Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Soul vocal quartet formed as the Four Aims in Detroit in 1953, the lineup unchanging for nearly half a century: Levi Stubbs, lead (b Levi Stubbles, 6 June 1936; d 17 October 2008); Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson (d 1 July 2005, Detroit, aged 69), Lawrence Payton (b 1938; d 20 June 1997). Stubbs' younger brother Joe sang with the Falcons and the Contours vocal groups.

Stubbs attended Pershing High School in Detroit; at a party in 1953 with Fakir they met Benson and Payton, who went to Northern High School. At first they called themselves the Four Aims, changing their name when they signed with Chess in 1956. They headed for New York, where they shared a studio apartment and rotated three daytime suits among them; whoever had the more important appointment got first pick, Fakir recalled. It was clear from the beginning that Stubbs, with his booming, rough-edged baritone, would be the lead singer, Fakir said in an interview in 2004, but many of his songs that made them famous were written in a tenor range that pushed his voice higher and made it sound urgent and pleading.

They had started out intending to be jazz singers; they appeared on Jack Paar's Tonight show in 1963, singing 'In the Still of the Night'. They had been honing their craft but had not had any record success despite spells with Chess, Red Top, Columbia and Riverside, but Berry Gordy saw their performance on the Tonight show, told his staff to sign them up, and assigned the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland to shape their sound and deliver them a hit song. Another story was that Payton's cousin Billy Davis, who had written hits for Jackie Wilson (Stubb's cousin, with whom he had sung in the Royals before joining the other Tops), introduced them to his co-writer Gordy. Their first release Breaking Through on Motown's Workshop label was a jazzish LP in Hi-Los vein, but after a year on the road with the Billy Eckstine revue they worked as backing singers on Motown's first hits, then teamed with Holland/Dozier/Holland: 'Baby I Need Your Loving' (no. 11 '64) was a smash pop chart debut that set their pattern with Stubbs's impassioned lead vocal; fourth single 'I Can't Help Myself' was no. 1 '65, reminiscent of H/D/H's other charges the Supremes, with orchestration, massed tambourines, etc. Their seventh USA top 40 hit 'Reach Out I'll Be There' was their finest moment: no. 1 both USA/UK '66. Their three biggest '67 hits were as big on UK dancefloors as in the USA: 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love' (no. 6 USA/6 UK), 'Seven Rooms Of Gloom' (14/12), 'Bernadette' (4/8). Their popularity in the UK lasted longer too, as the psychedelic soul of Sly Stone and Isaac Hayes rendered the straightforward emotionalism of the Tops unfashionable at home; reissue of 'I Can't Help Myself' made no. 10 UK, while covers of Tommy Edwards's 'It's All In The Game' and Moody Blues' 'Simple Game' both went top five.

The Tops split to ABC-Dunhill as Motown moved to the West Coast and H/D/H formed their own Invictus label; they chopped and changed with producers and lost consistency. A team with Brian Potter and Dennis Lambert was initially successful with 'Keeper Of The Castle' and 'Ain't No Woman Like The One I've Got' '72-3, but a Shaft In Africa soundtrack '74 less so. They took a break, played cabaret to keep in trim and pursued other projects: Benson and Payton wrote for Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin respectively (Benson co-wrote 'What's Going On'). The made a surprise comeback on the disco-oriented Casablanca label '81 with 'When She Was My Girl' (USA 11/UK 3), 'Don't Walk Away' (UK 16), LP Tonight '82 with West Coast producer David Wolfert and white soul session players: they listened hard and incorporated elements of contemporary black music without compromising the glorious vocal blend. After One More Mountain with Casablanca they returned to Motown after a sensational appearance with the Temptations on the 25th anniversary TV special, one of black music's (and Motown's) most consistent acts.

Stubbs became the voice of a man-eating plant, Audrey II, in the 1986 musical film Little Shop of Horrors, and also was the voice of Mother Brain, an evil character on the cartoon show Captain N: The Game Master from 1989 to 1991. By 1995 his health had begun to fail. Fakir has continued singing with Payton’s son Roquel, former Temptation Theo Peoples, and Ronnie McNair, a veteran Motown singer.