Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,602

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,602


This is the grave of Lawrence Payton.

Born in 1938, Payton got involved in the robust Detroit music scene as a kid. In 1953, he and some friends–Abdul Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Jr., and Renaldo Benson–formed a group they called the Four Aims. The kids had some local success and Chess Records decided to sign them to a deal in 1956. But when Chess did, the label realized there was already a band called the Ames Brothers and it thought that was too close to the Four Aims. So they asked the kids to rename it. They decided on The Four Tops.

The Four Tops became one of the greatest of all the Detroit bands of the 1960s. But it took awhile though. They struggled through a couple of early record deals and they were still pretty much in the minor leagues. That changed in 1960. That year, Billy Eckstine had them come out to Las Vegas as part of a revue he was putting on that had a lot of younger bands in it. He liked them and he took them under his wing. A lot of what he worked with them on was things like presentation. Obviously they could sing, no one could question that. So it was about how to put on a show. This is when they started with the matching outfits and the choreography and all that.

In 1963, The Four Tops signed a new deal with Motown. This was right as the epic label (though run by a terrible human being named Berry Gordy who somehow still lives) was hitting super big and Four Tops would be right at the center of its success. What Gordy provided them, as well as the regular resources of the label, was really good songwriters and producers that they did not have access to before. Payton was not the lead singer–that was Stubbs–but his backing vocals were critical to the band’s success.

Specifically, Gordy sent his top songwriting team of Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier to write up some material for the band and this included their big hits. ‘Baby, I Need Your Loving” came out in 1964, one of the all-time classics of Detroit music. The band hit #1 with ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” in 1965. Then it hit #1 in 1966 with ”Reach Out (‘I’ll Be There’)’.” 1967 did not see a chart topper, but did see two songs make the top 10–”Standing in the Shadows of Love” and ”Bernadette.” They were huge in England too. Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, arranged for them to come to the UK, and they were just shocked to see waves of white people loving them. Even in the U.S., Black fans were really at the core of their popularity, which is interesting when you consider that the most successful hip hop acts have always, somewhat ironically, sold heavily in white communities.

The band’s situation took a turn when the great songwriting team got sick of dealing with Gordy and left Motown. But honestly, people were listening to the band not for original material, but to hear these guys sing. So they managed to continue in the charts for awhile with pop covers. This was an era when a successful song was covered by basically everyone–I wonder just how many versions of “Bridge over Troubled Water” were cut in the decade after its release. So that wouldn’t have even seen a raised eyebrow by their fans. Payton was a bit of an exception here–he wrote a few songs, though not very many. One of them was recorded by Aretha Franklin, which is pretty cool. They had a bit of a return to prominence in the early 70s, adjusting with the times and adopting a more contemporary sound. They had two top ten hits in 1972, with ”Keeper of the Castle” and ”Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got).” Then they had one more top 10 hit, in 1981 with “Casablanca.”

Specifically, the band members credited Payton with being the person really behind their melodies. He was the most soft-spoken member of the group, not really seeking publicity. And he was not officially trained in music at all. But boy could he handle a harmony

Four Tops style music might not have been at the forefront of the American musical experience by the 70s and 80s, but they still had tons of fans. That era of Motown was so great, so rich, that why wouldn’t you want to go hear these guys. They were really at the peak of their performance game, especially since they started so young. So they went on the road and pretty much stayed on it, making a good living. In 1990, the Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a well-deserved induction it was.

What’s amazing about the Four Tops is that they were unlike basically every other Motown band. So many of those bands went the package tour route (fine, gotta make a living) with like one of the original members and then a bunch of other guys. Not Four Tops. Nope, they stayed together as a group all the way until the first member of the band died, without a single lineup change. Unfortunately, that was Payton. He died in 1999, of liver cancer. He was 59 years old. The band had been together for 44 years. Today, Lawrence Fakir continues to use the Four Tops moniker on these tours, as the last living member. Payton’s son Lawrence Jr. is also in the band, replacing his father.

What really surprised me about writing this post is that Payton doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. I was able to gather material from the short obituaries written when he died. If I was at home and had access to my music book library, I’d probably be able to dig some material up too, but I am on my much-hyped New Orleans trip. So this is a lot more a general history of the group than I anticipated. But I am sure you big fans out there can fill in some of the gaps.

Let’s listen to the Four Tops.

Lawrence Payton is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan.

If you would like this series to visit other people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the 1990 class, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hank Ballard is in Atlanta and Charlie Christian is in Bonham, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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