Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Four Tops

When the subject of Motown comes up, particularly the male vocal groups category, much is said about the Temptations, and rightly so, as they were in fact the record company's premier male vocal group. After them, there is nowhere to go but to the Four Tops. While The Tops may not have had the multiple lead singers, choreography  or Smokey's songs, what they did have was the awesome voice of one Levi Stubbs, a perfect baritone matched by very few. They also had the relentless hit-making machine of writer/production team Holland,Dozier and Holland. Add to that the distinction of having gone over four decades , that's 1953 to 1997, gentle reader, without a single change in personnel,and the cohesion that brings to the table. It takes a tremendous amount of common focus for four individuals to stay together that long and achieve at such a level .

They began their careers as high school students in Detroit, Levi Stubbs (born Levi Stubbins,a cousin of Jackie Wilson and brother of The Falcons' Joe Stubbs) and Abdul "Duke" Fakir attending one school, Renaldo"Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton students at another. They called themselves The Four Aims, and with the help of Payton's songwriter cousin Roquel Davis, they signed to Chess Records in 1956, changing their name to The Four Tops to avoid confusion with The Ames Brothers. While having little success with Chess,they did develop into a polished performing act. A songwriter who had worked with Roquel named Berry Gordy,Jr. convinced the act to sign with his developing record company Motown Records .

Early on,the group sang backup on other acts' records While recording jazz standards on the company's Workshop label. They can be heard,for instance on Martha And The Vandella's "My Baby Loves Me". The songwriting team Holland,Dozier and Holland had an instrumental trck they were unsure what to do with. They decided to craft the track as a mainstream love song with The Tops. They released the track,titled "Baby I Need Your Loving" and it went to #11 on the U.S. Billboard charts, and a big radio hit in 1964. Needless to say, The Four Tops were pulled from their jazz standard duty
and got to work on more material by H-D-H.

The follow-up single,"Without The One You Love" missed the top 40 by thirty positions. The next single,"Just Ask The Lonely", released in 1965, went top 30 pop and top 10 R'n'B. And off they went.
After scoring a #1 in June of 1965 with "I Can't Help Myself(Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)",the group began a long series of successful singles, among them "It's The Same Old Song" and "Something About You". Their records were like a blueprint of what made the Motown Sound, call-and-response vocals, simple but distinct melodies and rhymes and of course the mighty Funk Brothers. H-D-H wrote most of the songs in the higher register of Stubb's baritone to give his vocals a strained intensity in his gospel-rooted leads. They also used female back up vocals by The Adantes to add a high end to the Tops' low harmonies.

By 1967 The Four Tops were the most successful vocal group in  The U.K. , and in The U.S. second only to The Temptations. They got hits with more mainstream covers such as 1967's 'If I Were A Carpenter" and 1968's "Walk Away Renee". These were among the last hits produced by Holand,Dozier and Holland, who left Motown in 1967 over royalty and ownership disputes (a common theme in Berry's Motown,unfortunately). Without H-D-H, the group's, as well of much of Motown's output,began to decline. Work with Ashford&Simpson,Norman Whitfield,Johnny Bristol along with other Motown producers failed to yield any hits.

Their next major hit finally came in 1970 with the Frank Wilson-produced "It's All In The Game" which went top 30 pop and top 10 R'n'B. Pairings with the Jean Terrell-led Supremes, billed as The Magnificent Seven produced a series of albums and a top 20 version of "River Deep,Mountain High". soon after, The Tops left Motown for ABC-Dunhill and began another series of hits including "Ain't No Woman Like The One I've Got" and "Are You Man Enough" which appeared on the Shaft In Africa soundtrack. A 1980 move to Casablanca Records yielded the hit "When She Was My Girl". By 1983 they rejoined Motown, were featured in the label's 25th anniversary tv special and paired with The Temptations for a series of tours that continue occasionally to this day.

Since the late 80,s the group concentrated mainly on live appearances, recording only one Christmas album in 1995. On June 20,1997 Lawrence Payton died at the age of 57 due to liver cancer. After shortly carrying on as a trio,called The Tops, they recruited former temptation Theo Peoples as a replacement. Levi Stubbs had after a time become ill with cancer himself and had to leave the group.
Lawrence Payton took over as lead singer and Ronnie McNair was brought in to fill Payton's spot.
On October 17,2008, the great Levi Stubbs succumbed to cancer in his Detroit home.
July 1,2005 tragedy struck The four Tops once more as Renaldo "Obie" Benson died of lung cancer.
Abdul "Duke" Fakir is the sole surviving member of the still-touring group.

All told, The Four Tops amassed twenty nine top 20 singles and seven top 20 albums pop, R'n'B or both. They were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990, and were recipients of the 51st Annual Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Not too shabby for
being Motown's "other" male vocal group. Well done,gentlemen...well done.

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