"Their harmony in song was the best there is. Their harmony in life was even better." Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.
Throughout their career, the Four Tops stood for other virtues: loyalty, fellowship, integrity, longevity. Popular music, travelling at the speed of light, is short on those qualities. Yet they can be attained; the Four Tops were proof.
"He could easily have made it as a solo star," said Gordy of Stubbs, "but his love and loyalty for Obie, Lawrence and Duke kept them together longer than any group I know. is integrity and character were impeccable. I have never seen a more dedicated person to his wife, his group, his friends."
The Tops were not harnessed to transient trends, nor were they teenagers, unlike so many of the artists first developed under Gordy. Indeed, when they cut 'Baby I Need Your Loving' for his company in May 1964, Levi was 27, Duke was 28. At that point, the quartet had been together for ten years, and had recorded for Chess, Riverside and Columbia.
Ironically, when the Tops did join Motown, some style-watchers were alarmed to hear that Gordy had brought in a group which had already spent so long on the road, travelling with MOR singer Billy Eckstine, playing the borscht belt, crooning in cabanas. This type of woodshedding was near-heresy to fans hypnotised by the youth, vitality and freshness of the Miracles, the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. To them, the Tops' journeyman credentials were no recommendation.
Until they heard Levi.
As Gordy acknowledged, the revelation began with 'Baby I Need Your Loving.' Together with the Supremes 'Where Did Our Love Go', it put the world on notice that this was a new Motown: stronger, bolder, more sophisticated than before. It hinted that Stubbs' voice was a powerful weapon, even if he and studio alchemists Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland weren't yet fully aware of its capabilities.
A mere two singles later, Motown A&R director Mickey Stevenson, producing the Tops with Ivy Hunter, revealed more of their talent with 'Ask The Lonely,' a deeply melancholic ballad. And when Holland/Dozier/Holland resumed command of the Tops with 'I Can't Help Myself,' they understood how to use the foursome to maximum effect: an apocalyptic Levi, leading from the front, taking no prisoners with his baritone-to-tenor range, and Lawrence, Obie and Duke offering white-hot harmonies to release the tension forged by their lead singer.
"I can remember working with Levi," recalled Eddie Holland. "I can't remember the song, but there was a note that was a little high, and he kept trying to reach for it. After four or five passes, I heard - he didn't even realise I did this - some girls outside the studio. I knew that Levi had that big ego, though he never expressed it. So I opened the studio door and said, 'Come in here for a minute.' So [the girls] stepped in, and I told the engineer, 'OK, now go.' Levi was right on point! Boom." The high note was reached. "It may," added Eddie, "have been 'Bernadette'."
Such explosive recordings blew the charts wide open, at home and abroad. Boom! Twelve of the group's singles seized Top Twenty chart slots in the US from 1964-68, and 'Reach Out I'll Be There,' of course, reigned above all. Today, it's a piece of history, found in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The Tops' albums commanded attention, too: Four Tops and Four Tops' Second Album (both 1965), On Top and Live! (both '66), and Reach Out (1967). They returned to cabaret roots with On Broadway, another 1967 release, as was Four Tops' Greatest Hits. Little wonder that the last of these was their most popular, a Top Five chartrider in America and Motown's first-ever No. 1 album in the UK.
Britons took the Tops to their hearts in various ways, and their concert tours were standing-room-only mayhem. Motown's UK team also knew when to be bold, lifting 'Walk Away Renee' as a single from the Reach Out LP (it became a huge hit, leading to release in America) and doing the same with 'Do What You Gotta Do' from 1969's Four Tops Now! In 1971, British producer Tony Clarke cut 'Simple Game' in London with the group; naturally, it soared into the Top Three there.
Undeterred by Holland/Dozier/Holland's exit from Motown, the Tops subsequently worked with other producers. One inspiration put them together with the post-Diana Ross Supremes, for three boisterous LPs: The Magnificent Seven, Return Of The Magnificent Seven, and Dynamite. Another partnership teamed them with writer/producer Frank Wilson to create a memorable concept album, 1969's Still Waters Run Deep. "Marvin Gaye told me that it was the album that inspired the direction of What's Going On," Wilson informed writer Stu Hackel in notes for the Four Tops' definitive anthology, Fourever. No reason for doubt: Renaldo Benson co-wrote three of the songs on Gaye's masterwork, including the title track.
When times changed at Motown and the company moved to California, the Tops took their leave for a while. A new deal with ABC/Dunhill yielded a solid run of albums and a pair of US Top Ten pop hits, 'Keeper Of The Castle' and 'Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got).' Producers Brian Potter and Dennis Lambert acquitted themselves well across such LPs as Keeper Of The Castle and Main Street People, not to mention the theme song from the film Shaft In Africa: 'Are You Man Enough.'
The 1980s brought an even better result. 'When She Was My Girl' for Casablanca Records was an R&B No. 1 - the Tops' first since 'Reach Out' and a high-rider on the pop listings. Its producer, David Wolfert, said, "They were an absolute blast. It's funny, when you're a producer and arranger, you make your living telling people what to do. With the Tops, it was kind of daunting." Stubbs was his idol, Wolfert explained, and there he was, telling the vocalist how to phrase a song, how to sing it.
When Wolfert caught the group in concert in London during sessions for another album, "it was like seeing the Beatles," he remembered. "People were standing on other people's shoulders, screaming at the end of the show."
The quartet recorded again for Motown. 'I Just Can't Walk Away,' one of the songs on 1983's Back Where I Belong, could have been about themselves, and the same could also be said of their last US Top Forty contender (on Arista Records), 'Indestructible,' in 1988. That same year yielded them a UK Top Ten success with 'Loco in Acapulco,' penned and produced by Lamont Dozier and Phil Collins.
The Four Tops' 43 years together came to an end with Lawrence Payton's passing in 1997.
The eulogies then, as for Benson in 2005 and Stubbs in 2008, brought sadness and tears. "Their harmony in song was the best there is," said Berry Gordy. "Their harmony in life was even better."
Some years earlier, one of the most telling tributes had come from England, where red-blooded allegiance to the Tops ran deep and constant, ever since the Saville Theatre show. Political rocker Billy Bragg, of all people, used the ultimate metaphor in the lyrics of his song, 'Levi Stubbs' Tears.' A stark, jagged sonnet, it tells how Tops' records threw a lifeline to an isolated soul, trapped by life's unfairness: When the world falls apart, some things stay in place/Levi Stubbs' tears run down his face.
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For the first time ever, on the occasion of the group’s 50th anniversary with Motown Records, every single from the Four Tops classic period is now in one package—the 3-CD box set 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1964-1972, featuring each A- and B- side, from their first hit to the moment they left the storied label, as well as collector’s bonus tracks.
Featured among the set’s 78 tracks are the group’s 16 No. 1 Pop and R&B hits, from “Baby I Need Your Loving” to “(It’s The Way) Nature Planned It,” and the smashes in-between—the iconic “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s The Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” “Still Water (Love),” and many more. The Tops, veterans of the road and failed record deals, had signed with Motown in 1963 as a marquee act for the company’s fledgling Workshop Jazz label; when that label folded, the Tops turned from jazz vocal harmony to soul, and soared to the top. Along with the Supremes and the Temptations they represented Motown as a classic American success story, and were a beacon of class and cool during a tumultuous decade.
Because it’s “Complete,” the beautifully packaged 3-CD box set includes the Tops’ rare Italian versions of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Walk Away Renee.” Recognizing the group’s undying popularity in England, the collection also includes 14 singles issued only in the U.K., from duets with the Supremes to the U.K. Top Three hit “Simple Game” that featured backing by the Moody Blues.
Four Tops: 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection 1964-1972 is housed in a hardcover book format filled with detailed information about each single, reproductions of spectacular-looking picture sleeves from around the world, and classic and rare photos of the world’s most beloved male vocal groups. A must for any fan of the vocal harmony group that broke all records. A beacon of class and cool.
The last of the major Motown groups to receive proper box-set treatment, the Four Tops in a sense got the best of the bunch, since this tells a ripping history while providing a cornucopia of rarities. The latter part of that statement is what prevents the set from being a true must-have for those who just want a comprehensive history, because there are too many major songs present in alternate mixes or versions that are slightly different than the hits that brought the group its deserved fame and fortune. Not that any of these are bad -- it's just that it presents the group's history through a slightly skewed prism, enough to prevent it from being thoroughly comprehensive. Still, it's an accurate history and a wholly engaging one, largely because the Four Tops had a fairly extensive pre-history before joining Motown, and they continued to have hits after leaving Motown, thereby giving the box a real narrative thrust -- especially because the late-'50s recordings that dominate the first half of the first disc are as gritty and powerful as their mid-'70s recordings were smooth, stylish, and sexy.
Like many comprehensive four-disc box sets, it spends too much time in the post-hit era. Sure, the Four Tops continued to chart until the early '80s, but this extends into the early '90s, meaning that the record just sort of peters out to a less-than-satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, that's a minor quibble, because the box does tell the story very effectively and is filled with great music, great sound, and solid liner notes, especially notable for its rare pictures. For the hardcore who have been waiting a long time for a Four Tops set, such loving presentation and abundance of alternate takes and mixes makes it worth the wait.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
You'd be hard pressed to find two better singles on a debut album than "Ask the Lonely" and "Baby I Need Your Loving." These were the cornerstones of The Four Tops' first LP, and besides netting them one Top Ten and Top 20 pop single each, as well as a Top Ten and Top 20 R&B single, it established Levi Stubbs' resounding voice as another unforgettable one at Motown. Even the tunes that didn't do so well, like "Left with a Broken Heart" or "Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)," were marvelously sung. It was a debut to remember.
Words - Ron Wynn
Released Aug 2006. The track listing not only features some of the artist's biggest hits but also a handful of rarities and album tracks. Soul Legends songs The Four Tops croon and shout their way through 25 fantastic tracks including the hits 'Baby I Need Your Loving' and 'I Can't Help Myself' and top-notch lesser known cuts like 'Your Love Is Amazing', 'Still Water (Love)', 'Walk With Me, Talk With Me, Darling' and more.
The Lost and Found Series was started by Motown in 2000 in order to include alternate takes, mixes, and unreleased tracks that were never issued on vinyl. Digitally remastered with excellent sleeve notes and new packaging. In this volume, the Four Tops are presented in a two-disc of 41 tracks concentrating on the Detroit years of their success.
This release contains all their greatest hits and also included is the Tops rendition of an early Marvin Gaye title album track "When I'm Alone I Cry". Also for good measure Motown have included a bonus track - taken live from the home of soul music, the Apollo, recorded in 1965 it features the great Billy Eckstine. Thus making this cd a very important release both to soul music lovers and hardened Motown collectors alike.
The Four Tops' early years as a jazz-vocal group are generally glossed over in capsule histories. Long before they signed to Motown -- nearly a full decade as a matter of fact -- they had been one of the popular Detroit jazz-vocal groups, earning the admiration of such luminaries as Smokey Robinson and Billy Eckstine, whom the group supported. After some persuasion, the group signed with Motown on the condition that they could record jazz. Over the course of a year, they cut nearly two albums' worth of material, which boiled down to one album, Breaking Through. Berry Gordy pulled the record at the last minute, believing that it would have been a commercial failure. Gordy's fears were not unfounded -- indeed, had the album that comprises Breaking Through (1963-1964) been put out in 1964, it likely wouldn't have found much of an audience. Still, Breaking Through is a strong record, firmly within its tradition and working well on those terms.
The Four Tops may not sound as distinctive singing jazz as they did with pop-soul, but they are convincing, as are the Motown house band. Neither of them take many chances, however. The songs are primarily standards, plus four new songs that feel like standards, all given good generic arrangements. This may sound like a dismissal, but it isn't; it's hard to do this kind of music right, but the group most certainly does. And it's not just one member that shines; everyone gets to take a lead, and the results are uniformly strong. Even so, Breaking Through appeals primarily to hardcore fans of the group, plus a handful of straight-ahead vocal-jazz aficionados. Reminiscent of a cross between Eckstine and the Four Freshmen, it's good stuff, but it's essentially a curiosity.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The Ultimate Collection series was a rare success from Motown, one of the first of the label's many compilation series to do justice to some of the finest performers, arrangers, and musicians of the soul era. Nearly every artist with an entry was given the luxury treatment, with a disc-filling running time, excellent compilation decisions, and a pleasing design scheme that reflected the artists in their prime. The Four Tops' entry is arguably the best in the series, since the 25 tracks prove the perfect length to summarize the group's decade at Motown. From 1963 to 1972, the group reached the R&B charts 28 times, and all but a very few are presented here (among the missing are three decidedly unnecessary covers: "MacArthur Park," "If I Were a Carpenter," and "River Deep -- Mountain High").
Though the tracks aren't presented chronologically, thoughtful sequencing makes for an even better listen; The Ultimate Collection opens with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," perhaps the ultimate pop single of the '60s, and flows smoothly through the best of their 1964-1967 prime: "Baby I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "It's the Same Old Song," "Bernadette," and "Standing in the Shadows of Love." And though the hits began to dry up after the Holland-Dozier-Holland machine departed Motown in 1968, The Four Tops' later years are represented well with "It's All in the Game," "Still Water (Love)," "(It's the Way) Nature Planned It," and the driving non-album hit "A Simple Game." Unless you're the type of fan who needs the box set (2001's Fourever), this is all the Four Tops-on-Motown you really need to hear.
Words - John Bush
This fourteen track compilation covers the period from 1972 to 1978 and while it is not the Tops' classic period there are a whole bunch of great tracks to make this a great addition to any collection. The title track for starters strays into territory that the Temptations had made their own in the 1970s, but that's no bad thing and it made No.10 in America. It is a great song. Other standouts are the uplifting, Save It For A Rainy Day, a Stephen Bishop song that they do great justice to. The biggest hit on the album is 'Ain't No Women (Like the one I got) which reached No.4 in the US. A hidden gem? 'One Chain Don't Make A Prison', four years later Santana paid homage to the song and there's is a carbon copy of this fabulous Lambert and Potter song.
This is The Four Tops Anthology released in the 1980s but repackaged as part of Universal's Gold series. However the album does not use the most recent Motown Remasters. As the Anthology series was an American release, the set omits the UK only hits ‘Do What You Gotta Do’, ‘What Is A Man’ and ‘Simple Game’. Though it should not spoil your enjoyment of such classic as ‘I Can't Help Myself’, ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ & ‘Reach Out, I'll Be There’, alongside such rarely heard gems as ‘I Got A Feeling’, I’'ll Turn To Stone’ & In A Different World.
Other highlights include a live version of the standard ‘Climb Every Mountain’, with the late great Levi Stubbs giving a fine vocal performance, and probably the definitive version of Jimmy Webb's ‘MacArthur Park’.
Released 2009. Christmas music performed by contemporary artists has become such an integral part of the festive season. From glorious melodies that celebrate the religious aspects of the holidays to beloved little ditties about Santa, Frosty and Rudolph, we've come to love the warmth that these songs bring to our hearts and souls. In the '60s and '70s, when Soul music really found its feet, many of the great artists of the genre chimed in with their own unique takes on yuletide tunes.
This newly packaged collection from The Four Tops is a prime example of the way that Soul music took Christmas to a whole new level. Features 12 tracks including 'Christmas Here With You', 'The Christmas Song', 'Silent Night' and many more. A popular favourite at Yuletide, featuring the stunning vocals of the Four Tops.