The Four Tops

In the early years of this website, staff held monthly meetings to discuss “articles” for each monthly issue — we were still thinking very much like print magazine editors. It was around this time that Levi Stubbs, co-founder of the Four Tops, passed away. Coincidentally, we were deliberating about possibly including “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got” in a Forgotten Gems feature. But after Stubbs’ death, the question arose: The Four Tops were the quintessential Motown group…how much did they really contribute to American Popular Song?  The article below grew out of that discussion.

For those of you who are new to this website, the definition of American Popular Song (as defined by this organization) can be found here. In short, popular song is that music that is partly traditional pop, all of the Great American Songbook, the music of Broadway, and even some rock and roll. It’s the music “everybody” knows, and it’s the music that nobody minds listening to. It’s the music that transcends rock, folk, country — and in this case, soul.

Virtually any musicologist worth his or her halfnotes will agree that the Four Tops played a role in shaping the course of popular song. Just what that role was, however, is difficult to define.

Let’s give it a shot…

The Four Tops began when Levi Stubbs and Abdul “Duke” Fakir met Lawrence Payton and Renaldo “Obie” Benson at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They were admired for their vocal talents and encouraged to sing together; the year was 1954. The quartet found a groove, and christened themselves The Four Aims. They began touring the midwest, performing at supper clubs and specializing in jazz and pop standards.

During these early years the group perfected their style, but it barely hinted at the Motown sound that was to follow. The Four Aims were so identified with the sound of standards that, when they signed their first recording contract in 1956, the name was changed to eliminate possible confusion with the well-known Ames Brothers.

And so the Four Tops continued singing jazz and pop standards, even after Berry Gordy signed them to Motown Records in 1963. The Tops’ weren’t released on Motown, their jazz sound relegated instead to the company’s Workshop label. But like most Motown acts, they were called on to provide backing vocals for other artists, and occasionally showed their pop chops on some of the Supremes recordings. When a male group was needed for a Holland-Dozier-Holland production called “Baby I Need Your Loving,” the Tops got the nod, and their career changed course instantly.

Within a year the group scored their first number one hit, with “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” topping the pop charts in June 1965. As with many hits to follow, the primary lead vocalist was Levi Stubbs. “It’s the Same Old Song” followed a month later, also with Stubbs on lead. Legend has it that Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Tops were under the gun from Motown boss Gordy for a coattail hit. With nothing in mind, Lamont Dozier supposedly turned on a transistor radio in a desperate search for inspiration. As he spun the dial, Dozier disgustedly remarked that all he heard was the same old songs…inspiring him to change the chord progression and timing on “Can’t Help Myself,” which was christened with the aptly-named “It’s the Same Old Song.” That inspired re-work rocketed to a top five position on the charts.

Another chart topper followed in 1966, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” Hits like “Bernadette” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love” would follow, both solid top-tens on the pop charts — yet none of these dented the Adult Contemporary, or what was then known as “Easy Listening” charts. The traditional pop ear of the 1960s didn’t seem to be listening to the Four Tops, or anything from Motown for that matter. But in fact the Tops were making a huge dent in American popular song.

So just how did the Tops influence traditional pop? Remember that during their heyday in the 1960s, the Four Tops ruled the soul and r & b charts, and were all over the Billboard pop charts, but did not impress the easy listening/adult contemporary listeners. At least not immediately.

Motown, R & B, soul — we’ll lump them together for the purposes of this essay — was being played on mainstream radio during the 1960s, but it was slow to be embraced by the ruling elite of traditional pop. James Brown, Ike Turner…most of those sounds were just a little too soulful for the average WASP listener. Despite this gulf, some hints of “soul” sounds were starting to find their way into the traditional landscape. African-American artists like the Mills Brothers, Johnny Mathis and Ella Fitzgerald had always been popular, and although some sounds strayed from the norm, it was their middle-of-the-road music that got their foot in the door. But to swing the door wide open to soul, it would take a “sound” that fit the pop mode.

The Tops sound was rooted in jazz standards. If you consider that American Popular Song was based on a combination of folk music and ragtime — “jass” as it was becoming known — born of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” it makes sense that the Four Tops would be a natural bridge between Motown and the Great American Songbook. In a way, by embracing the jazz-influence soul sounds of the Four Tops, American pop was coming full circle.

Again, the Tops didn’t score with the easy listening audience themselves in the 1960s, but their sound was obviously being heard. None less than Frank Sinatra was being influenced by Motown; he had always used jazz and blues phrasing, but in 1965 he broke new ground with “That’s Life.” Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and others were following suit; Williams would routinely delve into soul sounds on his weekly television show. When Bennett recorded “For Once in My Life,” the dam broke open.

For its part, Motown continued to crank out soul, yet more and more of a pop sound was coming out of Detroit as well. Smokey Robinson’s songs were in vogue with the traditional pop crowd, and some of the Supremes music sounded like the natural heir to the Andrews Sisters.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, after a decade of bombarding the airwaves, Motown was making solid inroads into American Popular Song. Aretha Franklin was revamping Burt Bacharach compositions, and in his mind, improving on them. Frank Sinatra stepped in with his own version of “For Once in My Life” in the late 1960s.

In 1970 the Four Tops finally found their way onto the easy listening charts. It would be nice to say it was one of their Motown hits, but it wasn’t. The Tops turned to their roots and recorded a soulful version of an old standard, “It’s All in the Game.” That melody, coincidentally, was written by Charles Dawes, who was Vice-President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge. We feature it in our “Forgotten Gem” category; we’ll hold “Ain’t No Woman” for a future article. That song, by the way, scored very well on the adult contemporary charts in 1973, in addition to hitting #4 on the Hot 100.

As the Four Tops aged and increasingly became identified as genuine Americana, their few hits that followed in the 1970s and 1980s scored well with an older, traditional pop audience. Their last three hits, in fact, sold better to the adult contemporary audience than they did to the soul/r & b audience, and each scored higher on the AC charts. By the late 1980s, the Tops had become mostly an oldies act, and they would sprinkle in a few jazz standards at their performances.

Levi Stubbs’ lead defined the Four Tops sound. Stubbs would sing at the top of his range — straining to hit notes — and that straining imparted a sense of urgency to the lyrics that made the songs click. Rather than ending, however, the Four Tops’ chapter in the Great American Songbook will continue to grow as more and more of their songs evolve into “standards.”