The quartet, originally called the Four Aims, made their first single for Chess in 1956, and spent seven years on the road and in nightclubs, singing pop, blues, Broadway, but mostly jazz—four-part harmony jazz. When Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. found out they had hustled a national “Tonight Show” appearance, he signed them without an audition to be the marquee act for the company’s Workshop Jazz label. That proved short-lived, and Stubbs’ powerhouse baritone lead and the exquisite harmonies of Fakir, Benson, and Payton started making one smash after another with the writing-producing trio Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Their first Motown hit, “Baby I Need Your Loving” in 1964, made them stars and their sixties track record on the label is indispensable to any retrospective of the decade. Their songs, soulful and bittersweet, were across-the-board successes. “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” a no. 1 R&B and Pop smash in 1965, is one of Motown’s longest-running chart toppers; it was quickly followed by a longtime favorite, “It’s The Same Old Song” (no. 2 R&B/no. 5 pop). Their commercial peak was highlighted by a romantic trilogy: the no. 1 “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” (no. 2 R&B/no. 6 pop) and “Bernadette” (no. 3 R&B/no. 4 pop)—an extraordinary run of instant H-D-H classics. Other Tops hits from the decade included “Ask The Lonely,” “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over),” “Something About You,” “You Keep Running Away,” “7-Rooms Of Gloom” and their covers of “Walk Away Renee” and “If I Were A Carpenter.” The group was also extraordinarily popular in the U.K.