The Four Tops: Operatic Soul

The history of Motown's most dramatic vocal group

The Four Tops
The Four Tops. Getty Images

Who were the Four Tops?

They were one of Motown's ridiculously deep bench of vocal groups, but The Four Tops stood out for a few reasons: their use as a template for a more dramatic, orchestral version of the classic Motown "Sound of Young America," the astonishing basso profundo of Levi Stubbs, half-growl and half-shout all at once, and their simple longevity, staying together in their original lineup even longer than the Rolling Stones or Kinks could

The Four Tops' best known songs:

  • "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)"
  • "Reach Out I'll Be There"
  • "Standing in the Shadows of Love"
  • "It's the Same Old Song"
  • "Bernadette"
  • "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)"
  • "When She Was My Girl"
  • "Ask the Lonely"
  • "7 Rooms of Gloom"
  • "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)"

Where you might have heard them The Four Tops meant a great deal to the Sixties kids who grew up with their epic tales of undying love and affection, which is the reason "I Can't Help Myself" is featured prominently on two of the greatest "Sixties film" soundtracks there are: The Big Chill (about aging hippies) and Forrest Gump (about America in general). They were well-respected in R&B circles too, however, which is how otherwise minor hits wind up in films like Four Brothers ("Shake Me, Wake Me") and Superbad ("Are You Man Enough").

Formed 1956 (Detroit, MI)

Styles Motown, Pop, Soul, Pop-Soul, R&B, Pop-Jazz, Pop Vocal, Broadway

The Four Tops members in the classic lineup:

Levi Stubbs (b. Levi Stubbles, January 6, 1936, Detroit, MI; d. October 17, 2008, Detroit, MI): Lead vocal (baritone)
Abdul "Duke" Fakir (b. December 26, 1935, Detroit, MI): Vocals (first tenor)
Lawrence Payton (b. Lawrence Albert Payton, June 2, 1938, Detroit, MI; d. June 20, 1997, Detroit, MI): vocals (second tenor)
Renaldo "Obie" Benson (b. June 14, 1936, Detroit, MI; d. July 1, 2005, Detroit, MI): vocals (baritone)

Claims to fame:

  • Longest-lived group without personnel changes in rock history (41 years from 1956-1997)
  • Brought a sense of high, almost operatic drama to soul
  • Lead singer Levi Stubbs was an inestimable influence on soul/R&B vocalists
  • Helped establish a beachhead for American music at the height of the British Invasion
  • Maintained a near-constant presence on the R&B charts for over two decades

The history of the Four Tops

Early years

Detroit natives all, Levi and Duke met and began singing together at the city's Pershing High School, while Obie and Lawrence did the same at Northern High. The four met while singing at a friend's birthday party in 1954, realized they had a great sound, and joined forces to become The Four Aims. A demo tape sent to Chicago's Chess Records eventually got them signed, and the group changed its name to The Four Tops to avoid confusion with popular vocal group The Ames Brothers. The single flopped.


Several other attempts at straight pop vocal followed on other labels, also with no success; even when the group signed to the fledgling Motown label in 1962, head Berry Gordy pushed them into a pop-jazz vein. Eventually retooled as a pop-soul act, the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland team, already on a roll, penned "Baby I Need Your Loving" specifically for the group. Rocketing to #11 in 1964, it set the stage for over thirty hit singles as the Motown hit machine rolled into high gear.

Later years

In 1966, H/D/H changed their tack, writing stunning R&B operettas such as "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "Bernadette," tailor-made for Levi's booming, dramatic voice. When the songwriting team left Motown in 1967, however, the group's fortunes suffered, but they were able to maintain a presence on the pop/R&B charts all the way to 1988. Even after the hits dried up, the group has remained a popular touring act, despite the fact that Fakir is the only surviving original member.

More about the Four Tops

Other Four Tops fun facts and trivia:

  • Other members have included: Theo Peoples, Ronnie McNeir, Roquel Payton
  • Theo is a former Temptation; Roquel is the son of Lawrence Payton
  • Renaldo "Obie" Benson also served as a staff songwriter for Motown and co-wrote Marvin Gaye's classic "What's Going On"
  • Originally started at Motown as backup for the Supremes
  • Unlike most vocal groups, the Tops were fronted by a baritone, not a tenor
  • Levi Stubbs is the voice of the man-eating plant, Audrey II, in the film Little Shop of Horrors

Four Tops awards and honors Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1990), Vocal Group Hall of Fame (1999), Grammy Hall of Fame (1998)

The Four Tops' songs, hits, and albums

#1 hits
Pop "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" (1965), "Reach Out I'll Be There" (1966)

R&B "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" (1965), "Reach Out I'll Be There" (1966), "When She Was My Girl" (1981)

Top 10 hits
Pop "It's the Same Old Song" (1965), "Standing in the Shadows of Love" (1966), "Bernadette" (1966). "Keeper of the Castle" (1973), "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)" (1973)

R&B "Ask the Lonely" (1965), "It's the Same Old Song" (1965), "Something About You" (1965), "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)" (1966), "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" (1966), "Standing in the Shadows of Love" (1966), "Bernadette" (1966), "7 Rooms of Gloom" (1967), "You Keep Running Away" (1967), "It's All in the Game" (1970), "Still Water (Love)" (1970), "River Deep - Mountain High" (1971), "Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten out My Life)" (1971), "(It's the Way) Nature Planned It"(1972), "Keeper of the Castle" (1972), "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got)" (1973), "Are You Man Enough" (1973), "Sweet Understanding Love" (1973), "Midnight Flower" (1974), "One Chain Don't Make No Prison" (1974), "Catfish" (1976)

#1 albums
R&B Four Tops (1965), Four Tops Live! (1967)

Top 10 albums
R&B Four Tops Second Album (1965), 4 Tops on Top (1966), Four Tops Reach Out (1967), Yesterday's Dreams (1968), Still Waters Run Deep (1970), Nature Planned It (1972). Keeper of the Castle (1973), Main Street People (1973), Tonight! (1981)

Other important recordings: "Baby I Need Your Loving," "Without The One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)," "If I Were A Carpenter," "Walk Away Renee," "I'm In a Different World," "Yesterday's Dreams," "Don't Let Him Take Your Love From Me," "What Is A Man," "In These Changing Times," "You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart," "A Simple Game," "Seven Lonely Nights," "We All Gotta Stick Together," "I Just Can't Walk Away," "Sexy Ways," "If Ever A Love There Was"

Notable covers Johnny Rivers had an even bigger hit with his version of "Baby, I Need Your Loving" in 1967, while Pat Benatar made a rock version of "7 Rooms of Gloom" in 1985; KC and the Sunshine Band scraped the bottom of the Top 40 with their version of "It's the Same Old Song"; Rod Stewart took on "Standing in the Shadows of Love" on his hit 1978 album Blondes Have More Fun

Movies and TV Because they were a Motown act, the Four Tops were farmed out to seemingly every teen TV variety show in existence in the '60s and '70s, from "Shindig!" to "Hullabaloo" to "Top of the Pops" and "Ready, Steady, Go!" and of course both "Soul Train" and "American Bandstand." But as late as 2005 they performed on "The Late Show with David Letterman," and they can also be found on "Sesame Street" in 1986, singing a very Motown-like song about never crossing the street without an adult