SoulTracks 3 Minute Update: The Four Tops

Three Minute Update is the newest SoulTracks feature. It is designed to give classic soul fans to catch up with what’s going on with their favorite soul music artists of the 60s, 70s and 80s. All in three minutes. 

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. 

Three Minute Update is the newest SoulTracks feature. It is designed to give classic soul fans to catch up with what’s going on with their favorite soul music artists of the 60s, 70s and 80s. All in three minutes. 

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 Detroit's "Sound of Young America," The Four Tops. After cutting several unsuccessful tracks for various record labels in the late 50s and early 60s, the Tops signed with Berry Gordy's 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 the A-list of soul music stars and became, along with the Temptations, the male group leaders of the Motown hit machine. They couldn’t dance like the Temptations, but The Four Tops had a secret weapon:  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, I'll Be There" to "I Can't 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/Dunhill's 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, "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've 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 Motown's 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.

Sadly, three of the four original Four Tops died over the course of 11 years, beginning with Payton in 1997, Benson in 2005, and Stubbs in 2008 after a long illness. However, the Four Tops have soldiered on, now more than 60 years after they began.

Founding member Abdul “Duke” Fakir remains performing, and is joined by the current lineup of Ronnie McNeir, Roquel Payton (Lawrence’s son) and powerful new lead singer, Alexander Morris.

In early 2021 the Four Tops entered the studio to perform the excellent “When You Call My Name,” a new song that appeared on Morris’s solo album, January. And they are currently working on their first full studio album in more than two decades. Also coming is a planned Broadway musical on the group’s history as well as a documentary. Finally, with concerts now coming back, the Tops will hit the road with the Temptations for a tour that will begin in Fall of 2021.

In the end, the story of the Four Tops is one of group harmony, on and off the stage. And after more than six decades, when fans reach out, the Four Tops are still there. Be sure to check them out when they come to your town.

By Chris Rizik

 

Leave a comment!