Formed in 1954, the Four Tops--Levi Stubbs, Reynaldo "Obie" Benson, Abdul "Duke" Fakir, and Lawrence Payton--are almost as legendary for their complete lack of personnel changes as they are for their monumental string of mid-'60s Motown hits. Their considerable post-Motown success speaks volumes for the Detroit-based foursome's combined talent and perseverance.
Originally called the Four Aims, they began as a lounge act, recording sporadically throughout the '50s with no great success. Motown originally signed the group with an eye toward the supper-club circuit. Fate intervened when the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing/production team set Stubb's raw, cracked, crabbed, wildly emotional vocals against a pneumatic, dramatic backdrop and turned the Tops into an eight-legged hit machine. From bombast ("Reach Out [I'll Be There]," "Standing In The Shadows Of Love") to balladry ("Ask The Lonely," "Baby I Need Your Loving") the Tops could do it all ("I Can't Help Myself") and then some (the oft-imitated, never-duplicated "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever"). When H-D-H left Motown, the Tops soldiered on, scoring major hits for ABC-Dunhill with "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got)"--quoted by Me'Shell NdegeOcello on her debut LP--in '73 and for Casablanca with the splendidly nouveau retro "When She Was My Girl" in '81. (English singer/songwriter Billy Bragg added further luster to the Four Tops legend when he racked up a U.K. hit with the tribute record/pop sociology lesson "Levi Stubbs Tears," in 1986.)
In the meantime, Benson co-wrote Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Stubbs provided the voice for Audrey the man-eating plant in the 1986 film Little Shop Of Horrors, and the Four Tops were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990. Lawrence Payton died from liver cancer on June 20, 1997 at age 59. The group intends to continue as simply the Tops.