The Four Tops: polished performances and fierce loyalty

June 8, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

After years of pursuing them, Berry Gordy in 1965 had finally signed the Four Tops. The Detroit group had been together for a decade, had recorded singles and albums, and had developed a stage presence that was slick, professional, and appealing.

But Gordy knew that they could be much better — and more lucrative — if they were part of the Motown stable of stars.

When Gordy heard that the Four Tops’ previous record label, Columbia Records, was about to release a new version of their songs “Ain’t That Love,” Gordy put the Motown machine into high gear. One morning in July, he assigned his ace songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland (brother to Brian) — known collectively as HDH — to write something for the Tops to record. By noon they had it. That afternoon the group rehearsed it, and by that evening they and the backup musicians were laying down the tracks.

Three days later, “It’s the Same Old Song” was released by Motown on the same day that Columbia brought out “Ain’t That Love.” The old song fell flat, and the new song rocketed into the top 10 of the pop charts. Just a couple of months before that, the group had done “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and after “It’s the Same Old Song,” they would put together a string of hits including “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” (1966), and “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” (1966). 

The next two years saw even more memorable hits: “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,”  “7-Rooms of Gloom”, and “You Keep Running Away.”

The Four Tops had a look and a sound that was pure Motown, but in many ways they were different from most of the groups and the artists that Gordy had recruited and nurtured.

Originally calling themselves The Four Aims,  Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton, began performing together in 1953. Stubbs was the lead singer, but he was a baritone, not a tenor, and that gave the group a distinctive sound from the very beginning. They changed their name to the Four Tops when they signed with Chess Records in 1956, and for the next seven years they produced records for several labels without any notable success.

They were a highly popular and polished stage act, however, and they toured with Billy Eckstine. Gordy began recruiting them for Motown in the early 1960s. He was impressed by their music and their act, but something else about them struck him. From the very beginning, they had remained together — no personnel changes — and they were fiercely loyal to one another.

Gordy believed that if he could get them, they would be loyal to him, too. It took him more than two years to reel them in. But when that finally happened, the payoff was huge.

The HDH writing team composed many of the group’s hits, but they made a critical decision that put distinction into the Tops’ sound: even though Stubbs was a bariton, they wrote many of the leads in the high part of his range, bringing an urgency to his singing that he would not have had otherwise.

When Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles in 1972, the Four Tops decided to stay in Detroit and shift their recording to another label. They did not have the hit-after-hit success that they had enjoyed in the 1960s with Motown, but they were able to explore different musical ideas and formats, and they continued with their energetic live performances.

The Tops performed and recorded into the 1990s, and in 1997, Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer at the age of 59. The group had stayed together for 44 years without any changes. After Payton’s death, the three remaining members performed for a while as The Tops, and in 1998 they recruited former Temptations member Theo Peoples to fill out the fourth spot. The group kept performing during the new century. Stubbs died in 2008, and eventually the group broke apart.

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