Sometimes it's hard to believe what it takes for people with mammoth talent to hit the big time. If we had to guess, we wouldn't imagine, for example, that a Levi Stubbs, with his magnificently evocative baritone, along with his fellow Four Tops, would have had to spend more than a decade finding an audience when they started singing together after high school. But that is in fact what happened.
Along with his boyhood friends Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton, the Detroit-based Tops, originally known as the Four Aims, were the hardest working men in show business for years and years while they worked the club circuit, often as a backing group for the likes of Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton and Della Reese. One single each with Columbia, Red Top and Chess Records didn't even get them the exposure they needed.
As with so many talented acts, it took being discovered by Berry Gordy in 1963, taken under the Motown tent, and given the right material for the rest of the world to catch on. At first, though, the Tops were used in a jazz subsidiary Gordy had, which didn't pan out, and later contributed only backing vocals to other acts, as on the Supremes' When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.
But in 1964, house songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland had the necessary epiphany and Baby I Need Your Lovin' launched them as an act to be reckoned with. All those years perfecting their dance moves and vocal arrangements paid off in ways even they probably could never have predicted. (Atypically for any successful act of that time, the Tops' original lineup remained constant for 40 years although they left Motown in 1967.)
Of all the Four Tops songs, I think Ask the Lonely, their second hit (not an H-D-H composition but rather written by Mickey Stevenson, Motown's A&R director, and songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter), woke people up to the group's enduring possibilities. I know it did me.
Though the many songs that followed generally charted higher than Ask the Lonely did, Stubbs' heartbreaking delivery and the silky smooth harmony line of Fakir, Benson and Payton made this one cathartic and downright irresistible. The Four Tops at their absolute best.