Four At Forty
The Four Tops and how they have stayed there: An interview with Duke Fakir
By Matthew S. Robinson [05-10-2001]
"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 production talents."
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 and better."
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 go.
"Berry left the door open for us so we knew we could come back," Fakir recalls.
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 constant."
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 passed away.
Keeping their name (and fan base) intact, the Tops kept it going as a trio.
"We were grieving in our hearts," Fakir recalls. "Lawrence could not be replaced."
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 friends.
"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 we're different."
Even so, the Tops and Temps hit the road for 30 dates a year as "T&T" to rave reviews.
"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 totally different."
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 always genuine."
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 back."
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 the mike.
"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.
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