It occurred to me the other day that on 6 June 1936 a very special guy was born in Detroit, a man who was destined to front one of soul music, and perhaps the world’s most recognisable of groups. And this got me thinking: talking about my favourite group ever and its main man is long over due. But where to start without repeating much published biographies which can easily be read elsewhere? Dipping into their British musical achievements and milestones appealed, so let’s talk Four Tops – Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and of course, their main man, Levi Stubbs. All Detroiters; all true to the group until death they did part and, a point to mention, never once did it cross Levi’s mind to ditch his friends for a solo career, or insist that his name be upfront of them – “we enjoy singing together but we’re friends first!” he said.
With his laughing eyes and wide smile, Levi was the boss or leading force in the group. His influence over audiences during their performances was unique, although he one time quipped, “It’s not like being their God or anything like that, but it’s a beautiful feeling.” Levi was a strikingly attractive figure of a man, and like his friends, was always sharply dressed whether front stage or back. He was sophisticated, and although sometimes intimidating, his calming effect on fans and journalists alike warmed him to them. Hah, and I’ve not mentioned his voice yet: a natural golden baritone, that he often strained when reaching the tenor range which some of the songs demanded. Often the veins in his neck stood out, with sweat pouring down his face, as the pleading urgency in his voice captured the very essence of Holland, Dozier, Holland’s compositions. “His bold, dramatic readings of their material set a high standard for contemporary soul in the mid-sixties”, a journalist once wrote.
Out of loyalty to his friends, he dismissed all offers of a solo career, even to the extent of refusing to play Louis McKay opposite Diana Ross in “Lady Sings The Blues”. He would never overshadow the others, he said. However, he did lend his voice to Audrey, a carnivorous plant in the 1986 musical “Little Shop Of Horrors”, and three years later to the evil Mother Brain in the television series “Captain N:The Game Master”.
Levi was the defining sound of the Four Tops, although he modestly said in 1994, “I’m rather loud and raw. I don’t really have a style. I just come by the way I sing naturally. When I learn a song, I try to live it as best I can.” On the other hand, Duke Fakir was more emphatic, saying, “He was a master performer and had a terrific voice. He could touch you by just singing about a stone. I look at him as one of the finest lead singers in the world.”
So let’s dip in and out of their UK career, using Levi’s quotes, and I promise with not a mention of my association with them, running their fan club or Motown Ad Astra that followed. He told a now unknown American reporter the group was born in 1954 when they were kids fresh out of high school. They all left with diplomas with ambitions to make an impression on the world. Music though was their common denominator, “We decided we wanted to become professional singers. We taught ourselves four-part harmony and rehearsed every single moment we could. For a while we inflicted ourselves on people at church socials and school functions. They seemed to like what they heard, so it encouraged us a lot. From there, we went on to win a succession of amateur talent contests and after that we just found ourselves wrapped up in show business.”
Choosing to name themselves The Four Aimes (because they were aiming for the top!) they took their smooth style and mellow, tight harmonies to parties, colleges and a few Detroit nightclubs for a couple of years. Singing a mixture of standards and jazz they attracted a following which culminated in their first professional engagement at the Ebony Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio, where for a week they earned the princely sum of $329. However, it only took a further year for them to move up a groove when Billy Davis, cousin of Lawrence, offered them a recording contract with Chess Records. Changing their name to the Four Tops (not The Four Tops) to avoid confusion with the already established Ames Brothers, their stay at the company, although a learning curve, was unsuccessful, resulting in one single released in 1956 titled “Kiss Me Baby”. Once again, they turned to the club circuit, travelling distances to work, including hooking up with the Larry Steele Revue in 1958 to criss-cross America, performing four shows a day, all week. Later, they opened for Della Reese on an eight week tour, then BB King, before supporting the rising star Jackie Wilson (Levi’s cousin) and, of course, Billy Eckstine, where they fronted his touring revue and learned their craft.
In between times, another recording contract was dangled before them. This time with Columbia Records but, before the ink had dried on the document, the Four Tops had released “Ain’t That Love” – and were dropped! From here, more short tenures followed with the Detroit-based labels Red Top, Singular and Riverside Records, where they issued “Pennies From Heaven” and “Where Are You” late in 1962. Positive help thankfully was on the way, and to cut another story short, Berry Gordy signed them. This actually took him two years to pull off – he’d wanted them at Motown much earlier and to this end had given them a recording contract to sign, but for some reason the move failed to happen. Once under Motown’s umbrella, the Tops became session singers for the likes of Mary Wells, and Holland & Dozier. In between times, they continued to work local clubs, and with Billy Eckstine, to boost their income. Then it was the Tops turn to record in their own right, recording nearly thirty tracks for their debut album “Breaking Through” destined for release in 1964 via Motown’s subsidiary Workshop Jazz, as Berry Gordy wanted to attract adult jazz enthusiasts to expand his buying market. The album wasn’t released at the time, unlike others by Earl Washington, Paula Greer and Pepper Adams, among others. Workshop Jazz lived for a year, with no hint of the desired success.
To be fair, Berry was at a loss where to place the group, and didn’t want to lose them. He then hit on a plan: he sought out Holland, Dozier and Holland who had made such great strides with The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. The ploy, he believed, might just work but it was a difficult transition period for the group because it needed Levi’s voice to be out front, which was something never considered previously. From the first tentative recording steps that included experimenting with “Baby I Need Your Loving” in 1964, it was decided this would be the recording formula for the future. Interestingly, Levi couldn’t warm to the song, and suggested Lawrence be lead. No chance, was the feedback. The recorded version had such hit potential that Berry Gordy was convinced it would kick start their career. He was spot on. However, any chance of them enjoying a British hit was scuppered at the time by The Fourmost’s version which soared into the top thirty. And, unfortunately, this practice would dog Motown artists – and of course American acts generally – for years, denying them hits in their own right – and that’s another story! It was left to “I Can’t Help Myself” on the Tamla Motown label to introduce the Four Tops as a new UK charting name in July 1965, followed by “It’s The Same Old Song”, both top thirty hits. “Those guys were phenomenal” enthused Mr Stubbs about Holland, Dozier and Holland. “After ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ we had a solid hit run.” Indeed, the Four Tops were on their way. “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” was their third British hit, and at its release Levi spoke to Alan Smith. “We spent years trying to improve our act. Every performance we give, we try to be that little bit better. Some people think of us as specialising in one type of music, but we don’t. That would put us in a rut. We’re inspired by anyone who has talent…and we sing everything from pop, country and western, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and progressive music.”
Then Holland, Dozier and Holland electrified the groove. Motown’s music exploded in a way it never had before, prompting UK journalist Penny Valentine to write, “If you have ever been lonely, if you have any soul or any heart at all, you must go and buy this record now. After you’ve heard it you will never need to listen to another record for as long as you live.” No guesses needed – “Reach Out I’ll Be There” shot to the top of the UK chart in 1966, Motown’s second to do so (The Supremes’ “Baby Love” in 1964 was the first). With its introduction of teenager Danya Hartwick’s flute, galloping percussion, and the improvised recording technique of hands tapping on a wooden chair, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was so untypical of the Motown sound created by H-D-H. It was the jewel in the crown, rapidly progressing from a landmark release into a Motown anthem, worlds apart from anything heard previously. Ironically, Levi wasn’t happy with the song, saying he was a singer not a talker (in view of comments made over previous singles where he was accused of shouting on record rather than singing) yet the line “just look over your shoulder” was his spontaneous addition! H-D-H also had their reservations; in fact they didn’t want the song released at all, claiming it to be an experiment using the Tops, The Andantes and Funk Brothers. Berry Gordy thought otherwise and issued it, saying “we’re releasing the biggest record you’ve ever made.” Once the overwhelming success of the single had sunk in, Levi was rather blasé, “We’re naturally thrilled at the success….but we don’t have to let off steam over it. I think we’ve been around long enough to know the ups and downs of this business without becoming overcome when something like this happens….We knew at once that it was a big hit sound. It was a unique combination of ballad and rock.”
In November 1966, the Four Tops – who by now toured endlessly – performed two sell out concerts at London’s Saville Theatre, with hundreds of fans unsuccessful in getting tickets. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, stunned at the riotous welcome the group received there, booked the Royal Albert Hall for them in January, with two shows before 14,000 people. A special sound system was fitted in the Hall to reflect the Motown sound, which was a first for the venue. With Madeline Bell among the support acts, the audiences (including myself) were hysterical from start to finish. There was something in the air; the atmosphere was electric; it was just the place to be at that time. One reviewer glowed, “It was the Saville Theatre twenty times over. It was a spectacle on a scale you wouldn’t have expected outside a mammoth film production…the incredible enthusiasm of a World Cup football crowd. And that was before the Four Tops stepped on stage.” Four Tops fever had hit the UK, and this red hot reception was repeated throughout the tour. “That was one of our greatest moments” Levi said of the London date.
Touring the UK would now be an annual event and although the initial hysteria may have dampened, the group continued to perform before packed audiences. Levi – “I like an audience that lets itself go, and the people who come to see us to do whatever they feel. You can always tell when someone is into what you are doing. I think we have some regular fans and we seem to be getting younger ones too….English audiences are so loyal. They’ve been good to us and we know they don’t drop you just like that.” After several years of visits, Levi remarked that they had been so fortunate. “We can’t say ‘it’s because of that producer or that..’ because we’ve had various producers on our records. Personality-wise, we don’t clash very often as a group. We’ve been around each other so long we’ve got to the stage where the right hand knows what the left hand is going to do…Touring the UK is like a mad house!”
Mad house it might have been, but a dangerous one also, as he remembered a particular concert at the Finsbury Park Astoria with a 2,000 audience at fever pitch. The Tops had reached finale time when Levi threw his hanky into the air. Of course, the inevitable happened; fans thronged forward at the same time as the curtain dropped to the stage with an unaware Levi standing there. While the other three Tops were hauled to safety, police and security wrenched Levi clear of the falling curtain weighing several tons. “I just didn’t realise (it) was coming down. I can remember moving towards the edge of the stage and hearing it touch. When I realised what had happened it made my head spin. I was very lucky.”
Touring dominated their lives. The group rarely spent time with their families because when not on the road, they were in the studio, which of course, was the same for all Motown’s A-list acts. “Sometimes I feel like we’re non-stop machines. Don’t ask me how we stand up to it, but somehow we do.”
“Standing In The Shadows Of Love” followed “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. The spine tingling excitement in “Bernadette” was next, with “Seven Rooms Of Gloom”, “You Keep Running Away” and “Walk Away Renee” rounding off 1967. Motown/UK took the initiative to extract the latter track from the “Reach Out” album which was almost top heavy with cover versions (“If I Were A Carpenter”, “Last Train To Clarksville”, “I’m A Believer”, “Cherish”) and their fans were far from happy. Levi was quick to respond that the tracks weren’t newly recorded, “(and) to be honest we just haven’t had the time to get into the studios to cut new material. The album was experimental because it was the first time we’d tackled really successful pop songs from other writers. And it came off. Maybe not so many people really dug ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ but that was just us trying to give a new approach to the original rather than just copy the arrangement and style of The Monkees.” At the time of this interview, Levi confirmed they had recently been in the studio trying to stockpile material and they had plans to work again with Holland, Dozier, Holland .“because they’re great writers and our approach fits so well. It’s like a marriage” As it turned out, “I’m In A Different World” was their last official release with the trio in 1968, the follow-up to “Yesterday’s Dreams”, but others came to light in later years. “We were hurt, shattered and a bit confused…suddenly we weren’t getting all those custom-written songs” Levi said when H-D-H left Motown due to unresolved issues. “And we started having to look around for material.” It was also at this time that questions were asked about them retiring from live performances, but that was a move Levi would not entertain. “The day we decide to do that will be the day we’ll probably give up the whole thing. Working in the studios is a kick but we still believe that if people buy the records then it’s a pleasure for all of us to communicate on stage.”
The somewhat haphazard – yet successful – trait of releasing cover version singles continued until the Four Tops hooked up properly with Frank Wilson, although one or two did slip in. Their first commercial collaboration resulted in the “Still Waters Run Deep” album, a wonderfully warm collection of material, creating a whole different sound for the group, including the two lifted singles “It’s All In The Game” (a Tommy Edwards’ original) and “Still Waters (Love)”; top five and ten respectively. However, prior to this alliance, the Tops took several months out for personal reasons. Or as Levi put it, the group “ran out of gas”. The years of touring had taken their roll on them. “We were off almost nine months and I’m not sure it did us any good. It’s an uphill fight getting back to the top (but) we wanted to get back to our fans and really get things moving again….We’re very fortunate to have Frank Wilson as a producer because he’s really into us. He’s into a smooth sort of stuff, and I guess that’s been our bag just lately.”
From here, they followed in the footsteps of Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations, by teaming up with The Supremes (Jean Terrell, Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson) for a trio of albums (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Return Of The Magnificent Seven”, “Dynamite” – 1970/1971) and a handful of singles. The music followed no particular pattern, rather a sweet jar full of sounds, snatched at will. However, many (including myself) believed the pairing to be genius. Levi and Jean exchanging vocal dialogue was quite awesome, but they didn’t, sadly, have the edge or the high ranking material given to the previous spirited pairing. Despite the two groups being in the UK at the same time during 1971, there were no plans for them to tour together, let alone perform on the same stage. Hah, not quite! When the Tops appeared on the Save Rave concert at the Royal Albert Hall, The Supremes surprised the audience by being their special guests, probably representing at the time, the most expensive recording talent in the industry. Levi had hoped a fully blown tour would follow (they’d already done so in America) but conceded the financial implications would have been too high for any promoter.
The year 1971 was incredibly significant in the history of Motown because the Four Tops recorded in London. The first act to do so. The story goes that The Moody Blues’ Tony Clarke received a phone call from someone at Motown praising his work and invited him to stop by the Detroit studios when he was next in the city, with a view to working with the Tops and Rare Earth. During his visit, Tony was asked to deviate from the Motown sound because the music he was creating was what they wanted. It happened then, that when the Tops had spare time during their next visit to the UK they got together. To this end, Tony had already chosen “Simple Game” and had recorded the backing track with Blue Mink’s musicians with Arthur Greenslade’s string section. After playing them the track, the Tops rehearsed the song in ten minutes and were confident enough to record it. “It was a tremendous challenge” said Tony at the time. “I just couldn’t believe it. Here was I, a skinny British bloke telling one of the greatest vocal groups in the world what to sing and how.” The tapes were then shipped to Detroit for final vetting and finishing: the all clear was given with the Tops enjoying a top three British hit. However, it took fans a little time to come to terms with “Simple Game” being recorded outside their beloved Motown studios but, to be fair, the single was climbing the chart before the media interviews began. “We (had) a good feeling for that tune so we did it,” Levi told NME’s Julie Webb. “I remember the recording session took all night but we were pleased with the finished result.” “So Deep Within You” also originated from that session but wasn’t released until 1973, a year after the Tops had left Motown, because it was considered a disposable item at the time!
The time was drawing close to the end of an era. And indeed, within the space of two charting singles – “You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart” with The Supremes, and “Walk With Me, Talk With Me Darling” from the “Nature Planned It” album – the Four Tops and Motown had parted company. The group switched to ABC Dunhill Records, while Motown shed tears of disbelief, which were later dried during 1983 when they returned. In the time between, of course, the group enjoyed a spasmodic hit run, yet their much heralded return home was fraught with problems. So much so they packed their musical suitcasses once more to move to Arista, where their chart success of the sixties returned with the top sellers like “Loco In Acapulco”.
Clearly there’s so much more that could be written about Levi Stubbs and the group but this really is the briefest of overviews.. One thing that’s always struck me to be strange is, unlike other Motown acts, they’ve never written a book about their career. I came close with the help of Levi’s daughter Deborah but sadly it come to nothing.
The group that played and loved together was to be tragically broken when Lawrence Payton died in 1997, with Obie Benson following in 2005. And, Levi Stubbs was next. He was diagnosed with cancer before suffering a stroke, but this didn’t prevent him appearing with his friends in July 2004 at the Detroit Opera House to celebrate their 50th anniversary together. However, it was a losing battle. On 17 October 2008 one of the greatest voices of our age was silenced. Levi died in his sleep in his Detroit home. He was 72 years old.
“He was the greatest interpreter of songs I’ve ever heard,” said Berry Gordy. “He was lead singer of the greatest and most loving group…people all over the world (were) touched by his rare voice and remarkable spirit.”
(My thanks to those journalists who I’m unable to identify through the passage of time)