Singing bass and performing the immaculate dance routines he often devised for the vocal group the Four Tops, Obie Benson featured on over 30 British hit singles, most notably the anthemic "Reach Out, I'll Be There" which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1966 and helped Berry Gordy Jnr's Sound of Young America conquer the world. The outgoing Benson was a mainstay of the group, whose line-up remained unchanged from 1954 until the death of Lawrence Payton in 1997, and was still touring with the group until recently.
As a youngster, Benson had ambitions to become a guitar virtuoso. In 1969, he was strumming while discussing US social upheavals with the Motown staff writer and producer Al Cleveland and the pair began working out a melody that evolved into "What's Going On". The Four Tops and other Motown acts turned down the protest song but, with some lyrical embellishments from its interpreter Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" went to No 2 in the US charts and became the title track of Gaye's 1971 concept album which took soul music into a socially conscious direction and consistently figures in critics' top ten lists.
Born Renaldo Benson in 1936, he began singing doo-wop and gospel with his boyhood friend Lawrence Payton at Northern High School in Detroit. In the early Fifties, the pair met up with the lead vocalist Levi Stubbs and Abdul "Duke" Fakir when they sang at a party and decided to form a group called the Four Aims. With the help of Payton's cousin Roquel "Billy" Davis, they appeared at talent contests and parties in the Detroit area before moving on to the club circuit.
In 1956, the vocal quartet became the Four Tops (to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers), signed to Chess Records in Chicago and issued the 45 "Kiss Me Baby"/"Could It Be You", which flopped. Follow-up singles on Red Top, Columbia and Riverside fared no better but Davis, who had written hit songs for Jackie Wilson with Berry Gordy Jnr, convinced the founder of Motown to sign the Four Tops to his label in 1963. They recorded a jazz-flavoured album, Breaking Through, on Motown's Workshop subsidiary label and went on the road with the Billy Eckstine Revue to hone their stagecraft. They also sang backing vocals on many releases by the Supremes and other Motown acts and subsequently formed a successful partnership with the producer-songwriting team of Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier.
The creative trio tailored their material to suit the Tops' unique blend of harmonies behind Levi Stubbs's pleading lead vocals and the group scored their first US hit in 1964 with "Baby I Need Your Loving". In Britain, the song was covered by the Fourmost but, the following year, the Four Tops had a couple of minor UK chart entries with "I Can't Help Myself" and "It's the Same Old Song". They made their international breakthrough in 1966 with "Reach Out I'll Be There", which became their signature song thanks to its eerie introduction - featuring Arab drums, flutes and oboes - and the beautiful harmonies behind Stubbs's definitive vocal performance, full of emotion and urgency.
On a roll, Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Four Tops stuck to their winning formula with "Standing in the Shadows of Love", "Bernadette" and the dramatic "Seven Rooms of Gloom". They recorded three albums with the Supremes and carried on having hits with "Do What You Gotta Do", "It's All in the Game", "Still Water" and "Simple Game", the last written by the Moody Blues and recorded with their help in the UK in 1971, but still passed on the chance to record "What's Going On".
Benson had the idea for the song while on tour in San Francisco in 1969 after he witnessed a confrontation between police and hippies in People's Park, a disused urban lot in Haight-Ashbury. "The police was beating on the kids with the long hair but they weren't bothering anybody," he recalled:
I saw this and started wondering what the fuck was going on. What is happening here? One question led to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas to Vietnam? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?
Back in Detroit, Benson and Cleveland worked on "What's Going On" but the other Four Tops didn't like the idea:
My partners told me it was a protest song. I said no, man, it's a love song, about love and understanding. I'm not protesting, I want to know what's going on! But they never really understood what was happening.
Benson even played a sketchy version of "What's Going On" to Joan Baez in a Top of the Pops studio during a UK visit by the Four Tops before Marvin Gaye finally committed to the idea. "Marvin was the perfect artist for it," Benson admitted:
He already felt like this. He was a rebel, and a real spiritual guy. The first time he sang it, I was playing guitar and he was playing piano, and it was so beautiful. I finally put it to him like this: "I'll give you a percentage of the tune if you sing it, but if you do it on anybody else, you can't have none of it." His wife Anna told him: "Marvin, this is a perfect song for you." Marvin added lyrics and some spice to the melody, he fine-tuned the song in other words. He added some colours that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song. He made it visual. When you heard that song, you could see the people and feel the hurt and pain. We measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.
The Four Tops remained concert favourites with British fans into the Seventies and Eighties, achieving two of their biggest UK hits with the doo-wop homage "When She Was My Girl" - complete with the irresistible bass hook "boom-be-boom-boom" from Benson - in 1981 and "Loco in Acapulco" - from the film Buster starring Phil Collins (following the adventures of Buster Edwards after the Great Train Robbery of 1963) - in 1988.
Following the death of Lawrence Payton in 1997 and the lead vocalist Levi Stubbs's retirement from live performances due to ill-health in 2000, Obie Benson continued touring with a Four Tops line-up featuring his fellow original Duke Fakir and the newcomers Theo Peoples and Ronnie McNeir, until he had a leg amputated earlier this year.
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