You pioneered a different kind of sound with ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There,’ didn’t you? Can you remember the recording sessions for that song?
Yeah, we thought it was experimental and would be an album song. We never thought it would be a single. In fact, there’s a story behind that track. Berry Gordy called us into his office one day. He sent out a memo for a meeting with the Four Tops – so we went to his office and he said: “fellahs, you’ve just had ‘I Can’t help Myself’ which came out not too long ago… But I’m getting ready to release a song that is as good as or better than that. It will have just as much appeal.” So of course, we asked: “when are we going to record it?” He said: “you’ve already recorded it.” We all looked at each other and said: “we can’t remember as song as good as ‘I Can’t Help Myself,’ are you kidding?” So he said: “let me play it for you and he played it.” So we listened and before the song reached eight bars we said “hold it, hold it Berry. You think that’s going to be a great single?” He said: “yes, it’s going to be the biggest one you’ve had, probably.” Then Levi said: “man, we were just experimenting with the talking/singing thing. We thought it was going to be an album song. I don’t think it’s going to be hit. That’s not a hit record.” We did not hear that, honestly. Berry laughed and said: “look, just watch, you’ll see.” About two weeks later I was driving in my car and I heard ‘Reach Out’ on the radio and that’s when it hit me. I said “my God! That’s that song.” Now, whatever it was, in that song, there was something that we did not hear. Maybe they added something or something. But that song just knocked me off my feet when I heard it. So I rushed back from wherever I was going and rushed to the office and knocked on Berry’s door. The secretary said: “He’s having a big meeting in there: you can’t go in.” But I pushed open the door and said: “Berry, don’t even ask us about a song. Just do what you do. Thank you! Bye!” (Laughs). And it was true. That and ‘I Can’t Help Myself,’ we’re still trying to compare which is the greatest. They’re both great songs but totally different. That was Holland-Dozier-Holland. They were looking for new ground for us and that was. And of course, Levi, was so talented. He could make you cry singing a song about a garage (laughs). He’d just got that great voice and a great interpretation of lyrics; he just had a great way of getting across that message with whatever those words were really saying. He could have been a comedian, he could have been an actor… but all he wanted to do was sing. I remember the first thing he said to me, the first time we were playing as youngsters. We were playing football or something, and nobody could catch him; he was very elusive, very fast, and I said “man, when you get to high school, you’ll gonna be a great athlete” and he said “Not me. All I want to do is sing.” That was it, and that’s what he did.
And he never went solo, did he? Was he ever tempted to do something on his own?
No. There are many stories that I can tell you about people trying to lure Levi as a soloist. Let me give you another story. Berry Gordy did a movie, Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross and Billy Dee, the story of Billie Holiday. The part of Billy Dee Williams was originally written for Levi. When he was preparing to do the movie, Berry Gordy called Levi up. He said: “look man, come out here to California, I want you to do a part in this movie. Bring your wife so we can talk about it.” So Levi was very excited, told us about it and we said sure, okay. So he flew out there and they were discussing the movie and the part that he would play. Levi was very excited about the amount of money he would be getting, which was a nice load for himself alone. They kept talking about the movie and Levi just stopped it and said: “Hold it, Berry, what about my Tops, the other guys? What part will they be playing?” Berry Gordy said: “oh no, there’s not a part for them.” So Levi looked at him and said “Berry I can’t do it.” So he and his wife headed back home straight away. He had character, you know. If it wasn’t for the four of us, it wasn’t going to happen. That’s what he was. And that was just one instance. There were other instances of people trying to lure him away, which he would tell me about. He did some voice-overs on some of the comic, cartoon kind of things. He did a lot and even when he did Little Shop of Horrors, he asked us if he could do that. I said: “are you kidding? Go, man, do what you gotta do; if it’s good for you, it’s good for all of us.” He just had so much character.
And he was very loyal as well.
Yeah, to the four of us. It was just amazing.
Whereas groups like the Temptations had lots of different line-ups, you guys stayed together through thick and thin, didn’t you?
Yes we did. We were very fortunate. We enjoyed singing together. We were like brothers. It was like we were all family. We had made this pact and we knew that as long as we stayed together we had more of a chance. We realised that the four of us together onstage while we were singing was a force that could not be denied. We wanted to say we’re going to do this together for as long as it was humanly possible. And that’s what we did. We wanted to be different because there was so much love between us, so much respect and so much fun singing together. We could be sitting in an airport waiting for a plane and Lawrence would say “hey man, let’s try this,” and we would start singing, man. It was something that we loved to do because we felt like we could do it well. It was really fun. Lawrence Payton had a musical ear as good as any professional arranger of music. He couldn’t write notes but he could sing them to you. He could take a whole arrangement of an orchestra and sing each one of their parts as if it was written to him. But he couldn’t write it down: he didn’t want to learn, he just loved his ear. We were very fortunate.
How does it feel leading the Four Tops without Levi, Obie, and Lawrence Payton?
It’s definitely bittersweet. There’s nothing like the real thing. There’s nobody that will ever be like Obie, Levi and Lawrence. But I feel very fortunate that I’m very close to what is probably the next best thing. We have the son of Lawrence Payton, Lawrence Payton Jr., who has the same voice and the same ear as his dad. And then we have one of Obie’s best friends, who we’ve known for 30 years, even before he got in the group, that’s Ronnie McNeir, who’s very popular in Northern Soul. And then there’s Harold Bonhart who we call Spike, who’s always wanted to sing Levi’s part, even since he was a kid. So what we have now is as close as you could get to being the real Tops. The energy is still there and we’re pretty close to the same sound. Some people think it’s pretty much the same. Spike has a voice that is very similar to Levi’s and we feel good about it. I’ve never had to audition anybody for these parts. It was like when something happened or one person passed away, it was just a person that was sitting there waiting more or less to just do that. Like Lawrence Payton Jr; he knew every step, every part that his dad did, everything. He knew that the first time we had a gig. We didn’t even have to rehearse. He lived as a Top as a kid. So that’s great. And he will probably carry on with the legacy of the Tops if anything ever happens to me. I hope it never does but I say you can’t get out of this one alive (laughs). Wish I could. I will be singing right up to the very end.
The new guys seem a natural fit.
Yes they are! It was just like they were just waiting there for us, to be picked off the tree, so it’s all has been a natural fit. And to me, it’s like I’m Uncle Duke and mentoring my nephews to carry on this legacy. They feel the legacy and they enjoy the legacy. The major difference is when we’re travelling we talk a lot but I don’t hang out with them like I did with all the original guys. They’re younger and they have different desires. Me, I just like rest. When I’m on the road now I’ll just do some shopping or something like that. Or watch a movie and I’ll just go and relax. I’m not looking to do anything. I’ve been there, done that, and seen that. I’m just basically relaxing whereas they’re all over the place, like we were as youngsters. They’re moving around, they want to go here, want to do that. After the show I go straight to the hotel and take a shower or a bath and lay there. I don’t even have to turn the TV on and I’m gone. (Laughs). So that’s what happens as you grow older. But I feel very fortunate because I still have the love for it. I still have the energy to do it and amazingly, I still have the voice as a tenor that I had when I was 20-something. And to me that is absolutely amazing. There are so many wonderful things that have happened to and for us. It’s a totally wonderful thing to happen to and I’m always just taken with the love of the people. It’s amazing to go through life with all that love around you and to do exactly what you enjoy doing for 60 years.They even give you a cheque most of the time to get through. That’s pretty amazing.
You’ve been living a dream, haven’t you?
To be very honest, that’s very well put. I am actually living a dream. Thank you.
Finally, what’s been the biggest highlight of your career as a member of the Four Tops?
Wow! There are so many highlights. How do you pick one? You’ve been voted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and anytime you’re voted into a any Hall of fame in your industry, that’s one of the biggest achievements you can have. I’ll tell you what is probably the biggest thing to happen. We achieved a Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammies. First of all, we never had received a Grammy. We never got a Grammy, which a lot of people said: what? They thought it was amazing. We were always beaten out by someone. I remember the year when ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ was nominated and ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones just beat that one out. For the longest time it seemed like we weren’t going to get a Grammy but it was no big deal because we have so many awards but still in the recording industry you would like to get a top achievement award or some sort of recognition from your organisation. Just when I thought we were not going to get it, I got a call from the Grammy awards saying that they were going to give us a Lifetime Achievement award. See, to me, that says something. For a long time we’d been there and we did it every year as well. You can’t ask for more than that from your peers from the industry that you love, so in my heart I think that that is – to me – our greatest achievement. It spells out a lot. We were very thankful for that one.
Thanks for talking to SJF. Good luck with tour next year.
Well, thank you, I’m certainly looking forward to coming there in March with my good friends The Temptations and my darling little sister, Freda Payne, and the wonderful sound of The Platters. We’re going to have a great tour.
Four Tops UK tour dates:
Fri 21st LIVERPOOL ECHO ARENA
Sat 22nd BOURNEMOUTH BIC
Sun 23rd BIRMINGHAM NIA
Wed 26th GLASGOW CLYDE AUDITORIUM
Thurs 27th NEWCASTLE METRO RADIO ARENA
Fri 28th NOTTINGHAM CAPITAL FM ARENA
Sun 30th CARDIFF MOTORPOINT ARENA
Tues 1st LEEDS ARENA
Wed 2nd MANCHESTER ARENA
Thur 3rd LONDON O2 ARENA (LOWER BOWL)
All tickets £42.50, London £46.00 (subject to booking fee). Tickets go on sale Friday September 6th at 9.00am from www.ticketline.co.uk the 24 hour booking line – 0844 888 9991 or the venues direct.