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Still Standing in the Shadows of Motown

July 27, 2004

By MICHELINE MAYNARD

DETROIT, July 24 - Inside the tiny house where Motown

Records began, Abdul Fakir is standing in famed Studio A,

pointing out the worn spots on the floor where he and other

members of the Four Tops stood when cutting their records.

He gestures to the sound booth, where the songwriters

Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland sat,

tweaking their arrangements. Motown's founder, Berry Gordy,

stayed in his office upstairs in a house next door. But Mr.

Gordy could hear the session through the walls. "If he came

down, you had a hit," recalled Mr. Fakir, known as Duke.

On a day last month, a group of tourists descends the

stairs. They fill the small studio, now part of the Motown

Historical Museum, clamoring for autographs. Eulalio Brown

of Port Huron, Mich., awaits his moment. Posing for a

picture with Mr. Fakir, Mr. Brown, who claims a collection

of Motown records "as big as Motown itself," is asked what

set the Four Tops apart. "Longevity," he says, noting their

five decades as recording artists.

Yet time has ravaged the Tops, too. Half the group no

longer performs, including Levi Stubbs, whose gravelly

voice was the signature of almost every song. Younger

replacements have felt the sting of audiences who wanted

nothing to change. Hits are scarce, too: the last was 15

years ago.

But while other groups of their era have broken up or been

relegated to county fairs, the Tops still draw crowds to

summer amphitheaters, where they crisply perform classics

like "Standing in the Shadows of Love," as well as jazz

tunes and fresh pop material.

And while the group is split on whether to continue if

another original member can't go on, the Tops aren't

packing up their sequined tuxedos just yet. On Wednesday,

the group marks its 50th anniversary at a concert here that

is being taped as their first television special.

Lifelong friends like Aretha Franklin and Mary Wilson, an

original Supreme, will be on hand at the Detroit Opera

House, honoring the group that was formed after its four

original members, then high school students, met at a party

in 1954.

Mr. Fakir, 68, will join Renaldo Benson, known as Obie, who

is also 68, along with the two newest Tops, Ronnie McNair,

54, and Theo Peoples, 43. Mr. Peoples, formerly of the

Temptations, will take on the parts sung by Mr. Stubbs, who

stopped singing four years ago, felled by ill heath.

Now confined to a wheelchair, Mr. Stubbs, who declined to

be interviewed, last appeared in public in April, at a

benefit in Detroit.

The other original Top, Lawrence Payton, died in 1997.

Their absence makes the anniversary bittersweet. "It's like

having one body with two limbs missing," Mr. Benson said

over a lobster lunch last month in a downtown Detroit

restaurant.

Not that the new members have had it easy. Mr. Peoples, the

youngest Top, watched fans walk out of concerts when they

discovered that he, not Mr. Stubbs, was singing lead. Not

that he blamed them. "They're loyal fans of Levi's," Mr.

Peoples said. "I can't take that as an insult."

The Tops frequently team up with Mr. Peoples's former

group, the Temptations, with whom they first sang on

Motown's 25th-anniversary special in 1983. Audiences

sometimes confuse the two groups, given that they consist

of identically dressed black men (five in the case of the

Temptations) who sing in harmony and perform dance

routines. But numbers tell the story: over the years there

have been 21 Temptations, but only 6 Tops. And for the

first 43 years, simply Mr. Fakir, Mr. Benson, Mr. Stubbs

and Mr. Payton.

Mr. Fakir credits the quartet's closeness to the years they

spent bouncing around the jazz club circuit. Leaving

Detroit for New York, they shared a studio apartment and

rotated three suits among them. (The Top with the most

important appointment had first pick, Mr. Fakir said.)

The Tops toured with the jazz balladeer Billy Eckstine, who

admonished them to forgo fancy dance steps until they had

mastered their songs, as well as Count Basie and his

orchestra. In 1963 they landed on the Jack Paar "Tonight"

show, singing a jazz arrangement of "In the Still of the

Night."

Watching in Detroit, Mr. Gordy instructed his staff to sign

them up. By then the Tops were eager to trade the club

scene for a label already known for generating hits, said

Suzanne E. Smith, assistant professor at George Mason

University and the author of "Dancing in the Street: Motown

and the Cultural Politics of Detroit."

But it took the Hollands and Mr. Dozier another year after

that to concoct the Tops' first hit single, "Baby, I Need

Your Lovin'," in 1964, and another year for the Tops to

land their first No. 1 hit, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar

Pie, Honey Bunch)." Their second No. 1 hit, "Reach Out,

I'll Be There," followed in 1966.

"We didn't know what bag to put them in," Mr. Dozier said

by telephone from his home in Las Vegas. They concluded

that Mr. Stubbs's plaintive voice should be most prominent,

backed by the Tops' harmonies and layered with vocals by a

female group, the Andantes.

Motown's choreographers and costume designers added to the

presentation - "things they wouldn't have gotten" without

joining Motown, Ms. Smith said.

Snappily dressed even offstage, the Tops liked to carouse

in all corners of the globe. Mr. Dozier remembers 18-hour

days that stretched until 3 a.m.

But relations with Motown grew strained by the early 70's,

when Mr. Gordy took the label to Los Angeles. That was

around the time Mr. Benson went in a decidedly un-Tops

direction by writing the lyrics for "What's Goin' On,"

which Marvin Gaye recorded after revamping it with Al

Cleveland. Gaye embraced the protest song over initial

objections of Mr. Gordy, who doubted the tune would sell,

Mr. Benson said.

Mr. Benson was inspired to write it after an afternoon in

the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. He was

stunned, he said, when police descended on a crowd of

hippies, pummeling them for no apparent reason.

After leaving Motown, the Tops scored occasional hits

through the 1970's and 1980's, the last being

"Indestructible," which reached No. 35 on the pop charts in

1988. Mr. Stubbs meanwhile became known to a new generation

as the voice of a man-eating plant in the film version of

"Little Shop of Horrors."

While its Motown hits sell tickets, Mr. Fakir said the Tops

were always cycling newer material through their act,

saving their biggest songs, like "Reach Out" for a

show-ending medley. By that point familiar lyrics like

"I'll be there, to always see you through" are a game saver

in the event of an off night.

"They could be sick, they could be on crutches," he

explains, but once the audience hears those words, "Wham!

You've got 'em."

The decline of Mr. Stubbs and Mr. Payton's death are

cautionary tales to Mr. Fakir and Mr. Benson, who have

talked about retiring the Tops should one of them falter.

"We're not worried about ourselves, but we want people to

enjoy it," Mr. Fakir said. He went on, "When things start

to diminish, it's time to go home."

That prospect alarms Mr. Peoples and Mr. McNair, who

separately insisted they would be willing to carry on the

Tops' tradition. "This is history," Mr. Peoples said. "I

just can't see people not having the option of going to see

the Four Tops anymore."

Mr. McNair added: "It's not about who's up there. It's

about the music."

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Would that Ronnie McNair be the Sitting in my class Mr McNair??

Yes. Ronnie McNeir wrote a few songs with Obie Benson over quite a long period of time, well into the 1980s in fact. A lot of them are pretty good.

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Interesting article, seen the Tops many times, I personally could never go to see them again after Levi left, and thats no reflection upon Ronnie Mcnair, they just will never be the same without Levi.

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