Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a founding member of the Four Tops, died Friday after a brief battle with cancer; he was sixty-nine. Doctors discovered the cancer several weeks ago during a surgery to amputate one of his legs. He also sustained a heart attack during that surgery.
Born in Detroit in 1936, bass vocalist Benson teamed with Levi Stubbs, Abdul (Duke) Fakir and Lawrence Payton in 1954 to form the Four Tops. The lineup remained intact for forty-three years, until Payton’s death in 1997. Stubbs left the group in 2000 after suffering some health problems, but Benson, Fakir and two replacement Tops celebrated the group’s fiftieth anniversary last year.
“We knew from the beginning that we were in this for life,” Fakir told Rolling Stone last year. “We made a pact, ‘This is what we’re going to do as long as we can sing.'”
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy signed the Four Tops to a record deal in 1963 after seeing them perform on The Tonight Show. A parade of hits began the next year when “Baby I Need Your Loving” went Number One. The momentum continued with “I Can’t Help Myself,” topping the charts in 1965, and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” doing the same in 1966. The Four Tops left Motown in 1972, after Gordy moved the label to Los Angeles. The Four Tops last reached the charts in 1988 with “Indestructible” topping out at Number Thirty-five.
“The Four Tops are a one-in-a-million singing group,” fellow Motown legend Smokey Robinson told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “They were the best in my neighborhood in Detroit when I was growing up. They could sing like a gospel group but then do R&B like no one else. The combination of Levi, Obie Benson, Duke Fakir and Lawrence Payton was truly awesome.”
Benson made an impact outside of the Four Tops as well, writing the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s classic protest song “What’s Goin’ On.”
Benson is survived by his daugthers Ebony and Toby.