Top of the pops

Nov 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

“I Can’t Help Myself.” “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” “Standing In the Shadows of Love.” “Bernadette.” “Ask the Lonely.” “Baby I Need Your Loving.” “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.” “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got).” “When She Was My Girl.” “It’s the Same Old Song.” You can hear at least one of these Four Tops hits — or about 15 others, spanning four decades — every day on the radio.

But when Renaldo “Obie” Benson died of lung cancer in a Detroit hospital at age 69 on July 1, 2005, the city — and the world — lost not just the man who sang bass with fellow Motor City natives and 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, the Four Tops, for 51 years. We also lost the co-writer of the song that changed the record label that released it (Motown, via its Tamla subsidiary), the artist who sang it (Marvin Gaye) and popular African-American music forever – “What’s Going On.”

No less than former anti-apartheid activist and future South Africa president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Nelson Mandela quoted its opening lines (“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying”) when he spoke to the 50,000-plus people who packed Tiger Stadium on June 28, 1990, to celebrate his release after 27 years in prison. The crowd’s immediate roar dwarfed even those for the performances of hometown music legends Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.

The inspiration for this most perceptive song-of-songs came when a Four Tops’ San Francisco tour stop dovetailed with a violent conflict between Berkeley police and protesters at People’s Park. “The police was beatin’ on the kids, but they wasn’t bothering anybody,” Benson told longtime Detroit writer Ben Edmonds for a marvelously detailed March 1999 cover story in the UK’s Mojo magazine. (The piece was expanded into a book, What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye & The Last Days of the Motown Sound (Mojo/Cannongate, 2001).

“I saw this,” Benson continued, “and started wondering what the fuck was going on? What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? And so on.”

Back in Detroit, Benson, who played guitar, began developing “What’s Going On” in conjunction with his upstairs neighbor, Motown tunesmith Al Cleveland, whose co-writing credits include “I Second that Emotion” and “Baby, Baby Don’t Cry” with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Benson brought the result to the other Four Tops (Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Levi Stubbs), but the group — which had been singing together without a single personnel change since winning a local amateur contest in 1954 — didn’t think a “protest song” was suitable material. Benson also claimed to have played an early version of the tune for folk maven Joan Baez when they shared the bill on England’s Top of the Pops TV show, but never followed up on her interest.

Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye was sitting around his Detroit home grieving the recent death of his duet partner, Tammi Terrell; his tax problems; his rocky marriage to Anna Gordy; and his always-tumultuous relationship with his brother-in-law, Motown founder Berry Gordy.

Gaye, who previously shared songwriting credits on Motown hits “Beechwood 4-5789” (the Marvellettes), “Dancing in the Streets” (Martha & The Vandellas), and his own “Hitch Hike,” aspired to be more than just another vocalist on Motown’s “other world-famous assembly line.” He’d co-written and produced a pair of chartbusters for the Originals — first “Baby, I’m For Real,” then “The Bells” — to prove he could do it. Motown’s initial lack of interest in the first song only sharpened Gaye’s desire.

“After we started having hits, a lot of the Motown artists — us, the Temptations, Smokey and Marvin — bought homes on the northwest side of Detroit,” Abdul “Duke” Fakir says from his home in the city.

“Marvin lived just three blocks down the street from Obie and myself,” Fakir continues. “And Obie, who got his nickname from combining the last syllable of his first name with the first syllable of his last name, and ’cause he always used to hit the ball out of bounds when we played baseball as kids, plus he was an ‘out-of-bounds’ kind of guy — our court jester, Mr. Personality Plus — anyway, loved to go over to Marvin’s house, play music and hang out.”

At one of these afternoon get-togethers, Benson, with guitar in tow, presented “What’s Going On” to Gaye. The singer reportedly wanted to cut the tune with the Originals, but Benson offered Marvin a share of the co-writer’s credits, only if Gaye recorded the song himself. Benson readily admits that Marvin earned his piece. “He added lyrics and some spice to the melody,” he said in the Mojo piece. “He definitely put the finishing touches on it.”

Gaye produced and played piano on the “What’s Going On” session, and Motown arranger David Van De Pitte was responsible for the arresting string arrangements. But two of the record’s most famous features — the opening sax solo and the multitracked lead vocals — were happy accidents. The former captured Eli Fontaine while he was merely warming up. The latter resulted when Motown engineer Ken Sands accidentally played two different lead vocal takes simultaneously. Gaye flipped out — and multitracked lead vocals became his signature style forever after. Same for the combination of hand percussion and liquid, languid grooves introduced on the record.

Virtually everyone at Motown, from Berry Gordy on down, hated the record. “Terrible” was one of the milder comments voiced at the company’s weekly A&R meeting. Gaye predictably refused to make another record until “What’s Going On” was released. Several months passed before the company’s hand was tipped by the need to have a new Marvin Gaye song on the streets.

The single took off like a bottle rocket. (U.S. performing rights society BMI now calculates that it’s been played on the radio more than 2 million times since its January 21, 1971 release.) Desperate for an album to capitalize on this success, Motown gave Gaye 30 days to complete one.

The now-classic What’s Going On featured an additional two songs co-written by Benson, Cleveland and Gaye: “Save The Children” (later covered by both Diana Ross and U2 frontman Bono) and “Wholy Holy” (covered by Aretha Franklin on 1972’s 2 million-selling Amazing Grace).

Spurred by three hit singles — the title track, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” — the album topped the R&B charts for nine weeks, and peaked at No. 6 on the pop side.

Its impact on Motown, however, wasn’t confined to the bottom line. First, it broke down the rigidly compartmentalized distinctions between singers, songwriters and producers in favor of artists who could do it all. (The influence is obvious on Stevie Wonder, who renegotiated his Motown contract upon turning 21, giving him the freedom to create Music of My Mind and Talking Book in 1971 — the same year as What’s Going On.)

And although Motown had occasionally ventured into socio-political commentary (the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Love Child”), Gaye’s record ushered in a new era in African-American pop where artists could, like their white counterparts, write and sing about whatever in hell they wanted. (While late ’60s efforts by Sly Stone and James Brown jump-started the trend — which had deep roots in folk, blues and jazz — the early ’70s brought a new urban realism to contemporary African-American music. Records were sold by the truckload until audiences sought shelter from the real-life ’70s storms — Watergate, gas lines, the collapse of ’60s idealism — in the promise of disco’s hedonistic escapism.)

These successes — particularly the album What’s Going On, on which nine songs were musically linked to form a suite — also shifted the company’s focus from hit singles to the more lucrative album market.

Finally, because Gordy’s new interest in film led him to move Motown to Los Angeles in 1972, What’s Going On was the last significant Motown disc to be recorded in Detroit. Many believe the company hasn’t been the same since, and based on the sonic evidence, they’re right.

As for the Four Tops, after winning that 1954 amateur contest, recent high-school graduates Benson (Cass Tech), Payton (Northern), Stubbs and Fakir (Pershing) got their first professional gig at Eddie’s Lounge in Flint, earning $200 for three nights’ work. It was good enough for Benson and Fakir to reject the basketball scholarships they’d been offered by Central State College in Ohio for a career in show business.

“We still do well over 100 dates a year,” Fakir says. “Just like the Pistons, we go to work; bring our hard hats.” This work ethic served the group well — then known as the Four Aims — as they played clubs throughout Michigan and Ohio. With their first recording (1956’s “Kiss Me Baby” for Chess) they changed their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the then-popular Ames Brothers quartet.

They cut a pair of go-nowhere singles for Columbia (1960) and Riverside (1962), and opened for everyone from Count Basie, Billy Eckstine (with whom they toured for two years), Della Reese and Betty Carter, to Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor, while developing a sophisticated jazzy style that played well on the supper-club/Las Vegas circuit.

When Berry Gordy saw them perform Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” on Jack Paar’s television show, he offered the Tops a record deal. They recorded an album of standards for Motown’s short-lived Workshop Jazz subsidiary. But after hearing it, Gordy shelved the project — titled Breaking Though, it was eventually released in 1999 — and paired them with the songwriting team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland, then fresh off the success of the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.” They scored their first hit with “Baby I Need Your Loving” shortly after their 1964 arrival at Motown.

That song was the first in the Four Tops’ string of smashes, most of which featured roiling, boiling bass lines from the late great James Jamerson and the interlocking interplay of the rest of the Funk Brothers. (“They looked at us more as musicians, ’cause we were older and had more of a jazz background,” Fakir says.) Stubbs’s declamatory, gospel-drenched baritone (singing at the top of his range, so the strain increased the emotional intensity) and the Tops’ own smoothed-out harmonies were augmented by Motown female session vocalists the Andantes. (Fakir: “We used to give the Andantes gifts every year, ’cause they were such a plus to our records.”) Most of the chart-toppers were penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland before they left Motown in a ’67 contract dispute.

The Tops continued to score with remakes of pop hits, duets with the Supremes, and a ’71 U.K. chartbuster (“A Simple Game,” on which they were backed by the Moody Blues), before splitting for Dunhill/ABC in 1972.

Like family acts Gladys Knight & The Pips and the Isley Brothers, the Tops’ unchanging lineup and years of seasoning prior to their Motown success kept them on the charts as they again switched labels, from Dunhill/ABC to Casablanca, then Arista. (The group’s first personnel change in 43 years came after Lawrence Payton’s death from a heart attack, at age 59, on June 20, 1997. The second came when ill health permanently sidelined lead vocalist Levi Stubbs in 2000.)

Beyond the obvious hits, they cut “Are You Man Enough” for the Shaft in Africa sound track; the perennial wedding song, “I Believe In You and Me” (covered by Whitney Houston in 1996); and “Indestructible,” which NBC-TV used as the theme for the 1988 Summer Olympics.

The road work continues. Fakir and the rest of the current Four Tops lineup — Roquel Payton (Lawrence’s son), ex-Temptations member Theo Peoples, and former Motown solo artist Ronnie McNair — are off for a seven-week tour of England and Europe.

Meanwhile, Stubbs — whose loyalty to the group led him to turn down the role played by Billy Dee Williams in the Diana Ross film vehicle, Lady Sings the Blues — provided the voice of man-eating plant Audrey II in the 1986 musical comedy remake of Little Shop of Horrors.

Ultimately, the Four Tops are as much a part of Detroit’s proud musical legacy as longtime riverfront nightspot the Roostertail, where they recorded a 1966 live album. So, too, is Renaldo “Obie” Benson, and the never more timely relevance of the musical question — “What’s Going On.”

Don Waller is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]