struck a cord.
After the quartet enhanced their chart CV by way of `Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)’ and `Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ (the latter co-penned with STEVIE WONDER), FOUR TOPS ON TOP (1966) {*5} appealed more to fans in Britain than in their homeland States. Lighter in its lounge-soul array of supper-club staples such as Cole Porter’s `In The Still Of The Night’, ANTONIO CARLOS JOBIM’s `Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars’ and the standard `Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ (and that could include The BEATLES’ `Michelle’), the game of two halves was thankfully balanced with a side-long serving of Holland-Dozier-Holland songs.
The FOUR TOPS duly touched their dramatic peak with transatlantic No.1, `Reach Out I’ll Be There’, a soul symphony of epic proportions that remains their signature tune. The formula was almost repeated at the turn of the year with `Standing In The Shadows Of Love’; again achieving similar sales on both sides of the big pond (No.6 in fact). Meanwhile, FOUR TOPS LIVE! (1966) {*6}, kept their motor running and, alongside an array of hits, introduced fresh readings of musical, nostalgia, pop and folk standards in `Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, `If I Had A Hammer’, `It’s Not Unusual’, `I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ and `The Girl From Ipanema’.
On the other side of the spectrum, the hits just kept coming; `Bernadette’, `7 Rooms Of Gloom’ and `You Keep Running Away’ making up for their drastic turn of show-tunes by way of the Frank Wilson-produced ON BROADWAY (1967) {*4}.
1967’s REACH OUT {*8} restored some of the faith bestowed upon them by their younger audience. Showcasing all their most recent hits (including one to come, `Walk Away Renee’ from the pens of The LEFT BANKE), the ‘Tops could be forgiven for a few pop crossover foibles in TIM HARDIN’s `If I Were A Carpenter’ (another Top 20 hit-to-be), SMOKEY ROBINSON’s `Wonderful Baby’, The ASSOCIATION’s `Cherish’ and two that made The MONKEES famous: `Last Train To Clarksville’ and `I’m A Believer’.
Looking to their present predicament when Messrs Holland-Dozier-Holland bailed from Motown to kickstart their own corporation, the title track from their forthcoming LP, YESTERDAY’S DREAMS (1968) {*5}, didn’t retail as well as in Britain. Ditto its other loss-leader, `I’m In A Different World’, their final full-length outing with HDH. Divorced from their songwriting/production team, FOUR TOPS fell back on AM pop and nostalgia nuggets such as `A Place In The Sun’, `Sunny’, `By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, `Never My Love’, and JOHN STEWART’s `Daydream Believer’ (yes, another MONKEES smash).
FOUR TOPS NOW! (1969) {*6} continued their fixation with The BEATLES and JIMMY WEBB covers: two each in fact a la `Eleanor Rigby’ and `Fool On The Hill’, plus the back-to-back `Do What You Gotta Do’ and `MacArthur Park’. At a time when rivals The TEMPTATIONS were looking to a future of psychedelic soul, the stylistic and well-groomed FOUR TOPS had sheltered under their comfort zone in minor hits, `What Is A Man’ (co-penned by singer JOHNNY BRISTOL) and `Don’t Let Him Take Your Love From Me’ (a faithful Barrett-Strong number).
Worst was still to come – at least on a commercial footing – when SOUL SPIN (1969) {*5} failed miserably to exceed a lowly position of #163. Stirring just about everything and the kitchen sink into this melting pot myriad of pop and sunshine soul, songs from BACHARACH & DAVID (`The Look Of Love’ and `This Guy’s In Love With You’), The BEATLES (`Got To Get You Into My Life’), The MAMAS AND THE PAPAS (`California Dreamin’’) and even The DOORS (`Light My Fire’), were thought worthy of an er… spin.
Overseas, older tunes were finding their way into the hearts and minds of a reinvigorated soul fanatic, and just when things looked gloomy, a fresh decade and a fresher sound presented America’s Fab Four with a welcoming Top 30 (UK Top 5) entry, `It’s All In The Game’, a song once a hit for TOMMY EDWARDS. Producer Frank Wilson (and associate pensmith SMOKEY ROBINSON) were behind follow-on hit, `Still Water (Love)’ – and others – from STILL WATERS RUN DEEP (1970) {*6}, their first record to meticulously fit each piece into its rightful place within its grooves; covers of BOB LIND’s `Elusive Butterfly’ and FRED NEIL’s `Everybody’s Talkin’, therefore shining out from their folky cocoons.
During a reasonably healthy commercial time between summer 1970 and spring 1972, in which the four were “Motown-ed” together with The SUPREMES (who’d formerly weaved their web with rivals The TEMPTATIONS), Levi and Co also spun out a handful of group hits and an uninspiring set to compete with the fresh pairing’s re-take of `River Deep – Mountain High’.
1970’s aptly-titled CHANGING TIMES {*5} – featuring the Top 40 cue `Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)’ – was ever so slightly overshadowed by `The Magnificent 7’ and `The Return Of The Magnificent 7’ sets with the SUPREMES; they also issued a further LP (`Dynamite’) in early ’72.
On the back of the FOUR TOPS’ reading of JIMMY WEBB’s `MacArthur Park (Part II)’ (b/w “Part I”), things looked decidedly upward when their version of The MOODY BLUES’ `A Simple Game’ shot to number 3 in the British hit parade. Sadly, it was to fall short of requirements on home-soil, although `(It’s The Way) Nature Planned It’ – from the optimistic Top 50 set, NATURE PLANNED (1972) {*7}, proved that the ‘Tops were back on track. Stylish and sophisticated, but with an edge, the songs by ASHFORD & SIMPSON, WILLIE HUTCH, JOHNNY BRISTOL and the usual Frank Wilson-Pam Sawyer smoothies approached pop-soul from a different angle. But it was all too little/too late to save them from the chop.
The FOUR TOPS were indeed struggling to find their place amid a radically altered Motown set-up (the label had relocated its main operation to L.A.), wherein the likes of STEVIE WONDER and MARVIN GAYE (although Obie actually co-wrote the latter’s seminal `What’s Goin’ On’) were making massive steps as “serious” artists in their own right and 60s stalwarts (MARTHA REEVES et al) were defecting in droves. Stubbs and Co themselves parted company with Gordy later in ‘72, signing with Dunhill Records (Probe in the UK) and initially enjoying something of a mini revival with major Top 20 hits like `Keeper Of The Castle’, `Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)’ and summer 1973’s `Are You Man Enough’, the latter the Four’s token contribution to Blaxploitation mania – the film in question being Shaft In Africa. Appearing also on the follow-up to 1972’s KEEPER OF THE CASTLE {*6}, MAIN STREET PEOPLE {*6} identified The FOUR TOPS, finally, as an albums acts, helped again by in-house writers/producers Steve Barri, Dennis Lambert and Dennis Potter. Obie, too, was inspired to co-write on a few numbers, one of them (alongside Val Benson and Ivy Jo Hunter): `Sweet Understanding Love’, a Top 40 entry.
At a time when disco was finding its feet, the light sophisti-funk of The FOUR TOPS was appealing only to singles buyers; the proof in the pudding coming from `One Chain Don’t Make No Prison’ and `Midnight Flower’ failing to stimulate sales for the attendant MEETING OF THE MINDS (1974) {*6} album. Chasing this set with a move along the corporate corridor to A.B.C. Records, LIVE & IN CONCERT {*5}, ended the year in a soothing style.
From that point on, the floundering FOUR TOPS couldn’t buy a hit. Together with albums, NIGHT LIGHTS HARMONY (1975) {*4} and CATFISH (1976) {*5}, which produced between them moderate sellers, `Seven Lonely Nights’, `We All Gotta Stick Together’ and R&B fave `Catfish’, the once fabulous four were out in the cold. Cast aside by everyone except the faithful, albums like THE SHOW MUST GO ON (1977) {*4} and the Norman Harris-produced AT THE TOP (1978) {*4} – with a Philly-based sound – were a distance from the day’s mirror-ball movers and glitzy groovers.
1981’s return to transatlantic chart-form, `When She Was My Girl’ (lifted from their inaugural Casablanca Records set, TONIGHT! {*5}), had a certain commercial (Top 40) appeal, in a way BILLY OCEAN or The STYLISTICS created in their time. Levi Stubbs had probably shed enough tears over the years, but in the upbeat and AM/disco-feel of bonus UK hits, `Don’t Walk Away’ and `Tonight I’m Gonna Love You All Over’, The FOUR TOPS were bridging the gap for the MOR generation.
Following on from a Grease 2 minor movie hit, `Back To School Again’, the pedestrian and dull ONE MORE MOUNTAIN (1982) {*2} struck rock bottom on both critical and commercial counts. A shake-up was indeed necessary to keep the good name of the FOUR TOPS alive and kicking. However, a brief reunification with Motown failed to provide any hits from BACK WHERE I BELONG (1983) {*4} and was not the ticket back to stardom; a duet with The TEMPTATIONS (`Hang’) and a double header tour with the very same act packed in the crowds. It was a similarly sad story for duds MAGIC (1985) {*3} and HOT NIGHTS (1986) {*2} – the mark of the aforementioned veteran soul star WILLIE HUTCH all over the first of these sets.
After inking a deal at Arista Records in ‘88, The FOUR TOPS enjoyed another cinematic spin-off UK Top 10 smash with `Loco In Acapulco’, a track penned by PHIL COLLINS and Lamont Dozier for the movie, Buster. While their enduring popularity ensured they were always a hot live ticket, the title track from their return-to-form parent set, INDESTRUCTIBLE (1988) {*5}, signed off their long careers with a home-run Top 40 breaker.
Veterans of the supper-club circuit, The FOUR TOPS continued to sell out both nightclubs and major tour venues despite their lack of commercial recording success. Motown were behind them once again for the festive CHRISTMAS HERE WITH YOU (1995) {*4}, a record which highlighted the great ARETHA FRANKLIN on two cuts (`White Christmas’ and `Silent Night’).
Sadly, Payton was to die on June 20, 1997; they added Theo Peoples (ex-TEMPTATIONS) in the aftermath, when they were then known as The Tops. Stubbs subsequently suffered a stroke in 2000, but made a brief appearance in a wheelchair on their star-studded PBS comeback special, FROM THE HEART: 50th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION (2006) {*6} – recorded a year earlier; shortly after the gig, Obie Benson died of lung cancer on July 1, 2005 and was later replaced by Roquel Payton (aka Lawrence Payton, Jr.); understudy Ronnie McNeir was in place when the great Levi passed away on October 17, 2008, while Harold “Spike” Bonhart filled the berth of a solo-bound Peoples in 2011. The legacy of The FOUR TOPS lived on despite the set-backs.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Dec2015

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