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The Four Tops

Biography

The Four Tops
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

One of Motown's most consistent hitmakers and longest-lived original lineups, the Four Tops charted with scores of upbeat love songs featuring Levi Stubbs' rough-hewn lead vocals on an array of classic R&B chart-toppers, including "Baby I Need Your Loving," "Same Old Song," and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "Bernadette" and "Ain't No Woman Like the One I've Got." In 1994 The Four Tops celebrated four decades together without a single personnel change.

The Four Tops met at a party in Detroit and soon began calling themselves the Four Aims. They were signed to Chess Records in 1956 and soon changed their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers. The single "Kiss Me Baby" b/w "Could It Be You" was the first of a string of supper-club–style flops that lasted for seven years on a series of labels (Red Top, Riverside, and Columbia), all the while, the group performed in top clubs.

By 1964, they had joined with old friend Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records. Gordy had them cut the unreleased Breaking Through for his experimental Workshop Jazz subsidiary. Later that year they were finally directed toward contemporary soul. Under the wing of Motown's top production and writing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Four Tops were launched with "Baby I Need Your Loving," which went to Number 11 in 1964. Over the next eight years they made almost 30 appearances on the charts, and Levi Stubbs (whose brother Joe sang in the Falcons) became an international star and a major influence on other singers from the 1960s to through the new millennium (in 1986, for example Billy Bragg had a U.K. hit with "Levi Stubbs Tears").

The group's 1965 hits included "Ask the Lonely" (Number 24), "Same Old Song" (Number Five), and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," which went to Number One. "Reach Out I'll Be There" hit the top of the pop chart in October 1966. The quartet followed up with "Standing in the Shadows of Love" (Number Six, 1967).

Like other top Motown acts, the Four Tops also became popular in major nightclubs around the world. Even in their hit-making prime, the Tops had less athletic choreography than the Temptations, for example, and the group was equally comfortable handling standards, show tunes and big ballads. Like virtually all of Motown's first-tier acts, the Tops sought the longevity and stability of a career built equally on live appearances and records. In 1967 they scaled the charts with "Bernadette" (Number Four) and "Seven Rooms of Gloom" (Number 14); but when Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in 1967 to form their own label, the group's chart successes dwindled. In fact, two of the Four Tops' bigger hits from 1968 were covers: the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" (Number 14) and Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" (Number 20). While many historians view HDH's departure as an irreparable blow to the group, in fact, the Tops cut a number of adventurous and successful singles under the guidance of other Motown staff producers, including "River Deep, Mountain High" with the Jean Terrell-led Supremes (Number 14 pop, Number Seven R&B, 1970), and "Still Water (Love)" (Number 11 pop, Number Four R&B, 1970). In addition, Obie Benson cowrote Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On."

In 1972 the group left Motown for ABC/Dunhill, where it quickly recorded a couple of million-sellers: "Keeper of the Castle" (Number Ten) and in 1973 "Ain't No Woman Like the One I've Got" (Number Four). It proved to be only a brief pop chart resurgence, though the group continued to hit the R&B Top 20, with "Seven Lonely Nights" and "Catfish." The Tops continued to tour the world, performing to packed houses. In 1981 the group moved to Casablanca Records and released the comeback hit, "When She Was My Girl" (Number 11 pop, Number 1 R&B). Two years later the Tops were back at Motown, and after performing in a "battle of the bands" with the Temptations on the Motown 25th-anniversary television special, embarked on the first of several coheadlining tours with that group, billed as T'n'T. The first tour ran nearly three years, went around the world, and included a sold-out stint on Broadway.

In 1986 Stubbs provided the voice for the man-eating plant Audrey II in the film Little Shop of Horrors; in 1985 the group had its last Motown hit: "Sexy Ways" (Number 21 R&B). Like many older Motown artists, the Four Tops sought another label, and in 1988 they signed with Arista. "Indestructible" (Number 35 pop, Number 66 R&B) marked another resurgence in the band's career, especially in the U.K., where their "Loco in Acapulco," from the soundtrack of the Phil Collins film Buster, was a Top Ten hit. Chartwise, the Four Tops had become one of the most popular American acts in the U.K., where a remix of "Reach Out I'll Be There" hit Number 11 in 1988, and the saloon standard "It's All in the Game" had gone to Number Five in 1970.

In 1989 the group appeared on Aretha Franklin's Through the Storm

Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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