One of the greatest groups to ever come out of Detroit consisted of four singers who made history with their music and their longevity, only being separated by death.
Formed in the mid-50s as high schoolers in Detroit, Levi Stubbs, Obie Benson, Lawrence Payton and Duke Fakir were first known as the Four Aims. However, to avoid confusion with the popular Ames Brothers vocal quartet, the group changed its name to the one that would become synonymous with Detroit's "Sound of Young America. " After cutting several unsuccessful tracks for various record labels in the late 50s and early 60s, the Tops signed with Berry Gordy's Motown label and teamed with super songwriters Holland/Dozier/Holland. Their first collaboration, "Baby I Need Your Lovin," was a smash crossover hit and set the stage for future successes.
The Tops rose to the A-list of soul music stars and became, along with the Temptations, the male group leaders of the Motown hit machine. However, the differences between the Tempts and the Tops couldn't have been more stark. The Temptations had the good looks, the choreography and the silky smoothness, but also had constant turmoil, as over 20 singers (including half a dozen lead singers) would serve time as Tempts. The Tops, on the other hand, were the working fan's group. Neither great dancers nor as suave as the Tempts, the Four Tops were nonetheless amazingly cohesive as a group and had something no other group did - the incomparable voice of lead singer Levi Stubbs. His bellowing, impassioned wail was the perfect contrast to the ultra-slick Motown arrangements, and created some classic Motown moments, from "Reach Out, I'll Be There" to "I Can't Help Myself" to "Bernadette." In all, they had over two dozen hits on Motown during the period 1964-1972 and established themselves as one of the top Soul groups of the era.
When Motown relocated to Los Angeles in the early 70s, the Four Tops were the first of the label's major acts to defect, moving over to ABC/Dunhill's black music division and teaming with young writer/producers Lambert & Potter. They hit the ground running with Keeper of the Castle, one of their biggest albums ever, and its monster hit, "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)," and followed it with a series successful singles, including "Are You Man Enough" and "One Chain (Don't Make No Prison)."
They continued with ABC for the rest of the decade until the hits stopped coming and the record label folded. As the 80s arrived, the Four Tops found themselves without a record contract and facing irrelevancy in the fickled world of popular music. Then unexpectedly they found a third life as a group, signing with Casablanca Records and releasing the smash hit, "When She Was My Girl," and the successful album Tonight.
At Motown's 25th Anniversary special in 1983, a playful singing competition was set up between the Temptations and the Four Tops, with the groups poking fun and alternating songs, ultimately joining together for a medley of hits. The act proved so popular that the two groups began a "Tempts vs. Tops" tour that has gone on intermittently for 20 years and has been seen by millions of fans.
The Tops returned to Motown in the mid-80s for two unsuccessful albums before signing with Arista in 1989 and releasing Indestructible, their final hit album, which included the song "Loco In Acapulco" from the soundtrack of Phil Collins' movie Buster.
Tragedy struck the group in 1997, as group member Lawrence Payton died of cancer. The remaining members continued as a threesome for awhile, then recruited former Temptation Theo Peoples to join the group. Three years later, Levi Stubbs battled a series of ailments, including prostate cancer and a mild heart attack and stroke. Popular 70s Soul singer Ronnie McNeir, a close friend of Benson, replaced Stubbs.
In 2004, the Tops celebrated their 50th Anniversary with a blow out gala at Detroit's Roostertail Restaurant, where they recorded their first Live album in 1965. And in July of that year, an anniversary concert featuring Aretha Franklin and several other friends was held at the Detroit Opera House and was syndicated for showing on television in most major markets. It was the first public appearance by Stubbs, then in a wheelchair, in over three years, and the reunion brought the audience to tears.
In 2005, at the invitation of local Detroit bandleader Simone Vitale, the Tops participated in the recording of an album of lushly arranged standards called Goin' Home 'Round Midnight, which was issued on a limited basis. Sadly, in July of that year, Obie Benson died after a sudden flurry of physical ailments, including lung cancer. He was replaced by Lawrence Payton's son Roquel. Stubbs followed three years later, dying on October 17, 2008.
In 2007, a version of the group consisting of Fakir, Peoples, McNeir and Payton, began recording on Jenny Jenny Records the Tops' first non-holiday studio album in nearly two decades. The first single, "East West" hit radio in late Summer, but the full album never materialized. The song was later included on a compilation put together by Detroit businessman Herb Strather called Motor City Hits.
By 2011 Peoples departed, replaced by former Spinners member Harold "Spike" Bonhart. With Fakir being the only remaining original member, the reconstituted Four Tops continue to perform around the US and the world.
In the end, the story of the Four Tops is one of group harmony, on and off the stage. And after 50 years, when fans reach out, the Four Tops are still there.
By Chris Rizik