"We didn't want to be a bird group," said Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, reminiscing about a time three decades before when rock 'n' roll was dominated by groups like the Orioles, Flamingos, Ravens and Penguins. Before a recent concert at the Warner Theatre, he explained, "We wanted something that was a little more distinctive, that would have a lasting meaning to it."
With high school mates Lawrence Payton, Abdul (Duke) Fakir and Renaldo Benson, Stubbs spent a decade searching for the distinction that finally arrived in 1964 when the Four Tops burst out of their North End neighborhood in Detroit with a string of pop classics, including "Baby I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself" and "Reach Out, I'll Be There."
Twenty-seven years after some accidental party harmony, the group's original lineup is intact, making the Four Tops No. 1 for uninterrupted longevity in pop history; amazingly, they're still making hit records and playing to full houses. As one of Motown's most popular acts, they also helped bridge the distance between black and white audiences in a way never thought possible before.
Stubbs, who had won a dozen amateur shows in his youth, recalled the house party where the voices first harmonized together. "We were all in various little groups, nothing serious. The four of us got together and started in on one of the songs that was popular then. I don't even remember what it was, but we liked what we heard, it felt right. We thought we'd better look at it seriously . . . and we did . . . and we're still here."
After several years of struggling in the music business during the early '50s as the Four Aims, it looked like they might finally get somewhere. There was already a successful group called the Ames Brothers, so they had to change their name.
"How did you come to that name?" another musician asked them.
"Well, we were aiming for the top," Stubbs replied.
"Then it's plain and simple," the friend said, and the Four Tops were born.
The first 10 years were not particularly memorable. Their first single, for the tiny Red Top label, "might have sold 20 copies and we bought four of those," Stubbs laughs. The group also recorded for Chess, Columbia, Singular and Riverside, and spent two years backing up legendary jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine. They were first signed to Workshop Records, a division of an up-and-coming Detroit label called Motown -- as a jazz vocal group!
"The potential of a black company going where it did was virtually unthinkable in 1964 , so we didn't give Motown a second thought at first," Stubbs recalled with a grin. "But Lawrence's cousin was dating Motown founder Berry Gordy's sister and invited us over to listen to what they were doing. We figured, what did we have to lose?" What they found was a family atmosphere where "everybody was young and striving, doing their thing."
"Everybody was rooting for each other. We would sing background vocals for the Supremes, Marvin Gaye. We'd be sitting in the studio and if one of the Temptations wasn't there, one of us would take his place. It was great." Starting with "Baby I Need Your Loving," the Four Tops became radio favorites with seven number-one hits and more than 30 other songs hitting the charts.
It was a special time, Stubbs recalls, because "black and white music really merged through Motown. It was very seldom you would find black music in white homes" before Motown established the crossover market by creating "not just a black appeal but a national appeal" for its acts; most of the classic Motown acts are still performing, even if they've left Motown, as the Four Tops did in 1972. Although they had a couple of hits in the early '70s, many people thought Stubbs and company had become the Four Flops when they disappeared from the best-seller list.
"But we always knew, even during the time when we didn't have chart-busters, that we had some more left," Stubbs says proudly. "If you've got your head on tight, you realize it happens in this business." Seven years after their last number-one hit, the Four Tops are back on top with "When She Was My Girl." "It's a great feeling. Anybody that says they don't enjoy being on the charts is telling a lie," Stubbs insists.
Even between hits, the Tops stayed busy on the concert and club circuit; they had enough of a past that fans were content with a good show and better memories (though the group always refused to do oldies shows). "It's not as important to get it all as it is to get it regular," Stubbs philosophizes.
"We also realized this won't continue for a lifetime," Stubbs adds. "We'll be around the next three or four years at the very least and after that we'll give serious consideration to slowing down." In 27 years, the group members have practiced a certain austerity so that "when the calm comes, we won't have to change our life styles. And we're good friends, we make the same salary, everybody's head is screwed on tight."
Stubbs may be ready for a second career, though; this year he'll record an album with Aretha Franklin after having sung with her for the first time recently at Radio City Music Hall. A longtime friend (and fellow Detroit native), the Queen of Soul "asked me if I would sing 'Love All the Hurt Away' with about 10 minutes' notice, so I took my Sony Walkman and wrote the words down while she was on stage; then I went out and did it," he says with a smile. With the similarities in their voices, it "came off nice. She said, 'Why don't we do something together?' I said, 'Fi-i-iine, let's do that, baby!' And we will."