One of the premier soul groups of all time, The Four Tops were the label’s most consistent and successful group. Motown artists included the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and The Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The Detroit-based group, consisting of lead vocalist Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, and Lawrence Payton began as The Four Aims in 1954. They spent years performing in clubs and recording for various labels, and finally managed to break out in 1964 after being introduced to Motown’s Berry Gordy.
Gordy initially signed them to the Motown jazz subsidiary Workshop, and they became part of the Motown family. Duke Fakir recalls, “When the Four Tops got to Motown, they had this class called Artist Development, where you could get whatever you needed. If you needed more steps, or to have certain kind of arrangements, or how to talk to the public — whatever you needed to know. Berry Gordy was preparing people to be stars, he was not just concerned with selling records.”
After hearing their initial jazz album, Gordy decided not to release it and put them together with hit-makers Holland-Dozier-Holland. This collaboration led to the Four Tops first single, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” which went to number 11. Fakir explains: “We had all these different ways of singing different songs that everybody appreciated, but we didn’t have the one road to all the people. Holland-Dozier-Holland found that way. It was the way that they produced us, and I can pretty much say that they helped create the Four Tops’ Motown sound.”
The group made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 30th, 1966 when they sang a medley of hits: “I Can’t Help Myself” (#1); “Something About You” (#19); “When You’re Smiling” and “It’s the Same Old Song” (#5) and a full length rendition of “Nice and Easy.” For their second appearance, on October 16, 1966, they performed another Holland-Dozier-Holland penned song that would become their signature, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (#1). And on February 19, 1967 they were back with another medley and introduced their new single, “Bernadette” (#4).
The Four Tops joined Ed on the November 8th 1970 episode, which was taped at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. Sullivan brought the whole show to the hospital as a way of thanking the wounded troops for serving their country. Surrounded by injured soldiers in hospital beds, the group sang “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” followed by their Top 40 hit “It’s All in the Game.”
The four original members of the group managed to stay together for over 40 years, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Lawrence Payton died in 1997, Benson in 2005 and Stubbs in 2008. Fakir is now the only original member left, and accepted the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for the group in 2009. He continues to perform and honor the legacy of the Four Tops for fans around the world.