In the early 1950’s, four Detroit high school students played at a local birthday party. After that, these four students stayed together as one of R&B’s biggest groups for over four decades.
Levi Stubbs (brother of The Falcon’s Joe Stubbs and cousin of Jackie Wilson), Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton called themselves The Four Aims.
The Four Aims signed with Chess Records in 1956 and changed their name to The Four Tops, so they wouldn’t be confused with the pop family group, The Ames Brothers.
Recording with four different record labels and no hits, The Four Tops came to the attention of Motown Records executive, Berry Gordy Jr. In 1963, they signed with Motown and initially did backup work for other Motown artists. They can be heard on The Supremes’ “Run, Run, Run.”
In 1964, songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland came up with a tune perfectly fitted for the quartet. “Baby I Need Your Loving” became their first of many Billboard top 20 hits.
On the charts, The Four Tops had twenty-five Top 40 hits, two went to number one. Here’s a look at The Four Tops twenty biggest hits, according to Billboard’s Top 40 charts:
1. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) – 1965 – Their biggest single went to number one for two weeks and has been covered by The Supremes, Donnie Elbert (who took it to #22) and Dolly Parton. It was also used in Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Duncan Hines brownie mix commercials.
2. Reach Out, I’ll Be There – 1966 – Their only other number one song was also the #3 song for the year of 1966.
3. Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got) – 1973 – In 1972, The Four Tops left Motown, when the label moved to L.A., and signed with the ABC/Dunhill label. This song, originally recorded by Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds, would be the Four Tops biggest single after leaving Motown. It was included in their “Keeper of the Castle” album.
4. Bernadette – 1967 – From the album “Reach Out” this song was included in the soundtrack of “Zodiac.” On the CBS-TV sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” character Howard Wolowitz uses the song as his ringtone for his girlfriend.
5. It’s The Same Old Song – 1965 – The follow up to “I Can’t Help Myself” features the same chords. It has been covered by Jonathan King, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Tops appeared in a Velveeta commercial singing “It’s The Same Old Side.”
6. Standing In The Shadows Of Love – 1967 – Also from the “Reach Out” album. In 1990, Aerosmith used a riff in their single “The Other Side” that sounded similar to this song. Aerosmith’s lawyers, in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit, gave Holland-Dozier-Holland credit for the Aerosmith single.
7. Keeper of the Castle – 1972 – Their first single after leaving Motown went to #10 on the weekly charts. It’s from the album of the same name.
8. When She Was My Girl – 1981 – It had been eight years since the group had a top 40 hit and after signing with Casablanca Records they did just that. It would also be their last top 40 hit for seven more years.
9. Baby I Need Your Loving – 1964 – Their very first hit went to #11 on the weekly charts. Cover versions have been many, including those by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Gene Pitney and Johnny Rivers, who took his version to #3 on the weekly charts.
10. Still Water (Love) – 1970 – Written by Smokey Robinson and Frank Wilson, this silky tune is a departure from the hard rocking songs the Tops had been doing. From the “Still Waters Run Deep” album, this single featured Marv Tarplin, of the Miracles, on guitar.
11. River Deep – Mountain High – 1971 – Written by Phil Spector for Ike & Tina Turner in 1966, it was later covered by Eric Burdon and the Animals in 1968. The most successful cover version was by The Four Tops, when they teamed up with The Supremes, sans Diana Ross, and took it Top 20.
12. 7 Rooms Of Gloom – 1967 – Also covered by Blondie and Pat Benetar, the Four Tops did not like this song and never performed it in concert. The B-side, “I’ll Turn to Stone” was also released, but only made it to #76 on the charts.
13. Walk Away Renee – 1968 – Originally recorded by The Left Banke in 1966 going to #5, The Four Tops have the most successful cover version of this song. Renee was an infatuation of Left Banke keyboardist, Michael Brown, who wrote the song about bassist Tom Finn’s girlfriend.
14. Are You Man Enough? – 1973 – This song was featured on the album soundtrack and in the film, “Shaft In Africa” starring Richard Roundtree.
15. Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over) – 1966 – Poor Levi Stubbs can’t believe his woman is leaving him for another man. But she does, in this top 20 hit that has also been covered by Barbra Streisand, The Supremes and Shaun Cassidy.
16. Something About You – 1965 – Their follow up to “It’s The Same Old Song” this song barely cracked the top 20. It is not to be confused with the Level 42 song of the same name.
17. You Keep Running Away – 1967 – From their “Greatest Hits” album, this song, like most of their singles, had backup vocals by The Adantes, who did backup work for many Motown artists.
18. If I Were A Carpenter – 1968 – Written by Tim Hardin and originally recorded by Bobby Darin in 1966, The Four Tops covered it in 1968 and went top 20 with it.
19. It’s All In The Game – 1970 – Another cover version of a great standard, originally recorded by Tommy Edwards in 1958, the Four Tops soulful sound stands out in this top 30 hit for them.
20. Ask The Lonely – 1965 – Their third single for Motown was written by longtime staffer, Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Joe Hunter.
The Four Tops last Top 40 hit was “Indestructible” in 1988.
The quartet also did some movie work singing a song in the 1982 film, “Grease 2.” Levi Stubbs provided the voice of the voracious vegetation, Audrey II, in the 1986 film musical, “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Running late from a recording session in December 1988, the group missed their flight home from their European tour. It turned out to be Pan Am flight 103, which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, when a terrorist bomb was detonated onboard.
In 1997, after 44 years without ever changing personnel, Lawrence Payton died of lung cancer. “Obie” Benson also died of lung cancer eight years later. Lead singer, Levi Stubbs, died in his home in Detroit in 2008. “Duke” Fakir is the only surviving original member, who still performs with three other members as The Four Tops.
The Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
In 2009, they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Their song, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.