Four at Forty
The Four Tops and how they have stayed there: An interview with Duke Fakir
"I'm proud of my age and I know what I am," says Abdul "Duke" Fakir,
founding member of the legendary vocal group The Four Tops. "I'm still glad
to be around for so many years."
Since 1954, Fakir and friends Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Lawrence Payton and
Levi Stubbs have been harmonizing hits and writing a musical legend the
likes of which may not be seen again.
Childhood friends, the four had sung in various combinations in church
groups and at high school dances. Stubbs and Fakir often harmonized on the
way to Duke's football games. But it was not until one fateful night at a
party the four were attending that Fakir, Benson and Payton offered to back
Stubbs up for what would be their first full-strength performance.
"We liked what we did," Fakir recalls, "so we formed a group."
From the beginning, Stubbs (whose cousin was the legendary Jackie
Wilson) was the front man of the group. Still, the name has always been that
of a gang of four.
"At first our name was the Four Aims," Duke explains. "We were aiming
for something and we didn't want to be named for an animal - something that
flew, crawled or jumped. we wanted it to mean what we were trying to do."
Unfortunately, while the Aims were recording their first set for the
Chess label, the Ames Brothers were flying up the young charts, leading the
recording engineer to suggest a name change.
Thus, the Four Tops were born.
Though Fakir and Benson both had basketball scholarships waiting for
them, the lure of showbiz was too strong and, despite the fact that he has
always stressed the importance of education (all of his children have gone
to college), Fakir was loathe to follow his own advice. Instead of keeping
his eyes on the books, Duke chose to squint into the spotlight.
"We fell in love with show biz," he admits. "We were confident that we
could make it big in the world."
Though Duke would eventually be proved right, the band's first decade
was a somewhat disappointing voyage from record label to record label.
Though Fakir credits this era of "good training on the road" as a key to his
group's later success, he admits to getting tired of "knobbing around and
not making good money."
Despite the game of follow the bounding label, the boys knew from day
one that they could sing. Having backed their idol Billy "Mr. B" Eckstine,
they had a pride in their work that few bands can claim.
"We had done a lot of good things," Fakir maintains. "We wanted to have
a mass appeal ... and that's what Motown did for us."
At about the same time as the Tops were coming up through the
post-Vaudeville lounge and theater circuit, friend Berry Gordy was having
his own musical tribulations trying to start a new label called Motown.
Though Gordy had asked the four to be one of his bands, they had not had all
that much confidence in the young entrepreneur. However, as the Tops began
making their name, so did Berry. The union was almost inevitable.
"At first, " Duke says, "we didn't think he'd make it, but we saw him
doing well so we decided to go back home and get cooking."
When Berry saw his old friends on The Tonight Show in 1963, he
immediately invited them to come by the studio.
"It was time," Fakir says.
Berry gave the boys $400 (a considerable advance at the time) and
promised them hit records. Tired of the jazz standards and show tunes the
boys had been working (including a number by Count Basie arranger Ernie
Wilkens), Berry hooked the Tops up with the legendary writing team of Brian
Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland, Jr. (collectively known as
"Holland-Dozier-Holland" or simply "HDH").
"They called us in for a Detroit lounge one night and played us 'Baby I
Need Your Lovin','" Fakir remembers. "We went into the studio that night and
laid it down."
In recalling the musical magic of HDH, Fakir also attributes them with a
kind of musical clairvoyance.
"Everything they said would be a hit for us was," he says. "They were
the greatest writers and tailors of music ever. I marvelled at their
Though they no longer work together (at least not to the extent they did
when the band first hit Motown,) Fakir claims that the Tops' love of and
friendship with HDH will last as long as their music.
"Those songs are forever music," he says.
"Baby" was a huge hit, breaking the top 20 within weeks.
"Everybody loved it," Fakir recalls, "and it just kept getting bigger
On their first tour to England, the Tops were met by throngs of cheering
fans. Unfortunately, the crowd only added to the Detroit-bound bumpkins.
"We didn't know who they were cheering for," Fakir admits, "but it was
us! That broke me up."
Seeing such great love and, more importantly, respect for their music
showed Duke and his musical mates from the States just how strong music and
Motown could be.
"Motown was great. It was like a fraternity with a lot of young people
who started out with dreams and some talent and then watched the dreams come
true. Everyone helped each other out and we all got big together," Fakir
says. "It was a golden age."
Fortunately, Fakir was smart enough to also realize the fleeting nature
of such gilded eras. After the de rigeur period of house and car (er-
Cadillac)-buying, the Tops went right back in the studio and began working
on their next hopeful hit.
"We didn't realize the impact we had made," Fakir says. "All we knew is
that hits don't last forever."
I took a long while, Fakir says, to realize just how big the Tops were
and how long their music and celebrity would sustain.
In the meantime, Motown was growing and moving west and competition was
becoming more intense. As the Berry family atmosphere began to fade, the
Tops found themselves asking "are we we or are we Motown?"
When their contract expired, the boys (now men) decided it was time to
"Berry left the door open for us so we knew we could come back," Fakir
Soon after HDH left Motown, the Tops followed suit, signing with
ABC/Dunhill. Though they may not have had the "constant success" they had
enjoyed while in Berry's care, the Tops soon found themselves back at the
top and with a renewed confidence in their abilities.
Still, they were cautious.
"We figured we'd be at it maybe another ten years," Fakir recalls.
"Never in our wildest dreams did we think we'd make it this long and this
46 years later (36 after their first hits), the Four Tops are still touring
the world and performing to packed houses of multi-generational fans.
"They've been wonderful years," Duke claims. "Years that forged us into
a bond that can't be broken- only by death."
Unfortunately, this one exception was made the rule in 1997, when Payton
Keeping their name (and fan base) intact, the Tops kept it going as a
"We were grieving in our hearts," Fakir recalls. "Lawrence could not be
Though the fans did not seem to mind, the added performance strain
(especially on Stubbs, who often had to handle both lead and backing lines)
led the band to find a new fourth in January of 1999.
Though his old band was not fully aware, ex-Temptations singer Theo
Peoples was picked up by the Tops as a "free agent" before the Tops musical
rivals could get him back.
As for that "rivalry," Fakir asserts that it was more a marketing thing
cooked-up by Berry and that the two bands are really among the best of
"People like to think there's a rivalry, but we've always worked
together as friends," Fakir explains. "We may appeal to same people, but
Even so, the Tops and Temps hit the road for 30 dates a year as "T&T" to
"We have a lot of fun together," Fakir says.
Through 40-plus years of fun and fans, Fakir has seen many other bands
come and (more often) go. Still, there are some he thinks will, or at least
could last, though maybe not as long as he has.
"The music scene has changed a tremendous amount," he says. "It's just
One major difference Duke cites, especially for young bands, is the lack
of "training grounds" (i.e., the small clubs and theaters through which the
Tops and many other early pop bands came up).
"Now," Duke says, "it's all record and video-based. That's more
marketing than real true talent."
Though he is keen to add that he still sees some talent in the scene
today, he claims that it is not the same as the talent he was surrounded by
as a young singer.
"Things were much more musical then."
It is this musicality that, Duke says, keeps the Tops at the top of so
many music lovers' top 10 lists. The commitment to the music that the Tops
portray every night also helps them keep sharp and keep their fans.
"We mean it every time," Duke says, "and that makes it always new and
Another lost element of the music scene that Fakir recalls fondly and
that he credits for his longevity is an appreciation for the fan.
"We knew all along that we're just blue collar workers with shiny
jackets," Fakir maintains. "The record buyers are the true stars."
When asked what groups in particular he thinks could have the staying
power of his own musical colleagues, Fakir mentions a number of "Boy" bands
including Boyz II Men and The Backstreet Boys (Ed. note: Yipes!). The key
for any band, however, is desire.
"People got to want it," Fakir asserts. "It's something you have to work
on from the beginning. Give things to your audience and keep them coming
Though he realizes that many artists are in the game today for the big
splash and the quick buck, Fakir claims that his place will always be behind
"Showbiz is difficult," he admits, "but it is something we want to do
for the rest of our lives."
As a doctor thinks of his career (or at least used to before managed
care), Duke says that a life in music means something you do for life and
that it also means more than making money.
"It has to do with bringing people happiness," he says.