Obituary: Lawrence Payton

Pierre Perrone
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:45

Inclusion on the golden oldie format has spoiled many a record for the average listener, but with their breadth and their bounce "I Can't Help Myself", "It's the Same Old Song", "Reach Out (I'll Be There)", "Standing in the Shadows of Love", "Bernadette", "When She Was My Girl" and "Irresistible" by the Four Tops always sound fresh and vibrant and never fail to entice.

In a career spanning over 40 years and as many albums, the Detroit quartet, in which Lawrence Payton was second tenor and second lead vocalist, sold more than 50 million records and helped shape popular music. Indeed the stylised blueprint of their Motown years is still to be seen in today's US rhythm 'n' blues groups such as New Edition and Boyz II Men and teen acts such as Boyzone and 911.

Born in Detroit in 1938, Lawrence Payton spent his teenage years around the Motorcity and went to the same school as Aretha Franklin. In 1953, along with Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Abdul "Duke" Fakir and Levi Stubbs, he was asked to sing at a friend's party. The foursome got on famously. The following day, they met again at Fakir's house and decided to call themselves the Four Aims. They began performing jazz songs and standards at local functions.

In 1954, a talent agency started to book the quartet outside Detroit; they would sing back up vocals and open for acts like Brook Benton, Count Basie and Billy Eckstine. Two years later, to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers (a popular white group from Boston), they changed their name to the Four Tops and, in May 1956, recorded "Kiss Me Baby", a one- off single for the Chicago rhythm 'n' blues label Chess.

More unsuccessful recordings appeared on Red Top, Columbia ("Ain't That Love") and Riverside ("Where Are You?") but, all the while, the group was polishing its vocal arr- angements, stage act and presentation.

In 1963, they eventually came to the attention of Berry Gordy Jnr, a songwriter and entrepreneur who had already started to establish the Motown sound with artists like the Miracles (featuring Smokey Robinson), Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas and the Supremes (featuring Diana Ross). Gordy ran his Detroit label like a factory and a family with everything in-house: stylists, choreographers, recording studio, musicians, writers. At first, the Four Tops were signed to the Workshop label, a jazz subsidiary of Motown, and provided backing vocals for the rest of the roster. The team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier were the hot composers at the time.

As Levi Stubbs recalls in Joe Smith's excellent collection of interviews Off the Record (1988), the Four Tops were

watching the Temptations at the 20 Grand club in Detroit. Brian Holland came up to us and said: I think we have a song for you guys. It's 1.30 in the morning and he says: listen to it tomorrow.

We said: why don't we go into the studio tonight? He said OK, and after the show we went back to Hitsville and recorded "Baby I Need Your Loving" that night, our very first record on Motown.

That was one of the unique things about Motown. There were no set hours to do anything. If you came up with something creative at three in the morning, you called everyone up and everybody would get in their cars and ride down to the studio on the spot and do it. The song came out and it was a big hit.

Showcasing the group's strong harmonies and Levi's yearning lead vocals, "Baby I Need Your Loving" made the US Top 20 in October 1964. With the Holland/Dozier/ Holland partnership providing the songs, the Four Tops were on a roll.

In June 1965, the catchy "I Can't Help Myself" reached number one in the US and sold a million copies. The quartet also had their first British hit with the song and toured the UK under the auspices of the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein. Following the bouncy "It's the Same Old Song" and the moody "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever", the writers and performers surpassed themselves. The revolutionary "Reach Out I'll Be There" blended passionate vocals and a great sentiment with flutes, oboes and drums in a symphonic arrangement worthy of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. It was a world-wide success and a Transatlantic number one in October 1966.

Gordy's boast that Motown was the Sound of Young America now proved true and the Four Tops were very much at the heart of the phenomenon. In 1967, the quartet scored four major hits: "Standing in the Shadows of Love", "Bernadette", "Seven Rooms of Gloom" and "You Keep Running Away". However, at the end of that year, the Holland/Dozier/Holland team fell out with Gordy over royalties and quit Motown. The Four Tops were left without their number one songwriting team, who subsequently set up their own Invictus label.

The group then came under the aegis of producers/writers like Frank Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Johnny Bristol. They marked time with soulful cover versions of the Lefte Bank's "Walk Away Renee", Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" and Tommy Edwards's "It's All in the Game". The quartet broadened its range, singing the mellow "Still Water (Love)", collaborating with the Supremes (on the albums The Magnificent 7 and Return of the Magnificent 7) and even attempting Jim Webb's "Do What You Gotta Do" and "MacArthur Park". In 1971, they also cut "A Simple Game", with the help of the Moody Blues, who had written the song.

By then, Berry Gordy had decided to relocate Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles and, even though Renaldo Benson had co-written the immortal "What's Going On" with Al Cleveland and Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops were feeling less involved. They also thought their boss was spending too much time promoting the careers of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and the Jackson Five.

In 1972, the quartet moved to the ABC/Dunhill label but, following the chart successes of "Keeper of the Castle", "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got)" and "Are You Man Enough", the soundtrack to the blaxpoitation movie Shaft in Africa, they lost their momentum. Lawrence Payton cut a solo album and they performed Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" at Aretha Franklin's wedding in April 1978.

The group seemed about to throw in the towel and head for the cabaret circuit but instead, and not for the last time, they came back with a vengeance. Joining the Casablanca imprint in 1981, the Four Tops updated their sound and scored major hits with "When She Was My Girl" and "Don't Walk Away".

By 1983, they were back at Motown following a 25th anniversary television special during which they staged a mock battle of hits with the Temptations: the breathtaking medley and dance contest became one of the highlights of the joint tour the two classic vocal groups then undertook. Holland/Dozier/ Holland produced some of the Back Where I Belong album but R&B tastes had once again moved on and, after working with Phyllis Hyman on the ill- fated "Magic", the Four Tops explored other avenues. Levi Stubbs, the lead singer, lent his raspy tones to the man-eating plant Audrey II in the 1986 film version of the musical The Little Shop of Horrors. That year, the British protest singer Billy Bragg also paid tribute to the Four Tops' frontman in the poignant "Levi Stubbs' Tears".

Two years later, following a radical remix of "Reach Out I'll Be There", the Four Tops signed to Arista/BMG and were welcomed with open arms by the musical aristocracy. The Indestructible album with contributions from Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Huey Lewis & the News and Phil Collins, relaunched them once more. With Lamont Dozier, Collins also composed for the group the infectious "Loco in Acapulco" which was featured prominently in Buster, his movie about the Great Train Robbery.

This new exposure put a stop to a spate of appearances by bogus Four Tops on the Spanish Costa Brava. Over the years, soul acts have had a tendency to splinter and carry on with one or two original members. In fact, the confidence tricksters had picked the wrong act to impersonate. Formed in 1953, the Four Tops had long laid claim to being the longest surviving intact group in the world. In 1990, Stevie Wonder duly inducted Obie Benson, Duke Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Levi Stubbs into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, thus putting a seal on an illustrious career. They had already been honoured by the Michigan State Governor who declared an official Four Tops Day (29 July) to thank them for their contribution to American music and their civic activities in Detroit. In April this year, the quartet also got its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

With the beaming Lawrence Payton usually standing next to the lead vocalist Levi Stubbs, the Four Tops were supreme entertainers on stage. Their breathtaking vocal harmonies justified their perennial appeal and their standing as superb interpreters.

In spite of all the vagaries of fame and fashion, they came not only to exemplify the happy sound of the Sixties but also to embody the lasting power of soul music.

Pierre Perrone

Lawrence Payton, singer: born Detroit, Michigan 1938; married; died Southfield, Michigan 20 June 1997.

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