It’s Thursday, Nov. 13, 1986, and we’re inside Atlantic City’s Convention Hall for a live concert by the one and only Four Tops!
On this magical night in the ‘80s, the group dazzles the Jersey audience with their feel-good songs, killer dance moves, and brilliant back-up vocal harmonies. Perhaps most of all, however, the quartet strikes us as legendary thanks to the lead vocals of a man who possesses one of the most extraordinary male voices in pop music history, Levi Stubbs.
Standing in the shadows right behind Stubbs is “Duke” Fakir who — along with Lawrence Payton and Rendalo “Oboe” Benson — schools this audience on the kind of musical perfection that can only be achieved after performing together for 33 years.
But just how did this quartet get together in the first place?
Back in the early 1950’s — 1953, to be exact — two friends from one Detroit high school — Levi Stubbs and Abdul “Duke” Fakir — and two friends from a different high school — Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton — came together after singing at a birthday party and started a new vocal group called the Four Aims.
The young men signed to Chess Records, but decided to change their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with a different group known as The Ames Brothers. Seven years and three record companies later — and still without much success — the quartet was convinced by Berry Gordy to join his burgeoning record company, Motown.
At Motown, Levi, “Duke,” and the guys started out by recording jazz standards and singing back-up vocals on recordings by groups like The Supremes and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
After being asked to lend their unique vocal talents to a Holland-Dozier-Holland instrumental track — to which they added a gospel-style lead sung by Levi and some terrific harmonies by “Duke” and Lawrence on tenor and “Obie” on bass — once their song was released in 1964, it climbed to #11 on the Billboard charts.
It was the success of this record — “Baby I Need Your Loving” — that provided the inspiration for the Four Tops’ chain of hit singles, best-selling albums, and sell-out live performances. Over the next few decades, the group would go on to become inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame, in addition to becoming listed on Billboard’s Top 100 Artists of All Time and winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Unlike many other performing groups, The Four Tops stayed intact from their inception in 1953 all the way to 1997, with the passing of Lawrence Payton. Several years later, in 2005, Renaldo “Obie” Benson died. And after several years of illness, their long-heralded lead singer Levi Stubbs — also known as the famous voice of Audrey II in the film, Little Shop of Horrors — passed away in 2008.
Still carrying the torch for the music, these days, original Four Tops founding member, “Duke” Fakir, continues to lead the group with three new members: lead singer Harold “Spike” Bonhart, tenor Ronnie McNeir, and bass Roquel Payton — son of original member Lawrence Payton.
In a 2010 interview, “Duke” talked about this new edition of the Four Tops saying, ”To me, the new group is like an extension of the family, because we’ve all been very close for so many years… Which makes it easier for ME, because I truly miss Lawrence, “Obie,” AND Levi — I’d be lying if I said I didn’t — and not one of them could EVER be replaced. But, you know, these new guys do perform well enough for the people to still enjoy the shows and still enjoy the music. So for me, it kinda makes it bittersweet. Because, at the end of the day, the legacy is still going on and I’m very pleased that it IS!”
Today, another Thursday — March 23, 2017 — after 31 years, we’re getting a chance to see The Four Tops in concert again!
As the sold-out crowd at BergenPAC in Englewood, NJ slips into their seats, the lights dim, and a 14-piece orchestra begins to play a medley of familiar Four Tops hits.
Soon, the audience can hear four-part vocal harmonies radiating from off stage.
Arriving on stage dressed in brocade white blazers, blue shirts, matching blue handkerchiefs, blue slacks, and blue shoes, The Four Tops start the show off with a bang with their 1977 song, “The Show Must Go On,” singing in perfect four-part harmony, “And I’ll go on singin’ my song/The show must go on/Through rain or shine/All the time.”
Telling the crowd, “It will always be the four of us,” original Four Tops founding member tenor “Duke” Fakir dedicates this show — as he does all other Four Tops shows — to the three original members of the quartet who are no longer with us: Levi, Lawrence, and “Obie.”
Moving on to the tune that put the quartet on the map — their 1964 Holland/Dozier/Holland million seller — this new edition of The Four Tops entertains the enthusiastic crowd at BergenPAC with a bouncy version of “Baby I Need Your Loving.”
After introducing Harold “Spike” Bonhart, Ronnie McNeir, and Roquel Payton to the audience, “Duke” says, “We’re gonna bring you some Motown magic!” and the men break into a soulful rendition of the Four Tops’ 1967 Top 5 Billboard hit, “Bernadette.”
Following heartfelt applause, the quartet performs a rollicking version of their 1965 Top 5 tune, “It’s the Same Old Song,” and follows that up with a spirited gospel-rock version of 1966’s “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over).”
Announcing, “We’d like to slow it down for all the lovers in the audience — in addition to those who didn’t get things quite right,” the quartet performs a song which they say was their “first recorded ballad” — a 1965 Top 40 hit, “Ask the Lonely.”
As the members of the 14-piece orchestra backing up the Tops begin the next piece by snapping their fingers, “Duke” and the guys launch into one of the highlight songs of the evening, a rousing “good vibes” version of “I Got a Feeling.”
As the audience snaps and claps along, the Tops expertly perform their patented on-stage moves while happily singing, “Ohhh, I get a feeling, feeling/Got me rockin’ and a reelin’/Oh, I’m crazy ‘bout your love, buttercup/Your kind of love, can’t get enough.”
Performing with such joy on this number, the audience can’t help but to feel it too!
“Thank you for remembering,” says tenor Ronnie McNeir. “Now we’re gonna change the pace a little. Do you remember that Bobby Darin song, ‘Mack the Knife?’ It’s a happy song about a vicious killer!”
As the audience chuckles, the quartet performs a lively arrangement of “Mack the Knife,” scat-singing the back ups with lyrics like “shoo-du-wah” and “bop-bop,” and proving they can harmonize with the best. Clearly enjoying such good old-fashioned entertainment, several members of the crowd can be seen with their hands above their heads snapping in time to the music.
After animated applause, “Duke” offers his personal tribute to the other original members of The Four Tops — his high school friends, Levi, Lawrence, and “Obie.”
“They were all-stars on an all-star team,” explains “Duke.” “We loved singing for people. We didn’t care if we had a hit record. We just wanted to entertain.”
Going on to reminisce individually about each of his comrades, “Duke” recalls about Levi Stubbs, “Levi had a wonderful voice — on ballads, he could make you cry. And he wasn’t just a great musician — as a human being, his character was always beyond reproach.”
Revealing that, as a result of his world-class lead vocal style, Stubbs “was offered millions of dollars to leave the group,” even today, “Duke” is proud to acknowledge that “Levi always stayed with the Tops.”
Talking about his other friends, “Duke” reveals, “Renaldo ‘Obie’ was always full of laughter and joy on stage and he was the same way off stage. He spread love and harmony wherever he went,” also going on to add, “And Lawrence was a wonderful guy — a sweetheart. He could listen to any musical arrangement and sing back every individual part.”
Reminding the audience that Renaldo is also well-known for co-writing a song which went on to become a monster hit for Marvin Gaye, “Duke” and the Tops perform a musical tribute to “Obie” with their excellent rendition of “What’s Goin’ On?” bringing the audience back in time with their polished R&B fused with energy and soul.
Following this performance, audience members hoot and clap.
For the last song of the tribute, “Duke” says, “I’m sure you’ll all know this one — I changed some words around, however, so be sure to check out the lyrics.”
Here, “Duke” performs a solo version of Frank Sinatra’s well-known hit written by Paul Anka, “My Way.”
Although imperfect, “Duke’s” tribute is poignant, particularly with such homespun lyrics as, “We lived a life that’s full/We traveled each and every byway/But it took the grace of God/To turn things our way.”
Going on to remind the audience, “The most important thing I want you to remember is, ‘We did it God’s way,’” the room responds to “Duke” with a standing ovation.
“Now it’s party time,” he states.
Audience members in the sold-out house leap out of their seats and dance in the aisles to the Four Tops’ 1981 Top 20 hit, “When She Was My Girl,” people clapping and moving to the song’s “Rock the Boat”-1980's-style arrangement.
“Thank you so much,” bass singer Roquel Payton says. “Now here’s a special song for all the ladies in the audience.”
At this point, the group shows off their seasoned four-part harmony skills with a knock-your-socks-off performance of The Four Tops’ 1973 Top 5 tune, “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got,” audience members — including some of the ushers — happily dancing in the aisles.
“Whoa! You’re a dream audience!” exclaims lead singer, Harold “Spike” Bonhart. “Now here’s one that will take you back to your college — or even your high school — days.”
Breaking out into one of the Four Tops’ signature songs — their #1 smash from 1966, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” — the quartet gets the entire joint jumpin’.
“Hey, hey, whaddya say?,” the guys add to the number, and then keep the party rolling with a smokin’ performance of their 1966 Top 10 hit, “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”
With Bonhart pleading, “Didn’t I treat you right now, baby, didn’t I?” the audience hoots and hollers.
“Now get ready,” he says, “because we’re gonna go way back in time for you on this one.”
Launching into one of the best-known Motown songs of all time, The Four Tops perform a high-energy version of the group’s 1965 chart-topper, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” the audience joyously singing along on every word.
“Sing it like you mean it,” exclaims “Duke!”
As the crowd happily obliges, the group leaves the entire audience on its feet with this all-time classic “feel good” song, saying goodnight by acknowledging, “We love you. God bless you. You’re the best.”
After the performance, we take a moment to ask several members of the audience to share their opinions about tonight’s concert.
Shelby, who traveled to BergenPAC from New City in Rockland County, NY, tells us he really enjoyed hearing The Four Tops’ music live, saying, “for me, it truly brings back memories.”
Rita from Mahwah tells us that she, too, enjoyed the show, exclaiming, “It brought me back to the days when, as a young girl, I’d jump on my bed and sing those songs using a hair brush as a microphone!”
Two young people in the house — April from Warren and Dom from Philly — reveal they won tickets for the show on the radio.
Explains Dom, “After finding out we’d won, we listened to the Four Tops’ songs online all week and were surprised at how many we already knew. As a result, we’re just havin’ a blast here!”
Another young person in the crowd tonight is Theresa from Totowa, who reveals, “My sister and I brought our mom and her best friend to the show to celebrate mom’s birthday.”
Telling us that her mom, Joan, is “a big music fan,” Theresa goes on to acknowledge that, “for me, even though the Four Tops’ music is from a little bit before my time, it’s still great.”
Theresa’s sister, Laura, from Wayne, agrees, stating, “She just said it all.”
Theresa and Laura’s mom’s friend, Pat from Bogota, tells us with a smile that she “first saw The Four Tops back in high school,” and, after re-experiencing their performance again tonight, characterizes their music as “a classy way to bridge the generations.”
Lastly, the birthday girl, Joan, exclaims, “This was phenomenal.” A self-decribed “fan of the Four Tops since the beginning,” Joan happily declares, “This is the best birthday present ever!”
And as we make our way out of the theater, we can’t help but think of the magical effect this famous quartet’s music has had on the world for over 60 years.
It’s not only rekindled memories for long-time fans Shelby and Rita, but has created new ones for April and Dom.
It’s also brought families and friends like Theresa, Laura, Joan, and Pat together.
Moreover, it’s inspired the newer members of the Four Tops — “Spike,” Ronnie, and Roquel — to keep the flame alive for these classic songs.
And, lastly, it keeps “Duke” Fakir, now 81 years of age, still performing, still honoring his friends — Lawrence Taylor, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, and the great Levi Stubbs — and still standing…
…in the shadows of love.
For more information on The Four Tops — including upcoming concerts and more — please go to fourtopsenterprises.com. To learn more about future programming at BergenPAC — including Ann Wilson of Heart on April 4, The Spinners with Little Anthony & the Imperials on April 6, and the O’Jays on May 5 — please go to www.bergenpac.orgPhotos by Love Imagery
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