All the way from Detroit, destined for success – celebrating Duke Fakir’s I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops

Picture the scene. It’s the second Sunday of November, 1966, barely three months after England’s World Cup triumph, The Four Tops riding high in the UK charts, their fourth hit on this side of the Atlantic rather fittingly retaining the top spot, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ at No.1 for the second of a three-week run, their On Top LP set to start its 23-week top-40 run the following weekend.

That evening, Levi Stubbs, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson played two sets at the Saville Theatre in London’s West End, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers the main support act for an event promoted by Beatles manager Brian Epstein. They’d be back for a proper UK tour two months later, including two sold-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall, the Tops’ love affair with the UK and Europe well under way, as Duke Fakir recalls in his forthcoming autobiography.

‘The Tops had always aimed high, wanting to entertain in the top venues in the country, not imagining that one day we’d be in demand in Europe too. When Brian Epstein foretold that he’d make us as popular as the boys from Liverpool, who were an international phenomenon, we gladly put ourselves in his hands. Brian was a young man, just a little older than we were, a nice Jewish guy who was easy to talk to, free-spirited but also a savvy businessman, an expert in marketing. His first step was bringing us over to the UK for a promotional tour with various bookings and lots of television appearances. On the last day of the tour, we performed at a small London theatre, the Saville, an eight-or-nine-hundred-seater. It wasn’t concert-sized, more like the size of our usual nightclub venues. Brian sold out every ticket in the house and invited key media people and artists. Backstage before we went on, he reiterated his promise: “This could be great for you. You do the best show you can do, and I guarantee you will be front-page news.”

‘The people just went crazy, and when Brian came backstage to congratulate us, he was almost crying. After that he brought us back for a whole tour of the UK, which was a complete sell-out. And in 1967 that was big, really big. To cap it off he gave us an amazing going-away party at his three-storey brownstone on Chapel Street. At the party were The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Small Faces, and every other group in the country who was on the charts or on their way up. It was a party to behold.

‘The first floor was for meeting and greeting, saying hello and thank you, and drinking a little bit, which we all did. Paul McCartney asked about ‘It’s the Same Old Song’, which he was a big fan of. He told us he thought it was unique, it had a very particular sound to it, and he loved the rhythm. He said something like, “That’s some bad mother-fucking music!”. All of the artists were very nice and open, and it felt a lot like any artistic community in America where musicians gravitate to each other and shake hands and talk music. The women at the party ran up and kissed us and told us how much they loved the Tops. The guys said how much they loved the Motown sound. The thing everyone was most impressed with was how all that music could ‘come out of just one building’. It was astonishing to them.

‘Moving upstairs at the party, on the second floor, folks were smoking hash and weed. Everybody started gravitating up there. England had always been a little bit more open about getting high. Judging by today’s standards it may seem like it was a big drug scene. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s it was all part of the culture, the way people partied and had mind-altering experiences. It wasn’t like we were drug addicts. It was all about spreading kindness, joy, love and happiness. I think I was having too much fun because I never made it up to the third floor of the party. I had the driver take me home.”

Not quite sure what was happening on that third floor, and records suggest there was also a fourth floor at that swish Belgravia address, one Duke was clearly not party to, so to speak. Either way, by the end of August, Brian was gone, Duke describing his accidental overdose of sleeping pills as ‘a huge, tragic loss’. He added, ‘Later we learned that he and (Motown boss) Berry (Gordy) had been in discussions about joining forces and putting together some kind of business deal that never came to pass.’

But this nation’s love affair with the Tops continued, with promotional support initially from Brian’s agency, his belief in them proven right, their positive relationship with the UK continuing to this day, Duke now the sole survivor from that classic line-up.

One of the interviewing highlights of the last dozen years for this website was my first opportunity to speak to Duke, exactly six years ago, reminiscing about so many moments involving his past, present and pre-Tops years, celebrating one of the finest vocal bands of all time (with a link to that interview here). What’s more, a few months later I got to speak to Otis Williams, last surviving ever-present of The Temptations (with a link to that interview here).

For a lad won over by ‘60s soul in the early ‘80s, buying my first Four Tops and Temptations compilations on vinyl two decades after those early hits, it was a big moment, Duke by then on the road with three younger Tops, including original bandmate Lawrence’s son Larry, aka Roquel Payton, as was Otis with the modern take on The Temptations. And still they tour, together in fact, with plans to return later to the UK later this year, Duke and Otis – 86 and 80 years young respectively – remaining very much at the centre of each outfit.

As for that autobiography, as Duke puts it in the foreword of I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops, told with Detroit-raised TV and film writer, producer, playwright and poet Kathleen McGhee-Anderson: ‘Most singing groups didn’t stay together for a lifetime, but The Four Tops did. Not until Lawrence Payton, Obie Benson and Levi Stubbs sang their last notes did we change our line-up. Now I’m the last Top left alive to tell our story and I’ve asked myself, ‘why me?’ and ‘what kept us together for so long?’.

‘In my view, most of it was out of our hands. Something bigger was at play from the very beginning. In the middle of the 20th century worlds were colliding, times were changing, and people were ready for a message of love and togetherness – and they could get that from music.

‘The Four Tops were a part of that and maybe because of who we were – a band of brothers who stuck together, known for our melodious harmonies – we were ones to sing it.’

It’s a remarkable tale, not just about defining hit singles such as their afore-mentioned sole UK No.1 – among 11 top-10 singles here up to 1988’s ‘Loco in Acapulco’, and five top-10 LPs – but also of four bandmates who became tighter than brothers, touching on Duke’s marital ups and downs, struggles against drink and drugs, soured investment deals, over-riding religious faith, and the loss of those soul brothers, all told with honesty, humour and humility.

At its heart he draws on complicated relationships with his devout Christian mother, Rubyleon, and Muslim father, Nazim, plus the grandmother he credits with installing within his strong work ethic, and second wife Piper, ‘the love of my life’.

Religion plays a huge part throughout, but so does Detroit, Michigan, the Motor City where East India (Bangladesh) born Nazim settled after spells in London and Canada, a street singer and sitar maker who became a cook and chef before heading to his adopted home’s car factories, marrying a Georgia-born church choir director who later became a minister.

Abdul was the fourth of six children, his grandfather having set up the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the racially mixed North End of town, the church to which he would later devote himself, inspired by Piper to give up the hedonistic party lifestyle.

Duke, as he was known from a young age, was around seven when his parents separated, eight decades later remaining keen to advocate the peace and love message of each of their faiths, spirituality manifesting itself at various key events in his life, adamant regarding certain ‘special forces watching over me’.

Within, Duke and Kathleen paint a vivid picture of Detroit from the ‘40s to the ‘60s as he found his way towards his destiny, telling of a city where music culture rang out from assembly lines, shops and churches, ‘with a doo-wop group on every corner and talent shows every week of the year’.

At 13 he was blown away on seeing Jackie Wilson’s cousin, future bandmate Levi Stubbs, then 11, guesting with the Lucky Millinder Big Band, the pair later thrust together – as Pershing High School pupils – during a spell with a street gang they fell in with and were soon eager to distance themselves from, determined to make it their own way, seeking out a far more positive destiny.

Their first singing engagement was out west in Colorado, that particular quartet undone by an off-key fourth member, a learning experience that saw them vow to seek out a proper fit next time. And they soon met their fellow Four Aims (as they were known then), a wonderful moment of happenstance seeing Obi and Lawrence join them to perform at an invitation-only hometown graduation party in 1954, the chemistry and four-part harmonies there from the start, on a night involving Four Freshmen, Ray Charles and Orioles covers.

Lawrence’s instinctive arrangements quickly made an impact, each member bringing different qualities to the set-up, their first show proper following at a competition at the Warfield Theater, the biggest amateur show in town, subsequent interest leading to increasing numbers of bookings, far and wide.

On one occasion, their confidence took a knock on sharing a bill with James Brown and His Famous Flames in Atlanta, shocked by an outfit they knew nothing of before, stalling their own top-of-the-bill performance as long as they could that night, letting the crowd come back down to earth somewhat, Levi eventually suggesting, ‘We can’t out-funk him, we can’t out-dance him, we can’t out-holler him, but we can out-sing this mother-fucker, so we just going to go up there and sing!’. And sing they did, raising their game to new heights, on what proved to be another winning live appearance.

A first summer season at Daddy Bragg’s club in Idlewild, Michigan further raised their stock, Duke taking a particular interest in the business side that would serve him well over the years. And they also ended up winning over four of the dancing girls, a third of those liaisons ending in marriage, Duke hitching Inez, his first child following.

In time came their deal with the legendary Chess Records, leading to that name change on the Chicago label’s insistence, to avoid confusion with country act the Ames Brothers.

There were plenty more turns in the road, not least their unanimous decision to turn down a move to Berry Gordy’s fledgling Motown label back in their home city, concentrating on their R&B circuit labours, more prestigious bookings following, including various ‘top-of-the-line nightclubs out west’, inching closer to big-time venues in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

As the ‘50s made way for the ‘60s, they recorded for Colombia then New York’s Riverside Records. Meanwhile, Berry Gordy’s firm continued to grow, the Tops in the audience at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem when the Motown Revue hit the town, Duke and co. marvelling at The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye, wishing they were part of that bill but still retaining faith in their own destiny. But when a televised appearance on The Tonight Show in New York was caught back home in Detroit by Berry and his director of A&R, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson, the latter accordingly reached out (I can use that particular turn of phrase in this case) and within weeks they were signing a deal at Hitsville, West Grand Boulevard, a few blocks down from General Motors’ HQ.

Their first Motown sessions, in 1963, led to an album of jazz standards, but Breaking Through would not be released for more than 35 years, Berry and Mickey already having other ideas, introducing them to in-house songwriters Eddy and David Holland and Lamont Dozier. And while the wages were modest at that stage, their studio education proved second to none, that first hit just around the corner, the Holland-Dozier-Holland penned ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’.

Their mighty rise followed, but Duke’s marriage was on the rocks, label-mates The Supremes’ Mary Wilson waiting in the wings, that romance cut short in an attempt to resuscitate his family unit for the sake of his children.

Soon, there was that first transatlantic trip, word spreading worldwide, but while things would never quite be the same beyond 1967, their take on ‘Walk Away Renee’ cracked the UK top-10 as the new year arrived, March ’68 single ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ also a success but proving to be their last big hit of the decade.

Changes were afoot, the landscape shifting, no better illustrated than by Duke’s inside story of how Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On album came about, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, escalation of the Vietnam War and ensuing protests and marches, picket lines, police brutality and overt racism, Duke and Obie on hand with Marvin and his brother Frankie, just back from ‘Nam, at the birth of the title song.

For Duke, those hometown riots of 1967 brought back memories of 1943’s racial tensions fuelled by the KKK, overcrowded housing and political suppression on Detroit’s East side. But while Motown took what followed as its cue to up and leave for Southern California, the Tops stayed put for now.

That sense of loyalty and brotherhood comes up time and again in this tale. While The Temptations, for instance, underwent personnel changes, and Diana Ross left The Supremes, Tops frontman Levi remained loyal to his bandmates as overtures were made by Gordy to take that solo path, seeing an opportunity for four hit acts where there were two. But while Levi said no, in a sense the writing was on the wall, their faces no longer fitting, leaving Motown in 1972.

There were still the occasional hits over the next quarter-century or so, and Duke has plenty more to tell, such as the story of the twist of fate (or faith, perhaps) that somehow saw them avoid the ill-fated Pan Am flight 103 just before Christmas 1988, following a festive Top of the Pops recording session. Then came 1990’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, marking a staggering 45 Billboard Hot 100 hits since 1964, including 24 top-40s and seven top-10s, the quartet introduced by Stevie Wonder.

Soon enough, Duke had swapped cocaine and weed in Vegas for a more pious hometown existence, Piper having introduced him to the church that just happened to be the one his grandfather set up 50 years before, now at its new address.  

In 1997 they lost Lawrence, aged 59, the other originals continuing until Levi bowed out in 2000 after a stroke, more changes following Obie’s death in 2005, Levi passing away three years later.

Duke carried on though, making it his mission to properly say goodbye and thank you to audiences on behalf of his soul brothers, a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2009 seen as the icing on the cake, 55 years after those first Four Aims engagements.

And he’s not looking to throw the towel in yet, Duke now behind a musical telling the Four Tops story, I’ll Be There set to open in Detroit later this year, while the current four-piece are set to join forces with fellow Motown legends The Temptations – Otis Williams among them – for their latest UK arena tour later this year.

Whatever happens next, we’ll always have those great records to savour. Before I started this piece, I revisited, online, the Tops’ spellbinding televised live show from Paris in 1967, their take on ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ on that occasion just as thrilling today as in the year I was born, the two drummers doing their level best to keep up. And the moment I post this, I’ll blast out ‘Bernadette’ on the record deck, savouring that heart-searing moment, around 2 minutes 39 seconds in, where the band cut away and Levi issues that emotionally charged call to the lady in question. Then, as I’m talking killer percussion, I’ll follow that with the super-charged ‘You Keep Running Away’, a favourite from my 45s box, and that very track Macca raved about way back then, ‘The Same Old Song’.

And now, not so far from treasured copies of Eddie and Brian Holland’s Come and Get These Memories: The Genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run, I have Duke’s own version of events to reach out for.

I’ll Be There: My Life with The Four Tops by Duke Fakir with Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, is published by Omnibus Press on Thursday, May 5th, pre-orders on offer including limited editions hand-signed by Duke. For more details, head here.

The Four Tops and The Temptations’ delayed UK arena dates are now set to happen this autumn, with late-‘70s soul-disco favourites Odyssey as special guests, calling at Manchester’s AO Arena (Friday, September 30th), Leeds’ First Direct Arena (Saturday, October 1st), Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena (Sunday, October 2nd), Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion (Wednesday, October 5th), Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena (Thursday, October 6th), Bournemouth’s International Centre (Friday, October 7th), Birmingham’s Utilita Arena (Sunday, October 9th), Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena (Monday, October 10th), and London’s O2 Arena (Tuesday, October 11th), with tickets available via 24-hour hotline number, 0844 888 9991, www.ticketline.co.uk, or direct from the venues.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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