Spectropop remembers

(1937 - 2005)

Bass voice of the Four Tops and composer of a soul/protest anthem.

One day in the early 1970s, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, who has died of lung cancer aged 68, saw the San Francisco police attacking a crowd of hippies. A founder member of the seminal Motown group, the Four Tops, Benson had already been thinking a lot about the social and political unrest in black America. He was also, at the time, branching out as a songwriter. Enraged by the incident, he wrote, in collaboration with arranger Al Cleveland, the lyrics for 'What's Goin' On?', a song about such a controversial subject that the rest of the group refused to record it. So Benson offered it, unsuccessfully, to Joan Baez, with whom the Four Tops were appearing on British television. Finally, he approached the Motown star Marvin Gaye. According to Benson, he gave Gaye a songwriter credit and a share of the royalties as an inducement to record what became a classic of popular music, and one of Gaye's most renowned performances.

Born in Detroit, Benson attended Northern High School with Lawrence Payton; in 1953, they met Pershing High students Levi Stubbs and Abdul "Duke" Fakir at a birthday party. The quartet began to harmonise, with Benson taking the bass part and Stubbs as lead vocalist. They rehearsed intensively and, having debuted at local functions as the Four Aims, attracted the attention of the Chicago-based record company, Chess. In 1956, they recorded their first single, 'Kiss Me Baby'. Chess changed the quartet's name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the better-known vocal group, the Ames Brothers, but subsequent records for Red Top, Riverside and Columbia were commercially unsuccessful. However, the Four Tops remained in demand on the nightclub circuit, singing jazz and pop standards, and, by the early 1960s, they were playing venues in New York and Las Vegas, usually supporting such stars as Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.

Around 1961 the group auditioned for Motown, but didn't like the contract offered. The label wouldn't see the group again until 1963, where they signed under the Workshop subsidiary label, with their debut album "Break Through" showing off their roots as jazz artists. Motown's founder, songwriter Berry Gordy, decided not to issue the LP, placing the quartet instead with his in-house composing and producing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and shifting them towards rhythm & blues. The result, 'Baby I Need Your Lovin'', was the first of thirteen American Top 20 hits for the group between 1964 and 1970. From 1964 to 1967, they recorded some of Holland-Dozier-Holland's greatest compositions, including 'Reach Out, I'll Be There', 'I Can't Help Myself ', 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love' and 'Bernadette'. By the later 1960s, the Four Tops were mainly recording Motown-style versions of pop hits such as the Left Banke's 'Walk Away Renee', Tim Hardin's 'If I Were A Carpenter' and Jimmy Webb's 'MacArthur Park'.

When Gordy moved his company to Los Angeles in 1972, the Four Tops stayed in Detroit and joined the Dunhill label. There, producer-writers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter created hits for them with 'Keeper Of The Castle' and 'Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got)'. By the mid-1970s, however, their urbane style was out of step with new trends in black pop music, though they remained in demand as concert and nightclub performers in both the US and Europe. They also contributed to film soundtracks, such as Shaft In Africa (1973) and Buster (1988), for which they sang 'Loco In Acapulco'.

From the 1980s, the Four Tops frequently toured with the Temptations, reprising their greatest hits. In 1990, they were inducted by Stevie Wonder into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame and, in 1992, they performed at the opening ceremony for EuroDisney in France. Until the 1997 death of Lawrence Payton, the Four Tops were Motown's longest lasting group with all their original members. Theo Peoples then took Payton's place, and, five years ago, illness led to the retirement of Levi Stubbs. Obie Benson and Duke Fakir recently recorded a televised concert to celebrate the Four Tops' 50th anniversary. Benson's final appearance with the group was on the David Letterman television show in April.

While amputating a leg because of circulation problems, doctors discovered the cancer which caused Benson's death. He went into cardiac arrest and died on July 1st. A number of relatives and friends visited him during his hospitalisation, including ailing comrade Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir and former wife Valadia Benson, who was with him virtually everyday up until his passing. He is survived by two daughters.

Remaining member Fakir has announced that he is to keep the Four Tops alive with Theo Peoples, former Motown solo artist Ronnie McNeir and, rumour has it, Lawrence "Roquel" Payton Jr., the son of Lawrence Payton.

(Sources: The Motown Alumni Association and Dave Laing at The Guardian)

Renaldo "Obie" Benson, singer and songwriter: born June 14th 1937 - died July 1st 2005.