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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,649

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This is the grave of Obie Benson.

Born in 1936 in Detroit, Benson went to the local schools and became friends with a guy named Lawrence Payton while in high school. They liked to sing together and this was the glory days of doo-wop so in 1954, they sang at a friend’s birthday party. While there, they met a couple of guys from a different school who also liked to sing. This was Levi Stubbs and Duke Fakir. They started singing together and became The Four Tops. Since I covered Payton recently, let me repeat some of the language I used there, to save me time:

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 substantial resources of the label, was really good songwriters and producers that they did not have access to before. Stubbs became the band’s lead singer, but Benson was key to their sound too.

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 in a more contemporary context 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. 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.”

Now, unlike most of the band, Benson did write songs. In fact, he and his bandmates were in Berkeley for a show the day the cops tried to bust up People’s Park in 1969. Benson watched it from his hotel room and was disgusted and horrified. So he put his pen to paper and wrote a little song named “What’s Going On?” He worked it up with his friend, the songwriter Al Cleveland. The rest of the band was not interested in this. Protest songs was not what these guys did and it would have been such a left-field turn that they just didn’t have the stomach for it, however much they liked the song. So he gave it to Marvin Gaye, who was himself more than a little nervous about it. Gordy really didn’t like the idea. But of course, Gaye went through with it and then titled his album with it and then made one of the greatest albums ever recorded in the history of music with it as the lead cut.

The band did get some late attention thanks to their old friend Aretha Franklin, who worked with them on her 1989 album Through the Storm, which didn’t exactly set the world on fire itself, but still was a respectable late album for the Queen. The Four Tops were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and I don’t know who could question the appropriateness of both their induction and the early date. Of course they weren’t “rock and roll” by a narrow definition, which whatever who cares except that some people are still grumbly about hip hop acts not being rock and roll. C’mon, let’s not split hairs unnecessarily here.

Benson continued to work with his friends until the end. By the early 2000s, he began to have serious health problems. In 2005, he had a leg partially amputated for circulation problems, which I imagine probably means he was diabetic. As the doctors were doing this operation, they realized he had other severe health issues as well and it turned out to be lung cancer. That killed him in July 2005. He was 69 years old.

Obie Benson is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the 1990 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Herb Reed, from The Platters, is in Peabody, Massachusetts and Nick Massi from The Four Seasons is in Kenilworth, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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