Today marks the 50th anniversary of Levi & the Four Tops, the only Motown recording group that has stayed together for more than half a century. This date will also be remembered as a momentous occasion for Black History Month. The Four Tops grabbed fans with their trademark harmonies, and well-groomed presence, but they made an achievement that no group has ever done; up until 1997, they were the only group to maintain the same line-up for 43 years.
Well this year the group is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and this article is to honour their contributions to Black history and music culture. In 1954, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Abdul "Duke" Fakir, and the late Lawrence Payton was asked to get together at a neighbour’s birthday party, and after they hit their first note, they decided to form a group and pursue a singing career. They called themselves the Four Aims (that stood for aiming for the top) and started performing at local talent shows, but were forced to change their name to avoid confusing with the Ames Brothers, so they renamed themselves the Four Tops, and though they recorded great records for Chess and Columbia Records, they didnt score any hits. They started receiving praises for their live audiences showing their abilities to sing Pop, Soul, Jazz, Standards and Broadway tunes. In 1964, Berry Gordy signed the group to Motown Records, and started recording a Jazz album, but with Motown reaching a young audience, shelved the album, and teamed them with producers and songwriters Holland-Doizer-Holland and released their debut single "Baby, I Need Your Loving." The following year, the group scored their first chart topper with "I Cant Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" which was named the song of the year. Columbia records tried to cash in on the groups success by re-releasing their single "Aint That Love," so HDH rushed the group into the studio to record "Its The Same Ole Song." In 1966 The group released their second chart topper "Reach Out, Ill Be There" which became an instant classic and gained them European fans. The song featured the use of an orchestra, flutes, and Arabian drums and stayed on the charts for three months followed by "Standing In The Shadows Of Love," "Bernadette," and "7 Rooms Of Gloom," but their hit winning steak came to a halt when Holland-Doizer-Holland left Motown over royalty disputes. Producer Frank Wilson stepped in and produced "Still Waters Run Deep" which was dubbed the first concept album. They also recorded three hit albums with the Supremes and their single "River Deep, Mountain High" reached number 16.
In 1972, Gordy had moved Motown to Los Angeles and like most artist, The Tops didnt want to leave Detroit, and after a dispute with former president Ewart Abner, the group signed with ABC/Dunhill records where they hit big with "Aint No Woman (Like The One I Got)" and "Keeper Of The Castle." In 1981, they signed with Casablanca Records and scored with "When She Was My Girl" and their first ballad "I Believe In You and Me." Two years later, The Four Tops battled The Temptations on the Motown 25 anniversary special and joined the group the single "Im The One (The Battle Song)" and on a successful three year tour. They also resigned with Motown and had moderate success with "Just Cant Walk Away." In 1988, they signed with Arista Records and scored with "Indestructible" a song recorded with Smokey Robinson that was used as the theme song for the Olympics along with "If Ever A Love There Was" with Aretha Franklin and "Loco In Acapulco" for the Buster soundtrack. Stubbs portrayed the talking plant in the film "Little Shops Of Horror" and earned a Oscar nomination for the song "Mean Green From Outer Space," but he never thought of going solo.
In the 1990s many young acts started covering the groups songs including Rappers Jay-Z & Foxy Brown, who sampled "Aint No Woman" for their hit "Aint No N***a" while Whitney Houstons rendition of "I Believe In You And Me" helped pushed "The Preachers Wife" soundtrack up Gospel charts. The group started receiving many awards including being inducted into both the NAACP Image and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame until Payton, the groups vocal arranger died of liver cancer on June 20, 1997. Over 10,000 family, friends and fans attended his funeral to say goodbye, and his partners continued to perform in his memory by dedicating each show to his memory. "Lawrence can never be replaced on stage or in our hearts" they said and called themselves The Tops, but the following year, they recruited Theo Peoples, a former member of The Temptations.
Levi Stubbs and Motown’s legendary vocal group are being honoured today in Detroit, February 25th, for providing fans with their inimitable harmonies for the past half century. The celebration is entitled: "It’s all the way live with Levi - 50 Years & Still Going". Stubbs, who has not been performing with the group since 2000, is home recovering from a mild heart attack and a stroke. This event will mark the first official event Levi has participated in since his recovery. In attendance will be The Temptations, The Contours, Mary Wilson, Dennis Edwards, The Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Spinners, The Dells, Ollie Woodson, The Satin Tones, The Supremes including members Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrell, Sherry Payne, and a very special appearance from the world’s most renowned king and queen of soul music. Hostess for the evening will be Claudette Robinson. Proceeds of the event will benefit The Gwendolyn B. Gordy Fuqua Memorial Fund for Motown artists of the 60’s and 70’s in need of medical and financial resources.
Some of the above info taken from Rhythmn n Blues Foundation website (an independent nonprofit service organization solely dedicated to the historical and cultural preservation of Rhythm & Blues music)