THE FOUR TOPS: ‘B&S’ CLASSIC INTERVIEW - OCTOBER 1992
Following the recent sad death of Four Tops iconic frontman Levi Stubbs, Pete Lewis fondly recalls talking to the legendary, world-conquering quartet in their Central London hotel back in October 1992.
With the unprecedented success in the Sixties of Motown Records, label president Berry Gordy had formed an independently-owned black record company that was, for the first tine, creating long-term careers for young black performers who would go on to become household names the world over. One of the premier acts to pioneer the 'Motown Sound' internationally being The Four Tops - four young men from the north end of Detroit, Michigan who joined the company in 1963.
The quartet comprised of Levi Stubbs, Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo 'Obie' Benson. However, unlike most young Motown acts at the time, The Four Tops were no newcomers to the record industry. Having performed together for the first time at a High School graduation party in 1954, the foursome eventually earned sufficient reputation from regular local gigs to sign their first record deal in 1955 with Chess Records. Calling themselves The Four Aims, they toured extensively with major jazz names like Billy Eckstine and Count Basie, until being forced to change their name due to confusion with the then-popular Ames Brothers. Prophetically becoming The Four Tops, they next released a single on Columbia Records before being signed by aforementioned long-time friend Berry Gordy.
Relaxing in the group’s Central London hotel, renowned lead vocalist Levi Stubbs recalls how they came to be with Motown: "Nothing was happening for us record-wise. We met up again with Berry Gordy, who we'd known from way back when he used to write for Jackie Wilson. Berry had formed Motown in 1959 and started scoring big hits - The Miracles, Mary Wells... By 1963 we thought it was time to join the label."
Their initial release for Motown was an obscure album entitled 'Breaking Through', released on the label's specialist jazz subsidiary Workshop Records. Featuring The Tops singing swing-jazz arrangements of MOR standards of the day, it has become a highly-prized and sought-after collectors item. Its low sales at the time, however, caused Gordy to quickly change the group's direction. He wisely assigned them to the prolific songwriting/production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian's brother Eddie Holland, who were enjoying their first taste of major chart success with fellow Motown acts like The Supremes and Martha & The Vandellas. Their first collaboration with The Tops - 'Baby I Need Your Loving', recorded in June 1964 - provided the quartet with their first US Number One later that year.
"Yeah, pretty fantastic days", recalls Levi: "Those guys were phenomenal. After 'Baby I Need Your Loving' we had a solid hit run - 'Without The One You Love', 'Ask The Lonely', 'I Can't Help Myself'... I mean, we musta sung that song so many times I wake up in the NIGHT singing it! In a way it's our theme song!" Indeed, with its solid on-the-fours stomp, compulsive bass-and-string riff, honking sax solo and tambourine clanking alongside a catchy "Sugar pie, honey bunch" call-and-response hook, 'I Can't Help Myself' was the epitome of the mid-Sixties Motown sound. It also marked the Tops' debut in the British charts, and was followed by the even stronger, more melodic 'It's The Same Old Song' - another US Top 10 hit in September 1965.
However, it was not until late 1966 that The Four Tops really established themselves as a consistently-successful international chart act. The powerful 'Reach Out, I'll Be There' was released in the UK on October 7 of that year and quickly rose to Number One in both British and American charts. The second Motown single to hit Number One in the UK (the first being The Supremes' 'Baby Love' in 1964), 'Reach Out...' was Holland-Dozier-Holland's most innovative moment to date. Levi's pleading, strained vocal entered forcefully over a pounding beat, following a distinctive intro of woodwind, percussion and bass that immediately set this Sixties anthem apart from all previous Motown records. Its world-famous title-hook has since provided this landmark single with classic status, and it remains as much the highlight of the foursome's explosive live shows today as it did during their first UK visit, organised at the time of their chart-topper by Beatles' manager Brian Epstein.
The Tops could do no wrong in 1967, as a string of follow-ups achieved transatlantic hit status. 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love', 'Bernadette' and 'Seven Rooms Of Gloom' all retained enough of the 'Reach Out...' flavour to ensure popularity, yet each possessed a distinct character of its own. Vocally the most distinctive feature separating the Tops' releases from other uptempo Motown sounds of the day was undoubtedly Stubbs' intense, impassioned lead performance. It was therefore no surprise when the foursome expanded their repertoire to include mellow ballad material, such as the wistful 'Walk Away Renee' and their cover of (folk singer/songwriter) Tim Hardin's 'If I Were A Carpenter', both UK Top 10 hits in 1968.
The same year, however, witnessed the unexpected departure from Motown of the multi-million-selling Holland-Dozier-Holland team, resulting in The Tops being assigned to various other in-house producers - such as Ivy Hunter for the lilting ballad 'Yesterday's Dreams' and Johnny Bristol for the more experimental 'What Is A Man'. Levi remembers this unsettling period of the group's history with a touch of bitterness: "To say we were shocked when Holland-Dozier-Holland split from Motown would be like saying you're surprised when your home burns down! We were hurt, shattered, and a bit confused. We still got hits, but suddenly we weren't getting all those songs custom-written for us. We started having to really look around for material. Motown still had some very heavy songwriting talent, but somehow the things we did didn't have the same kinda magic. Most of the time we had to look long and hard to find the right song."
The eventual pairing of the group with Motown's then-rising A&R man Frank Wilson proved a timely stroke of genius, as he was to produce the bulk of the remaining hits the foursome went on to enjoy with the label - such as their moving cover of Jim Webb's 'Do What You Gotta Do', an enduring UK Top 15 hit in late 1969. Stubbs' understated, reflective performance of the song admirably contrasted with Lawrence Payton's cool tenor - and this pairing of vocals was taken further for their next Top Five single, which saw all four members taking turn to sing lead on their version of the old standard 'It's All In The Game'. Meanwhile, its follow-up - 'Still Water (Love)', released in 1970 - remains one of the group's most timeless and influential recordings, and provided a mouth-watering taster for their acclaimed Wilson-produced concept album, 'Still Waters Run Deep'.
The early Seventies also saw The Tops teaming up on-record with Motown's glamorous female trio, The Supremes, in the label's attempt to recapture the success the girls had achieved when recording with The Temptations during the previous decade. The Supremes' line-up at this time comprised of Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, and three joint albums were released - 'The Magnificent Seven' (which spawned a punchy transatlantic hit-cover of Phil Spector's 'River Deep, Mountain High'); 'The Return Of The Magnificent Seven'; and 'Dynamite'. All of which saw Levi's distinctive forceful lead matching Jean's sharp, shrill delivery to good effect. Another notable development within the band at this time came when 'Obie' Benson branched out to earn respect in his own right as co-writer of Marvin Gaye's iconic socio-political anthem 'What's Going On'.
By now, The Four Tops were enjoying greater success in the UK than back home, and they acknowledged the loyalty of their British fans by becoming, in 197l, the first Motown act to record a single outside the US. The stunning, rousing 'Simple Game' was recorded in London with (chart-topping rock outfit) Moody Blues producer Tony Clarke and, on release in the autumn, became The Tops' first UK Top Three success since 'Walk Away Renee' back in January 1968. Yet, that success was not repeated in the US. Which in turn led to the disillusioned foursome leaving Motown in 1972 (at the time of the company's move to LA from Detroit) to sign with ABC/Dunhill Records. It was a parting that Stubbs still feels aggrieved about: "Our contract with Motown came up for renewal, and it was the final bad trip! They gave us jive like ‘We don't think you're hot enough for the money you want!'! Now sure, our sales had been falling, but whose fault was that?! For YEARS we'd been asking for a more creative situation! In the early years, Motown had been a happy family, a real relaxed thing. Now it had become a hard, hard business. It was difficult to leave a black company, but it seemed we had to make a new start."
ABC/Dunhill recognised the need to match The Tops' vocal input with a consistent writing/production team. This they found in the unlikely form of pop veterans Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who at the time were yearning to move into soul music. The twosome had a musical vision for the group and presented them with a set of fresh and memorably melodic songs for the quartet’s debut ABC album, 'Keeper Of The Castle’. Not only did the funky title track spawn a transatlantic hit, but its follow-up 45 - the close-harmony love ballad 'Ain't No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)’ - returned the band to the top of the US pop chart. The quartet had regained their American market, mainly due to the fact that Lambert and Potter were recording them in a commercial, more contemporary soul vein - as also seen on further hit singles like the Philly-styled 'Are You Man Enough' (lifted from the soundtrack of the 1973 movie 'Shaft In Africa') and the hard, furiously pounding ‘One Chain Don't Make No Prison', which displayed an Isley Brothers rock-funk influence. Meanwhile, overall the Tops’ album output with ABC was, if anything, of more consistent quality than their Motown LP releases had been. As reflected in the late-1973 concept LP ‘Main Street People', which remains arguably their finest album ever. Stubbs is quick to agree: “ABC gave us an opportunity to stretch out. Like, I’m the lead voice but we've ALL got good voices. So, on that album, Lawrence took a lead. 'Main Street People' was very successful and a very satisfying album. I at last felt ‘Here's an LP which is really a WHOLE LP'!"
Yet, for some reason, British fans were comparatively unresponsive to the foursome’s ABC releases. This was possibly due to a steady stream of re-releases (or re-packaging of old product) by Motown UK, or possibly due to the group’s musical approach having become ‘too modern`. Whatever the reason, things got progressively worse with The Four Tops managing only two UK chart entries during this period - the aforementioned ‘Keeper Of The Castle’; and the Sixties-Motown-sounding ‘Sweet Understanding Love’, which edged into the Top 30 in 1973. Indeed, much of their ABC product remains underrated by the British audience to this day.
Back home in the US, meanwhile, by the mid-Seventies the sales were also failing. The group enjoyed one further big American hit - 1976’s uptempo ‘Catfish’ - before leaving the company on an embarrassingly low note, spending - amazingly - much of the late-Seventies disco era without a record deal. Yet in some ways, as Duke recalls, this low-key period provided the foursome with a well-earned break way from the demands of the record industry.
“To be honest, when the calm first came, I didn’t mind at all. We were relaxed and we were still working - lots of nightclub engagements, which we loved because that’s the way we were brought up. It was nice to go to a club, sit down and have a drink with my wife and then go and do the show without the clamour and the hustle-and-bustle. But then I started to MISS the hustle-and-bustle and the chart action - like reading (US industry mag) ‘Billboard’ every week to find out what number we were at!”
“So we started looking for a new record company, and the thing that was foremost in our minds was to find one that had as much enthusiasm for The Four Tops as WE had for ourselves. It wasn’t the easiest job in the world - it took us years to find the right combination of things.”
The “right combination” eventually turned out to be a deal with Casablanca Records, the enthusiasm of its parent company Polygram, and an ambitious new producer David Wolfert. The immediate result was one of The Tops’ biggest international hits of their career, when their Casablanca debut single - the wistful, tuneful ‘When She Was My Girl’ - became a hit worldwide, returning the group to the UK Top Three in the autumn of 1981. Levi’s uncharacteristically restrained performance gelled with some unusual haunting harmonica work, to create a stunning midtempo soul classic. This smash single was followed by a big-selling LP ‘Tonight’, which spawned two more sizeable hits - the hooky, urgent ‘Don’t Walk Away’ and the powerhouse ballad ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Love You All Over’. The Tops were indeed back `on top`, returning to Britain to perform to ecstatic crowds. Yet sadly their hit-making days with Casablanca were to be short-lived, as their second album for the label - ‘One More Mountain’, released in late 1982 - totally bombed.
Which in turn let to the group moving on again. Yet, while they appeared to drift without a recording deal for some time, in reality they were at the time negotiating a return to Motown. The public’s first glimpse of said return came when they participated in Motown’s 25th Anniversary Gala - Yesterday-Today-Forever - in 1983, which featured many present and past company acts. The Four Tops joined The Temptations onstage for a spectacular joint performance, following which Berry Gordy asked them to re-join him. They of course jumped at the chance, yet their critically-acclaimed 1983 album ‘Back Where I Belong’ surprisingly was not a hit. Similarly, ‘Magic’ - two years later - was another non-starter. And, by late 1986, the group’s second Motown adventure had finished.
Levin remains philosophical about this disappointing period: “When Motown first started, it was more of a family-oriented thing, which made it different from any other record company in the world. But then, when you get other people involved in the latter years, it becomes more of a sort of cut-and-dried business… Which is fine from THEIR point of view, but for the artists that have been there from its inception, it doesn’t have that same warmth. So, when that happens, it’s time to say bye-bye under amiable circumstances. Which is what we did.”
Realising their predicament, the resilient foursome moved on again - this time to Arista, where they recorded under the personal supervision of label-boss (and veteran industry starmaker) Clive Davis. Once more, changing record companies changed their luck and the anthemic, sweeping ‘Indestructible’ single returned them to the world’s airwaves with a vengeance in mid-1988. The song preceded a same-titled, much-touted new album, which featured guest appearances and contributions from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Huey Lewis, Smokey Robinson, Kenny G and, of course, Phil Collins - whose poppy ‘Loco In Acapulco’ (which he co-wrote with Lamont Dozier) returned The Tops to the UK Top Ten and was of course featured in his successful ‘Buster’ movie.
Today, while seemingly quiet on the record front, The Tops are still apparently signed to Arista in the US. Meanwhile, Motown UK continue to milk their Sixties recordings, with in particular a commercial-dance ‘PWL Remix’ of ‘Reach Out…’ hitting the Top 20 a few years back. The group’s stage show is as dynamic and energetic and ever, as witnessed by their two recent visits to the UK, and a measure of the ongoing popularity of their old material can be witnessed by three compilation releases this year - ‘Motown’s Greatest Hits’ (the Motown era); ‘The Collection’ (the ABC era); and the well-advertised ‘Singles Collection’, which covers their entire career.
Having already achieved their legendary status many moons ago, The Four Tops’ longevity is indeed awesome. There is almost certainly no other vocal group still prominent in today’s music scene whose line-up has remained intact for 38 years, and the group will always be remembered as one of the few American acts to make an important and lasting impression on both the US and UK record markets during the time of The Great British Invasion of “the swinging Sixties”. Having said that, it is perhaps unfortunate that the impact made by those early Tops Motown classics has tended to overshadow many fine (and successful) recordings made by the quartet later on in their career - which, in any other group’s repertoire, would undoubtedly be acknowledged as major highlights.
In reality, despite years of subsequent hits with other labels, The Tops are - and always will be - primarily recognised as a one-time Motown supergroup. Yet that in itself is most certainly not a tag that these four music biz veterans will dismiss lightly. Detroiters through-and-through, they have refused to be lured to the glamour and safety of Hollywood mansions and remain close to their roots in the Motor City, where they are leaders in their community, active in local projects, and involved in their hometown’s renaissance. In 1987, July 29 was declared an annual State-wide Four Tops Day by a citation from Michigan State governor, James Blanchard, who honoured the group for their contribution to American music and their civic activities in Detroit. Fitting recognition indeed for a foursome whose musical and personal integrity is seemingly ‘Indestructible’.
Levi Stubbs died at his home in Detroit, Michigan aged 72 on October 17 2008, having in recent years suffered from cancer and a stroke.
R.I.P. Levi, with heartfelt love and appreciation for the countless hours of enduring musical pleasure you consistently brought to your millions of adoring fans all across the globe.
Words PETE LEWIS