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 Detroitís "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 Gordyís 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 immediate popularity and became, along with the Temptations, the male group leaders of the Motown hit machine. However, the differences between the Tempts and the Tops couldnít 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 fanís group. They werenít great dancers and didnít exude suaveness. But they were a group through thick and thin and had something no other group did ñ 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, Iíll Be There" to "I Canít 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/Dunhillís 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, "Ainít No Woman (Like the One Iíve 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 Motownís 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. More recently, Levi Stubbs has battled prostate cancer and a mild heart attack and stroke, preventing him from touring since 2000, but putting him in the prayers of millions of fans. Popular 70s Soul singer Ronnie McNeir ha 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.
Sadly, in July 2005, Obie Benson died after a sudden flurry of physical ailments, including lung cancer. He was replaced by Lawrence Payton's son Roquel.
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.
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