Levi Stubbs, Jr ., Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Lawrence Payton, and Abdul "Duke" Fakir were teenage school friends in their native Detroit when they joined together in a singing group called the Aims. It was the mid-1950's and their early career was spent largely in jazz and R&B circles. By the time they had recorded their first single for Chess Records in 1956, The Aims were performing as an opening act or as backup singers with artists such as Della Resse, Brook Benton, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Betty Carter, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Flip Wilson.
Levi's cousin, the great Jackie Wilson, was so impressed with the Aims' mellow harmonies and naturally-smooth style, that he invited them to perform with him on a regular basis, which they did for several years. Times were hard and the group's first years were difficult, typified by heavy travel and light money. But the spirit which allowed them to stay together for more than three decades was already in place. They were never greedy, never riddled by egotism or impatience, and never lost sight of what they wanted to do most: sing!
It was also in 1956 that The Aims became "reincarnated." It had been suggested that they might be confused with the then popular Ames Brothers. Since they had chosen their name because they were "aiming for the top," they changed it and without realizing that they were giving name to a legend, became The Four Tops.
They recorded for several labels before signing to Motown in 1963. "Baby, I Need Your Loving" (July 1964), written and produced by the team of Brian Holland , Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland , was their first substantial hit, setting the pattern for a series of songs showcasing Stubbs's emotive wail set against the Benson-Payton-Fakir harmony line.
Need and longing would be the hallmarks of Stubbs's singing on such songs as "Ask the Lonely" (January 1965), which launched a string of R&B Top Ten/pop Top 40 hits over the next two years. Its follow-up, "I Can't Help Myself" (April 1965), hit number one.
"It's the Same Old Song" had an unlikely birth when the Tops needed a quick hit to follow-up "I Can't Help Myself." Duke Fakir recalled: Lamont Dozier and I were both a little tipsy and he was changing the channels on the radio. He said, 'It sounds like the same old song.' And then he said, 'Wait a minute.' So he took 'I Can't Help Myself' and reversed it using the same chord changes. The next day we went to the studio and recorded it, and then they put it on acetate, shipped it out to disc jockeys across the country." (October 1965)
The Four Tops continued to crank out the hits: "Something About You" (October 1965), "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)" (February 1966), "Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever" (May 1966).
A second number one song, "Reach Out, I'll Be There" came along in August, 1966. According to Duke Fakir, the group didn't particularly care for the tune at first. "It just didn't sound right in the studio. After a couple weeks, Berry Gordy called us up to his office and said, 'Fellas, get ready for the biggest hit you've ever had.' And we were like, 'Oh, wow. When are going to record it?' And he said, 'You already have.' Sure enough, when I heard it on the radio it sounded like a hit."
The Tops followed up with more classic Motown hits. "Standing In The Shadows of Love" (November 1966), "Bernadette" (February 1967), "7 Rooms of Gloom" (May 1967), and "You Keep Running Away" (August 1967).
At that point, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team left Motown, depriving the Four Tops of their writing and producing talent. The label at first had some trouble finding material for the group, having them cover songs like "Walk Away Renee" and "If I Were a Carpenter". In 1970, however, they rebounded with "It's All in the Game", "Still Water", a duet with the Supremes on "River Deep -- Mountain High," and "Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)," all of which made the R&B Top Ten and the pop Top 40.
They scored one more R&B Top Ten on Motown with "(It's the Way) Nature Planned It" before moving to Dunhill Records, where they enjoyed another string of hits, including "Keeper of the Castle" (October 1972), the gold-selling "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got)" (January 1973), "Are You Man Enough" (June 1973), "Sweet Understanding Love" (September 1973), "One Chain Don't Make No Prison" (April 1974), and "Midnight Flower" (July 1974). They returned to the R&B Top Ten with "Catfish" (August 1976), and moved to Casablanca Records for the R&B number one "When She Was My Girl" (September 1981).
In addition to their own records, members of the group often sang informal back-up for other Motown artists. They would often be just "hanging out" at the companies studios, when someone would pop into the lobby and ask "is there a tenor out here?" During the peak years at Motown, The Four Tops toured and/or recorded with nearly ever other artist on the label, including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Elgins, The Spinners, Tammi Terrell, Junior Walker and Edwin Starr.
As their career and the non-stop hits continued, The Four Tops appeared in a wide variety of concert and club settings, from the star-studded shows at New York's famous Apollo Theatre and those at the Brooklyn Fox hosted by New York disc jockey, Murray The K, to the Grand Ole Opry and Las Vegas' most prestigious lounges. They went beyond the realm of the impressive Motown roster to share the stage with Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The Carpenters, Jay and the Americans, The Four Seasons, and The Beach Boys.
The Four Tops returned to Motown in 1983, and by 1988 were signed to Arista. Their hit-making days behind them, they remained a solid concert act with a repertoire of favourites and a catalogue that continues to be repackaged successfully.
The Tops continued to live in Detroit, a fact which each man felt contributed to the naturalness and humanity of their sound, and of their success. They were leaders in their community, active in civic projects and involved with Detroit's renaissance. All married and had children, and all of the wives and kids were close friends - a complete, extended, Four Tops family. The group continued to tour, record and set their sights on new professional goals. But mostly, they kept doing what they always wanted to do...sing.
When asked about their longevity, Duke Fakir said it is partly the advice they got from legendary pop singer Billy Eckstine. "He said, 'If you are fortunate enough to get a million people behind you, promise me you'll take care of them, and, believe me, they'll be there to take care of you the rest of your life.' It must have stuck pretty good with all of us, because that's what we try to.
Tragedy struck the group on June 20th, 1997, as Lawrence Payton died of liver 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, preventing him from touring, but putting him in the prayers of millions of fans. Popular 70s singer Ronnie McNeir filled in.
On July 1st, 2005, The Tops lost another original member when Obie Benson passed away after a long illness. He was 69 years old.
Levi Stubbs died on October 17th, 2008, at his home in Detroit after a long series of illnesses, including cancer and a stroke. He was 72. Fakir, McNeir, Payton, and Harold "Spike" Bonhart, who replaced Peoples in 2011, are still touring as the Four Tops. In 2012, Fakir was the only surviving member of the original Four Tops.