The Four Tops are an American vocal quartet from Detroit, Michigan who helped to define the city’s Motown sound of the 1960s.
The Four Tops were among a number of groups, including The Miracles, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, and The Supremes, who established the Motown Sound around the world during the 1960s.
They were notable for having Stubbs, a baritone, as their lead singer, whereas most male or mixed vocal groups of the time were fronted by a tenor.
When Motown left Detroit in 1972 to move to Los Angeles, California, the Tops stayed in Detroit but signed a new recording deal with ABC Records’ Dunhill imprint.
Recording mainly in Los Angeles, they continued to have chart singles into the late 1970s, including the million-seller, “Ain’t No Woman”, their second release on Dunhill, produced by Steve Barri and composers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter.
A change of line-up was finally forced upon the group when Lawrence Payton died on June 20, 1997.
The group initially continued as a three-piece under the name The Tops, before Theo Peoples (formerly of The Temptations) was recruited as the new fourth member.
Peoples eventually took over the role of lead singer when Stubbs suffered a stroke in 2000, with Ronnie McNeir then joining the group.
On July 1, 2005, Benson died of lung cancer with Payton’s son Roquel Payton replacing him.
All four members of the group began their careers together while they were high school students in Detroit.
At the insistence of their friends, Pershing High students Levi Stubbs and Abdul “Duke” Fakir performed with Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton from Northern High at a local birthday party.
The quartet decided to remain together and christened them The Four Aims. With the help of Payton’s songwriter cousin Roquel Davis, The Aims signed to Chess Records in 1956, changing their name to Four Tops to avoid confusion with The Ames Brothers.
Over the next seven years, The Tops endured unsuccessful tenures at Chess, Red Top, Riverside Records and Columbia Records.
In 1986 Stubbs provided the voice for the man-eating plant Audrey II in the film Little Shop of Horrors; in 1985 the group had its last Motown hit: “Sexy Ways” (Number 21 R&B).
Like many older Motown artists, the Four Tops sought another label, and in 1988 they signed with Arista.
“Indestructible” (Number 35 pop, Number 66 R&B) marked resurgence in the band’s career, especially in the U.K., where their “Loco in Acapulco,” from the soundtrack of the Phil Collins film Buster, was a Top Ten hit.
Chart wise, the Four Tops had become one of the most popular American acts in the U.K., where a remix of “Reach out I’ll Be There” hit Number 11 in 1988, and the saloon standard “It’s all in the Game” had gone to Number Five in 1970.
In 1989 the group appeared on Aretha Franklin’s Through the Storm, and in 1990 Stevie Wonder inducted the Tops into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
They returned to Motown in the Nineties and recorded a Christmas album, but tragedy struck in 1997 when Lawrence Payton, the architect of the Tops’ harmonies, died of liver cancer.
The remaining members eventually recruited Theo Peoples, a former member of the Temptations.