Motown legends The Four Tops have been part of the very fabric of the history of popular music for more than five decades.
Sole survivor of the original group Abdul “Duke” Fakir is still going strong at 82-years-old.
He speaks to editor Simon Redley from his Detroit home about his amazing career and keeping a magical musical legacy alive.
Go find 100 people at random almost anywhere on the planet, and ask them to name any Motown act, and you can bet that the Four Tops name will come up, maybe even 100 times in that little spot of market research.
That iconic group had a constant original line-up for 44 years, until 1997 when Lawrence Payton died. Obie Benson died in 2005 followed by Levi Stubbs in 2008, after he had suffered a stroke in 2000.
They have a staggering 54-year history and achieved 27 UK Top 40 Chart hits, which makes them Motown’s most successful artists ever, on these shores.
Their legacy lives on in their timeless records and live on stage, with last man standing of the original group, Abdul “Duke” Fakir keeping the flame burning under that famous brand name, The Four Tops.
Joined by Ronnie McNeir, Harold Bonhart and Lawrence Payton Jr in the current line-up. They are back on UK soil later this year, joining fellow Motown legends The Temptations, starring sole surviving original member Otis Williams and featuring former Tower of Power lead singer Larry Braggs.
Tavares will join the two legendary groups for a seven-date tour of UK arenas, starting in Leeds and closing in Nottingham, in November (2018).
Duke Fakir is now 82-years-old, but you would never know it when you hear his voice and see him on stage doing the faultless choreographed dance moves that were part and parcel of The Four Tops’ slick show.
Speaking from his Detroit home, he says he feels 50 years old, and flashing his renowned sense of humour, when asked how he is in our initial ‘hellos’: “Oh, I feel fine. I woke up this morning; and I feel pretty good for an old fart”.
We kick off the chat with sincere thanks from me, for the music Duke and his colleagues have given us, which provided part of the soundtrack to my life.
From the age of about six or seven, when my two older brothers and my sister all played various Motown 45s on an HMV portable record player in our family home; music which I never ever tired of hearing then or now, decades later.
“I am always honoured to hear that. It is just amazing that people have kept our music close to their hearts for so long. It just amazes me and I am always excited, when I hear people talk about it being ‘the soundtrack’ to their lives and all of that”.
So does he feel it is a big responsibility to be the last surviving original member and performing that iconic music?
“Yes it is. It’s an honour and a privilege, and I do feel that I am doing what I should be doing. I got to keep that legacy going. We have some gentlemen who really are good at keeping that legacy alive.
“They are very close to the original sound, ability and actions of the original Tops, and that makes it very easy for me to keep going along with it”.
As an octogenarian, Duke has more than earned retirement and certainly paid his dues, and he tells me what keeps him going with the music career.
“Taking it easy is not the best thing for me. I would just get fat, I’d get slow, I’d just sit on the couch and I’d be just waiting for whatever’s supposed to happen, to happen.
“Whereas I am still enjoying this wonderful life, I am still on the red carpet, people still love what we do.
I might drop on stage…
“I am still able to do what I’ve been doing as a kid, and I think that’s the best thing, and I think I should keep going because that keeps me going.
“So I am gonna do this as long as I can; I might drop on stage, who knows? Who cares? I’m just gonna keep going as long as I can. I don’t see it as being cut off any time soon”. Amen to that.
Abdul “Duke” Fakir and Levi Stubbs both sang in the same group at High School. Lawrence Payton and Renaldo “Obie” Benson were childhood friends who went to another Detroit school.
The four talented youngsters got up to sing at a friend’s birthday party in 1954 and made quite an impact. So, they met the very next day to practice and called themselves The Four Aims.
After signing to Chess Records in 1956, their name was changed to the Four Tops. Their only recording for Chess, the single “Kiss Me Baby”, had zero commercial success.
They signed to a few labels with no major success, during a nine year period where they were also performing in decent clubs.
In the early 60s they signed to Motown (having previously already rejected an offer from Bery Gordy’s Tamla label), and they were now working with the dream team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, blasting onto the scene with their first hit, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” – #11 in the US chart in 1964.
The Four Tops had chart hits almost thirty times in the next eight years. Their hits included “Same Old Song”, “I Can’t Help Myself”, “Reach Out and I’ll Be There”, “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, “Bernadette”, “Walk Away Renee”, “If I Were a Carpenter”.
“River Deep, Mountain High,” (with the Supremes in 1970), “Still Water”, “Keeper of the Castle, “There Ain’t No Woman”, “When She Was My Girl” and more. Their final Motown hit came in 1985 with “Sexy Ways”. In 1988 they released “Indestructible” on the Ariola label.
They were still having hits here in the late 80s, when “Loco in Acapulco”, written and produced by Phil Collins and former Motown composer-producer Lamont Dozier, peaked at number seven in the UK singles chart, and was used on the soundtrack to the hit movie “Buster”.
He admits he and his three partners did have their fall outs over the years, but above all else, they were like brothers to each other and had all sworn a vow to stay together, no matter what. “We were like brothers but we had our arguments, you know.
“There were times when we were mad at one or the other, or disgruntled. But the love for music, the love for entertaining and the love for working together kept us together.
“We absolutely loved it, we knew that it was a blessing, and we knew that as long as we were together we were a viable force.
“We would always work arguments out, our differences.
“Any relationship is not always peaches and cream; there are bumpy roads here and there”.
“This was just heaven on earth. Believe it”.
So what were the magic ingredients that a million other groups did not have?
“We enjoyed what we did and we all had particular things that we did, that made our roles in the group special.
“It made it special because we all enjoyed our roles that we played, and we were a real team, and we knew that.
“We knew that as long as we were together, we were good. We were a little better than most. We were there from the beginning.
“We felt like we were better than most groups. We felt like were able to be one of the top groups in the country, or the world, from the beginning. So, we kept that feeling of confidence and love for what we did.
“We watched other groups as they broke up and we just swore that we would never do that. We kept our commitment and that’s one thing I am so proud of them for; everybody kept their commitment.
“I mean, Levi was asked to go alone to be on his own. He was tempted with all kinds of gifts, monies and different things, and he would just look at them like they was (sic) crazy.
“He’d say, ‘if you are not talking about all four of us, you can go about your business. We are OK. I am fine with this’. So many different reasons that we never would part”.
Today, via the TV talent show route, artists and bands come and go left, right and centre and rarely carve a long-term career for themselves. Groups splitting up at the drop of a hat, it seems.
Very different to the likes of The Four Tops, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Jacksons and many more Motown artists, who stayed at the top for most of their careers and across decades.
“Those TV talent shows; good for those who want to do it that way. I can appreciate how marketing and different things can make a group or make a person famous. If they want one or two hits, that’s their prerogative. If they just want to be known for a moment and then sail off into the sunset, that’s great”.
“We came up knowing that this is what we want to do for life, we knew that. Whether we had a hit or not, we wanted to sing and entertain people for life, and that is exactly what we did. We made that commitment when we first started.
…we are going for it, betting on us…
“I gave up a scholarship, Obie had a scholarship for college. We gave it up the moment we started singing. I said, look man, I know we can make it and I am gonna do this forever. We made that commitment. We held our hands together and said this is it; we are going for it, betting on us – and that’s a big bet”.
So, no way did fame or fortune become your goals? “Absolutely. We wanted to be entertainers. We wanted to sing and entertain, and be on stage in front of people and make them feel good. Bring some joy to people’s lives with music. It took us 10 years before we had our first hit. When we first started recording, it was not the greatest thing in our minds.
“The greatest thing in our minds was to be great entertainers and we worked toward that. We kept getting different gigs that pushed us that way. That’s where our heads were, and that’s where we targeted our career”.
When the conversation gets around to the impossible task of picking out the “best moments” of such a long and successful career, Duke instantly recalls one such moment which happened over here in the UK in 1966.
“When Brian Epstein brought us over for a promotion before he did the actual tour. At the Saville Theatre. He said Tops, if you all do your greatest show that you can do, and I’ve seen one of your great ones, I will make you as famous here as my Beatles are in the States.
“So, when we went out there, we did do a magical show. It was magical, and when we came off stage it was so great, we felt so good about it and the way we were received…
“We all had tears in our eyes and he was about crying and said, you guys have done it. I promise you that you guys will be front page news if you come back here on tour. That’s exactly what happened, so that was one of the great moments in my career. That to me was precious”.
That showcase gig was held at the Shaftsbury Avenue theatre in London which Brian took the lease on in April 1965, to stage plays in the heart of the West End theatre land. He ran it until his death in 1967, and put on music concerts on Sunday nights when other venues were closed, including Jimi Hendrix and The Who.
The night the Four Tops came over to do a show for him, he had invited a who’s who of music and show business stars to witness their mesmerising set, and the audience was standing in the aisles calling for more at the end. Brian Epstein died the following year at the age of 32. After the Four Tops triumphant show in ’66, he threw a party for them at his luxurious home.
When The Four Tops met the Beatles…
Among the guests flocking to ask the four American group members all about their music, were The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces and anybody who was anybody back then. Brian’s company brought the Tops back to tour the UK, and the reaction was as he had predicted.
“It was exciting the way people started receiving us right away. To us; guys who had never really travelled out of the country that much, perhaps other than Montreal which we did as youngsters. So, the reception we got here was just amazing. These people 5,000 miles away from home and they say, we love you, we love you. It was absolutely breathtaking making those trips over here”.
One visit to these shores almost ended in disaster for the group, except for a quirk of fate. In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was supposed to be the group’s scheduled return flight to the U.S. for Christmas after completing their European tour.
A longer than planned recording session and an appearance on Top of the Pops caused them to oversleep and miss their fight – the plane that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, after a terrorist bomb was detonated on board. They eventually left London using a later British Airways flight.
The Four Tops spent some time in their early days as backing singers for US star Billy Eckstine. Duke recalls wise words Billy told him one night before they went out on stage, which he has never forgotten and has since then always practised. “He took me to one side and said, look out there, what do you see? I said, well it’s a full house…
“He said, if you ever fortunate enough to sell some records and have you a million fans, do yourself a favour; take care of them. Give them what they want, and they will take care of you for the rest of your life.
“We always loved our fans, years before that advice, but that just stuck in my head; you treat them like they treat you, and they will take care of you for the rest of your life”.
Duke’s own advice to singers and artists today? “Well, it is such a different world, a different culture. All I can say is, just think a minute to what you’re doing. Learn as much as you can about the career you’re doing, whether it’s hip hop, writing, poetry, playing an instrument.
“Be properly committed and you have to try to be the best you can in this world. Because the competition is so much greater nowadays. You have to be totally committed and you have to look at all facets of the game”.
Heart and soul
So when Duke Fakir finally gets called to that big gig in the sky to re-join his Four Tops mates Levi, Obie and Lawrence, how does he wish to be remembered? “I hope they’ll say, well, he did the best he could as long as he could. He gave his heart and his soul to what he was doing, and that’s good enough for me”.
Born and raised in Detroit where he still lives, the home of Motown Records, he was nicknamed Duke by the kids at school struggling with his name Abdul, by about eight or nine. And it stuck.
He lives with his second wife who he has been married to for 44 years, and they have four children, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.
In 2018, The Four Tops big hit, “I Cant Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”, was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. In 1998, another smash hit, “Reach Out” (I’ll Be There) was also inducted.
Duke reveals a really great “secret” behind another of their biggest hits, “Bernadette”… “Somebody bet our bass player James Jamerson, that he couldn’t play the bass line on that song laying on the floor on his back – and he did.
“That is the take you hear on the record. He laid on the floor and it is one of the best bass lines of all time. He played it and recorded it perfectly, while laying down on his back”. Jamerson was of course, part of the famed session players unit The Funk Brothers, who played on most of Motown’s recordings and hits.
In 1990 Steve Wonder inducted the Four Tops into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s not many, (if any in fact), awards the group have not been presented with during their long, long career. All more than earned and deserved, for sure.
When that often bandied-about word “legendary” is attributed to The Four Tops, it is unquestionably and undeniably warranted. Yes, sir. Duke, we salute you….
By Simon Redley
Photo credit: All images with ‘Junction 10’ logo: By Jason Sheldon
THE FOUR TOPS & THE TEMPTATIONS
plus special guests TAVARES
TOGETHER AGAIN… ONE MORE TIME UK TOUR DATES
Mon 19th Leeds First Direct Arena
Tues 20th Manchester Arena
Thur 22nd Birmingham Arena
Fri 24th Liverpool Echo Arena
Tues 27th London O2 Arena
Wed 28th Bournemouth International Centre
Thur 29th Nottingham Motorpoint Arena
- The Four Tops and The Temptations will also play Southend Cliff’s Pavillion on Monday 26th November.
Tickets available from: www.ticketline.co.uk, 24-hour ticket line 0844 888 9991, or from the venues direct.