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Obie Benson 7/2005

the four topsJuly 1, 2005 – Obie Benson (the Four Tops) was born on June 14th 1937 in Detroit, Michigan. The Four Tops were products of Detroit’s North End where Benson attended Northern High School with Lawrence Payton. They met Levi Stubbs and Abdul “Duke” Fakir while singing at a friend’s birthday party in 1954 and decided to form a group called the Four Aims. Roquel Billy Davis, who was Payton’s cousin, was a fifth member of the group for a time and a songwriter for the group. Davis played an instrumental role in the group being signed by Chess Records who were mainly interested in Davis’s songwriting ability. The group changed their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers and had one single “Kiss Me Baby” released through Chess which failed to chart. The Four Tops left Chess although Davis stayed with the company.

The group spent nearly a decade on the New York jazz club circuit, performing in support of balladeer Billy Eckstein and the Count Basie Orchestra. While singing a jazz arrangement of the perennial “In the Still of the Night” on NBC’s The Tonight Show in 1963, the Four Tops captured the attention of Motown Records owner Berry Gordy, Jr., who immediately extended a contract offer. They signed with Motown in 1963, initially recording a track for Motown’s Workshop Jazz label. Benson and the other members already knew Barrett Strong, as he had written songs with Davis for Jackie Wilson including “Lonely Teardrops”.

When teamed with the songwriting and production trio of siblings Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier the Four Tops literally and figuratively found their groove. With Stubbs’ emphatic leads couched in stunning harmonies anchored by Benson, the quartet first struck chart success with 1964’s aching “Baby, I Need Your Lovin'” and in the years to follow reeled off a series of classic soul records that additionally includes Reach out and I’ll be there”,”Bernadette,” “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and “It’s the Same Old Song.” The Four Tops toured widely at home and in Europe and Asia, renowned for the immaculate dance routines devised by Benson.

Benson was on tour with the Four Tops in San Francisco when he witnessed a scuffle between on a group of hippies and the police over a disused urban lot which the hippies called People’s Park. He started writing the first draft of “What’s Going On”. He worked on the song with lyricist Al Cleveland, who was renting the upstairs section of Benson’s duplex.

Benson wanted the Four Tops to record his song, but they refused on the grounds that it was a protest song. He approached Joan Baez to record the song while appearing on a British television show, but was unsuccessful. Finally, he approached Marvin Gaye who liked the song, but wanted The Originals to cut a version of it.

Benson eventually persuaded Gaye to record the song by offering him a cut of the royalties. Gaye definitely earned the credit by adding lyrics and other touches to the song. The song was recorded in June 1970, but Motown refused to release it at first, claiming it was uncommercial. Finally, the song was released and reached #2 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, while topping the R&B chart. “What’s Going On” is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock or R&B songs of all time, reaching the top 5 of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” as rated by Rolling Stone in 2004 and as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

After Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in 1967, the hits became less frequent for the Four Tops. When Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, the Four Tops signed with ABC-Dunhill, and had Top 10 pop hits with “Keeper of the Castle” and “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got”, their first Top 10 hits since “Bernadette” in 1967. While the Four Tops enjoyed a number of R&B hits in the next couple of years, the hits dried up again as disco became popular.

In 1981, The Four Tops returned to the R&B charts with a #1 hit in “When She Was My Girl” on Casablanca Records. The group returned to Motown for the Motown 25 special in 1983, and recorded a couple of albums before leaving for Arista Records. Benson appeared with the rest of the Four Tops on Aretha Franklin’s Through the Storm album, released in 1989.

Besides being the bass and lead of The Four Tops Benson was responsible for the Tops’ choreography in the early years of the group.

Obie Benson was admitted as a member of the Four Tops to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The group would be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997, followed by the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.

Until the death of Lawrence Payton in 1997, the Four Tops had had the same membership for over forty years. Former Temptation Theo Peoples joined the group in 1998. Peoples soon became the lead vocalist, as Levi Stubbs fell ill, and Ronnie McNair took Payton’s place. Benson continued to tour extensively as part of the Four Tops, spending a third of the year on tour. The group would often tour with The Temptations as part of a double bill.

Obie Benson died of lung cancer and other illnesses on July 1, 2005. His leg had been amputated earlier in 2005 due to circulation problems. His last performance as a Four Top was on April 8, 2005 live on the Late Show with David Letterman. Media coverage of Benson’s death was almost completely overshadowed by that of another R&B star, Luther Vandross who also died on the same day.

He was 69.

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