Obie Benson was the bedrock of the Four Tops during the legendary Motown group's decades-spanning career, singing bass and choreographing their smooth-as-silk dance routines. Heard to brilliant effect behind lead vocalist Levi Stubbs on classic singles like "Reach out, I'll Be There" and "Standing in the Shadows of Love," Benson was also a celebrated songwriter in his own right, most famously authoring Marvin Gaye's landmark "What's Goin' On."
Born Renaldo Benson in Detroit on June 14, 1936, he cut his teeth singing doo wop and gospel alongside high school classmate Lawrence Payton. In 1954, they met Stubbs and Abdul "Duke" Fakir at a party, soon after forming the Four Alms. After earning a fan following on the local talent show, the quartet changed its name to the Four Tops in 1956 in an effort to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers. Early singles for Chess, Columbia, and others went nowhere, and the group spent nearly a decade on the New York jazz club circuit, performing in support of balladeer Billy Eckstein and the Count Basie Orchestra. While singing a jazz arrangement of the perennial "In the Still of the Night" on NBC's The Tonight Show in 1963, the Four Tops captured the attention of Motown Records owner Berry Gordy, Jr., who immediately extended a contract offer. The jazz-flavored Breaking Through album appeared on Motown's Workshop imprint and went nowhere, however, and while determining what direction to next steer the group's career, Gordy assigned them to backing sessions headlined by the Supremes and other Motown stars.
When teamed with the songwriting and production trio of siblings Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier the Four Tops literally and figuratively found their groove. With Stubbs' emphatic leads couched in stunning harmonies anchored by Benson, the quartet first struck chart success with 1964's aching "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" and in the years to follow reeled off a series of classic soul records that additionally includes "Bernadette," "Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," and "It's the Same Old Song." The Four Tops toured widely at home and in Europe and Asia, renowned for the immaculate dance routines devised by Benson.
During one stop in San Francisco, he witnessed a police attack on a group of hippies, an experience he found so unsettling that upon returning to Detroit he sat down with Motown staff writer and producer Al Cleveland to compose "What's Goin' On," a devastating assessment of life in an America divided by the war in Vietnam. His fellow Tops passed on the song, dismissing it as little more than a protest song, and Benson tried in vain to interest Joan Baez. Gaye finally committed to "What's Goin' On," which proved the title cut of his 1971 LP masterpiece and is now regarded among the greatest pop singles ever made.
In the meantime, the Four Tops left Motown in 1972 following the label's relocation to Los Angeles. They never again achieved the same measures of creative or commercial success, last reaching the Billboard pop charts with 1988's Indestructible. But the group remained a popular live attraction, with its original lineup intact until Payton's 1997 death; Benson continued performing as a Top until shortly prior to his own death from lung cancer on July 1, 2005.