Among the vast number of male soul/R&B quartets and quintets signed to Detroit's Motown label, a few stand out as classic, historically significant acts. The Temptations and the Jackson Five, for example, turned out strings of monster hits, but not even the Jackson family could do what the Four Tops did: keep their act intact for 40 years.
Four friends from two Detroit high schools figured out in 1954 that they sounded good together: Levi Stubbs, Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo 'Obie' Benson decided to call themselves the Four Aims. They recorded a demo tape with a friend, Roquel Davis (who later wrote a number of songs with Motown's founder, Berry Gordy). Chess Records invited them to Chicago and eventually signed the act, now named the Four Tops (to avoid confusion with the four members of the Ames Brothers).
It was not a quick, easy ride to the top. Chess dropped the Four Tops after one single, and they label-hopped with weak recording material for several years. They sold plenty of tickets in good venues, but their popular stage act didn't translate into airplay or record sales. At last, their connection to Berry Gordy led to a contract with Motown, and with the proper material and good label support, Four Tops records started to match Four Tops tickets as a commodity.
Beginning in late 1964, the Four Tops started to roll. While any number of groups has had a string of big hits, few artists can claim as large a number of instantly recognizable hits as the Four Tops. The first was 1964's 'Baby I Need Your Loving,' which just missed the pop Top Ten. Now that the nation had heard the Four Tops singing good songs, with Levi Stubbs providing the unmistakable lead vocal, the road smoothed out considerably. 1965 led to four Top 40 hits, including the pop #1 hit 'I Can't Help Myself,' which also spent nine weeks at #1 on the R&B chart. Three months later came the #5 hit 'It's the Same Old Song,' another all-time classic.
The Four Tops returned to the pop #1 spot in 1966 with 'Reach Out I'll Be There,' their first gold record. Their next two singles, 'Standing in the Shadows of Love' and 'Bernadette,' hit the Top Ten as well. From 1967 to 1971, though the Four Tops charted every few months, their singles stayed in the middle regions of the Top 40 during their remaining years with Motown.
In 1972, Motown moved operations to Los Angeles, and the Four Tops, loyal to Detroit, switched labels. The result was two quick Top Ten singles: 1972's 'Keeper of the Castle' and 1973's 'Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got),' their second gold single. They finished their chart run with 'Indestructible' in 1988, shortly after Levi Stubbs provided the voice of the killer plant for the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors.
Throughout their career, the Four Tops provided a stunning sonic and visual show. Their smooth choreography and sharp outfits suited their rich vocal harmonies, and they flowed together on stage with the self-assurance that only a 40-year working relationship can bring. Unfortunately, Larry Payton contracted cancer and died in 1997. Theo Peoples replaced him, and in 2002 Ronnie McNeir replaced Levi Stubbs, who had suffered a stroke. Stubbs remains a part of the Four Tops team, as a 2004 special show in his honor attests.
The crowning honor of the career of the Four Tops came in 1990, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If such choices are made in part on sheer class, the Four Tops had no trouble getting into the Hall. Their live show continues to display the original groove that got them where they are, and they show no sign of stopping.