I’ve enthused here many times before now about my love of classic soul, from the ’60s sounds of Atlantic and Stax to the best of the ‘70s scene on Hi and Philadelphia, fuelling explorations into the Northern Soul scene and much more besides. It’s had a hold on me for as long as I can recall, the wonders of the Motown back-catalogue at the heart of that.
It’s never been an exclusive passion. It runs alongside an appreciation of many genres. But it’s always there, as previously expressed in my Otis Redding feature three years ago, and last summer’s interview with Martha Reeves. At first it was something I suppose I only really picked up on via a little transistor radio and my older sister’s Dansette and a few treasured 45s. But by the mid-‘80s as a working lad, I finally had cash to splash and delve through the vinyl record racks in my hometown, Guildford, discovering or re-appraising artists from Aretha Franklin, Booker T & The MGs and Curtis Mayfield through to Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Wilson Pickett.
Of all the great acts that came out of that era, The Four Tops had a mighty impact, this young lad swayed by all those intense moments of devotion, heartbreak and loyalty, Levi Stubbs’ impassioned cries speaking to me and for me. As a 19-year-old earning a weekly wage after years of Saturday jobs, I memorably used my Boot’s staff discount one day to snap up two prime slices of vinyl – a 12-track reissue of the Tops’ Greatest Hits and an 18-track Telstar compilation from the Tempts. I’ve checked my diaries, and that was early February 1987 (the same day I finally got a vinyl version of The Undertones’ Hypnotised, my cassette as good as knackered by then). In fact, I remember the branch manager that evening – a sharp-suited ‘60s throwback if ever there was one – questioning my purchases as I left, then praising my selection, not least the Tops’ collection. And what an album – from Baby I Need Your Loving right through to Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over).
The latter LP cover is great in itself, the Tops in proper dance formation – wearing matching blue open-neck shirts and black suits, harmonising and synchronising their moves at what seems to be an impromptu alfresco show, performing in front of tables of far less cool white punters. And both albums were played to death in the following years (all three actually), key components of my 1980s’ soundtrack. When people trot out tired lines about ‘80s music and cite songs like Come on Eileen, Gold, Karma Chameleon and The Power of Love, I’m lost. For me it was much more about the Tempts’ Ain’t Too Proud to Beg and the Tops’ It’s the Same Old Song.
I also loved my 1972 Motown Yesteryear 45 coupling the sublime Walk Away Renee and You Keep Me Running Away, just two of six fantastic singles from the stunning 1967 album Reach Out, released three months before I was born. Both bands’ Anthology recordings were next for me, discovering even more quality songs. And to this day the Tops and the Tempts remain in-car CD regulars, as I explained to Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir when I called him in Detroit, Michigan, the original home of Motown.
What’s more, I add, I often flick through a treasured 1984 copy of Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run – The Story of Soul Music, lapping up the background into that whole scene, just wishing I was there.
“Okay – very good!”
I realise at this early stage of our transatlantic telephone conversation that I’m sounding like a stalker, so back off a little, instead asking Duke – the sole survivor from the original Tops – how he picks his live set-list. You see, The Four Tops are over here touring with The Temptations this coming autumn (hence my excuse for the phone-call). And let’s face it, from 1964’s Baby I Need Your Loving through to 1988’s Loco in Acapulco alone, I’ve totted up around 50 singles for his band alone (incidentally, it’s closer to 80 for the Temptations between 1961’s Oh Mother of Mine and 1984 hit Treat Her Like a Lady).
“Well, what we plan to do this year is research more into playing songs which were big in the UK but weren’t big in the US. Loco in Acapulco would be one, A Simple Game another, and there’s quite a few more. I don’t have the set-list we’re going to do yet, but I could tell you pretty much the songs we have been doing.”
This genial gent’s all set to grab me the set-list the band are working on at that point, misunderstanding my drift – be it down to my accent, general over-enthusiasm, the time of day, or the phone reception – but I assure him that won’t be necessary. Whatever they come up with will go down a storm with audiences in the UK, where there quite rightly remains a lot of love for the band.
It was noon UK time and 7am stateside when we hooked up, but first tenor Duke was already in fine voice.
“It’s a little early in the morning, but I’m an early-bird, so that’s not a problem!”
We start by talking about home, and Duke’s home life and devotion to his family.
“That’s exactly why I never moved out of Detroit. That’s why we all stayed here. We have big families here – sisters, brothers, cousins, and so on. My personal family is extremely big, but my children are grown now, and they have children. So I’m Grandaddy, but they don’t call me that. One set calls me Poppa, the others call me Pop.
“Two of my kids have moved out of Detroit, and they’re the ones with grandkids, so I usually have to travel, which I do a lot in my off-time. I go to Minnesota to see my son’s grandkids, and Atlanta to see my daughter’s children. That’s what I do with any spare time … that and golf. So yeah, I’m a big family man – I love my family, my kids and grandkids.”
“You know what? I am a great-grandpa! One of my grandkids has a little son, born a couple of months ago in Minneapolis. So now I’ve reached the ‘great’ stage! And I’m very proud of that.”
Of course, Duke and his band reached that ‘great’ stage as soon as they had a few hits under their belts. But I don’t dwell on that. Instead, I bring up the celebrations for his 80th birthday last Boxing Day.
“Well, d’you know, a big party was planned. I was going down with my wife to Atlanta where my daughter is, but then the Detroit Pistons basketball team asked if we would perform that day. I hated to turn them down, so told the family we could always have a party later – I’ll be 80 all year long!
“But then the Pistons basketball team surprised me. On a big screen they ran a history of my life, something I didn’t know about. They also gave me a jersey with my name on it and a number 80. I thought that was absolutely excellent. So I celebrated by doing what I do – actually performing.”
When Motown moved on to Los Angeles in 1972, The Four Tops stayed in Detroit, signing for ABC. I put it to Duke that it must have been hard seeing so many good friends move away.
“It was. We actually went out to Los Angeles, just to be sure. We knew we didn’t want to leave but went out and looked around, looking at houses, having a big discussion among ourselves. But we decided ‘no’, we didn’t want to raise our families out there. We wanted to stay right here in Detroit, where the rest of the family was. We ended up staying … and I’m glad we did. I’ve raised a wonderful family, my kids are all professionals, and I’ve had a great life here in Detroit.”
Lots of bands chop and change personnel, but the group that started out as The Four Aims changed little more than their name in their first four decades. In fact, Duke and fellow Tops Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, Lawrence Payton and lead singer Levi Stubbs (a cousin of Jackie Wilson) performed together from 1953 until 1997.
“Yes, for 44 wonderful, wonderful, great fun-loving and exciting years. We had so much fun together and enjoyed doing things off stage together. More than that we enjoyed singing, rehearsing and performing – no matter what. We had arguments from time to time, but when we got to the stage there was nothing to argue about – it was all love!”
In Duke’s case it’s been a staggering 60-plus years in the band, and these days he’s joined by Ronnie McNeir, Larry Payton Jnr. (Roquel), and Harold ‘Spike’ Bonhart. A change was finally forced upon the group when Lawrence Snr. died in 1997. They initially continued as a three-piece – as The Tops – before Theo Peoples, formerly of The Temptations, joined, taking on the lead role when Levi suffered a stroke in 2000 (he passed away in late 2008), with his position assumed by Ronnie. When Obie died of cancer in 2005 he was replaced by Lawrence Snr.’s son Roquel, while Spike replaced Theo in 2011.
While keen not to dwell on the subject, I put it to Duke that I’m guessing not a week goes by without him thanking his lucky stars he’s still out there.
“Yes, but it’s bittersweet, because sometimes I wonder why. We all did the same things and I think our health was about the same. I don’t really know, I wonder about it sometimes, but I’m healthy. And there’s no doubt about it, I dream about them quite a bit.
“But the group we have now is almost as close as we were. We have Lawrence’s son and Ronnie, who was like Renaldo’s younger brother and around for 30 years, so like a Top anyway! It wasn’t like I had to pick up strangers. That would have been hard for me to do. They were more like family members automatically adopted into the group.
“The lead singer we have now has always been a fan, especially a Levi fan, always wanting to sing with The Four Tops. And he does sound quite a bit like Levi. In a way we’re like Memorex – the closest thing to being The Four Tops, and I think the people still enjoy us as if we were the Tops.”
Was Lawrence’s son a regular at the studio in the old days?
“Oh yeah, he was always around us! He was a little kid when we started, but in the ’80s and ‘90s was always around the studio and so forth. He knew all our songs. I didn’t have to teach him hardly anything. He definitely has the voice of his father and the musical ear of his father, who could put harmonies together like a composer. So we’re very fortunate in that respect. It’s made it all very easy for me to carry on. And they’re keeping the legacy really alive.”
What arguably marked The Four Tops out among their peers was Levi’s rich baritone, while many other great Motown acts had a tenor leading. Was that a problem for this particular first tenor?
“Look, when I met Levi and we first started singing together, way back before we started The Four Tops, I just knew he had an incredible voice. He was destined to be lead singer, whether it was going to be all by himself or whatever. He had the most incredible voice. I’d never even think about singing lead when he was around.
“He was a master performer and had a terrific voice. He could touch you just by singing about a stone! Incredible. I look at him as one of the finest lead singers in the world at that particular time.”
Duke met Levi at high school in Detroit. Did they click straight away?
“Oh, we were fun! In fact, Levi actually moved in with me. I was an athlete and I played on the basketball and football teams, and Levi would ride the bus with me going to the game with these team players. We would have the whole bus – the cheerleaders and the athletes – just singing songs. We were always close like that, and he had people singing everywhere he went!”
As I understand it, you met Larry and Obie at a party in 1953 …
“Let me tell you there – we had known each other quite a while. They sang in different groups, so I knew they could sing and sing well. This was a party that was kind of bourgeoise. The ladies were very … the wheels were primed! They were all high-class, very fine young ladies, and you had to be invited.
“They invited Levi and I and asked us to sing. We thought about Obie and Lawrence joining us, but didn’t tell them. These were handsome young men and we thought we were fairly handsome young men ourselves. We figured if we had a group we could probably get away with a few of these fine ladies for ourselves – that’s why we went along! Singing was the by-product of us going to the party looking for the girls! But once we started singing …
“We told Levi to just pick a song and sing the lead. We’d just back him up. Well, when he started, we all fell in like we’d been rehearsing the song for months! Our blend was incredible. We were just looking at each other as we were singing, and right after we said, ‘Man, this is a group! This is a group!” The next day we started rehearsing and became The Four Aims.”
And the rest is history.
The band’s name change followed a move to Chess Records in 1956. Yet they were still a few years and several labels off the big time with Berry Gordy at Motown. Talking to Martha Reeves last year, she said that if Holland/Dozier/Holland came up with a song at Hitsville USA, you’d all be there hoping to get it. Was there stiff competition as you recall it?
“Well, actually there was not. With Holland/Dozier/Holland, they didn’t jut write songs and say who was going to do it. They wrote songs for specific artists, and I loved them for that. They wrote specifically for Martha (Reeves), as they did for Jnr. Walker, and when it came to the Tops, they wrote specifically for us.
“All those songs are a little different, but all have the Holland/Dozier/Holland flavour. They were tailors, and would fit you for what your need was. That’s my true opinion of it. They were tailors of music!”
The Four Tops have eight dates here this time with The Temptations, and all bar one feature ‘70s disco, soul, R&B and funk outfit Tavares too. Duke’s band have co-headlined many times with the Tempts, who these days comprise founder member Otis Williams plus Ron Tyson (on board since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and recent recruits Larry Braggs and Willie Greene Jnr.
But how about those Rhode Island brothers – Cape Verdean collective Antone (Chubby), Arthur (Pooch), Feliciano (Butch) and Perry (Tiny) Tavares, best known for It Only Takes a Minute, Saturday Night Fever’s More Than A Woman, and Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel? Do you know them well?
“Oh yeah! We’ve worked with them in the States a few times, and become very good friends. But like with The Tops and The Temptations we’re always very competitive once we reach the stage. We’re very friendly with The Temptations, sometimes have meals together and play golf together. And we’ve played golf and had meals with Tavares. But when you hit the stage, it’s bloody murder!”
I’m not sure if that last phrase was delivered with Duke’s version of a British accent, but he’s still laughing hard as I ask if he’s ever been tempted to jump on stage with the other bands, joining in on a couple of their songs.
“I never feel like that. We all perform differently and I’ve never wanted to step out of my role into somebody else’s. We’ve always been who we are. We’ve always known our place and know what we do, and just try to do that to the best of our ability … every night. That’s worked well for us. I’m very happy to just be a Top. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than that.”
Finally, there’s always been a special relationship between Motown acts and UK audiences, hasn’t there?
“Oh, there really has, from day one. From the first promotion when we first came over … right up to today. And it’s more than special. This is our favourite tour and we love the people of the UK … and they treat us like royalty. They love The Four Tops and they respond to us. They’re just incredible. It’s such a great feeling. Every night on stage it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling. And we look forward to coming there in October.”
UK dates (featuring The Four Tops, The Temptations and also Tavares unless stated, with all shows 7.30pm, tickets £45/£40 except London and Southend, which are £47.50/£42.50 via www.ticketline.co.uk, the 24-hour ticket-line 0844 888 9991, or via the following venue links): October 21 – Liverpool Echo Arena; October 22 – Manchester Arena; October 23 – Leeds First Direct Arena; October 25 – Nottingham Capital FM Arena; October 26 – Birmingham Genting Arena; October 27 – London O2 Arena; October 29 – Bournemouth BIC; October 30: (without Tavares) Southend Cliffs Pavilion.