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Issue 1074

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The Four Tops: Let's go round again

The Four Tops
The Four Tops The Four Tops The Four Tops The Four Tops

Initially formed as The Four Aims in Detroit, Michigan in 1954 by baritone lead singer Levi Stubbs plus fellow group-members Abdul âDukeâ Fakir, Renaldo âObieâ Benson and Lawrence Payton, The Four Tops are universally acknowledged as one of the premier - and most enduring - male soul vocal groups of all time.

While best known for internationally pioneering the famed âMotown Soundâ of the Sixties through a string of classic transatlantic smashes recorded with the labelâs chart-topping in-house writer/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland (peaking with the groundbreaking 1966 US and UK Number One âReach Out, Iâll Be Thereâ), the foursome - despite leaving Motown in 1972 - impressively continued their successful recording career for a further three decades; scoring many more pop and R&B hits while signed to ABC/Dunhill (1972-1977); Casablanca (1981-1982); Motown (a second stint at the label from 1983-1986); and Arista (1988-1992). Indeed, with their original line-up remaining intact until the death of Lawrence Payton in June 1977, their 43 years together impressively remains unmatched by any other recording group to this day.

Sadly, however, with both âObieâ and Levi having now also passed away (in 2005 and 2008 respectively), the quartetâs upcoming 10-date March UK tour (which finds them co-headlining with fellow ex-Motown legends The Temptations) will out of necessity see second-tenor âDukeâ as their only surviving original member - with the groupâs present line-up being completed by newer recruits Theo Peoples, Ronnie McNeir and Lawrence Payton, Jr.

Indeed, with The Four Topsâ 29 British chart entries prestigiously making them second-only to The Beach Boys in the number of UK hits scored by an American vocal group (The Tops were Sixties Motownâs most successful male act in the UK), the tourâs title âGreatest Hitsâ should certainly prove apt. As the foursome promise to blend Sixties Motown stompers like âI Canât Help Myselfâ (their first US Number One), âBernadetteâ, âThe Same Old Songâ plus their aforementioned signature anthem âReach Out, Iâll Be Thereâ with hauntingly soulful ballad smashes like 1964âs âBaby I Need Your Lovingâ (their debut US hit) and 1968âs âWalk Away Reneeâ; while also performing later British Top Three singles like 1971âs powerful, UK-recorded âSimple Gameâ (the first Motown single to be recorded outside America) and 1981âs US R&B Number One âWhen She Was My Girlâ (one of their biggest global hits) along the way.

Taking time out of tour rehearsals, a charming, now-73-year-old âDukeâ Fakir discusses with Pete Lewis the Topsâ upcoming UK tour; in addition to such relatively-unexplored topics as the ânewâ Four Tops line-up; his ideas on todayâs âbogusâ Motown groups; plus the quartetâs early, little-discussed pre-Motown days.

PETE: Why do you feel The Four Tops in particular have had such an enduring and devoted UK fan-base ever since you first performed here in the mid-Sixties?

DUKE: âI think the UK audiences like the passion we show onstage for our music - that we truly enjoy what we do and then pass that feeling on to THEM. Because we always ask them, and allow them, to join in the show. You know, âFeel at home! Forget the worries of the day and the things that are happening outside of this concert hall! Letâs have FUN!â⦠Plus we owe a lot to how we were first promoted over in the UK back in the Sixties by Brian Epstein, who of course was The Beatlesâ manager. He promised that, if we worked as hard as he knew we could and performed the way he knew we could, weâd be front-page news and be just as big in the UK as The Beatles were in The States! The after him came Arthur Howes, another great promoter... So I think all these elements - how we were promoted, how we performed, the songs we performed, and giving back to the people the love they showed to us - are the reasons why we have such a wonderful, wonderful relationship with our fan-base over there. And weâre humbly grateful for the way theyâve treated us over the years.â

PETE: So how would you break down the Four Topsâ UK fan-base of today?

DUKE: âWell, of course, theyâre not KIDS any more! You know, a large portion of our fan-base these days are really almost like retirees! But then, having said that, what I DID notice on our last UK tour - two years ago - was that half the audience was actually 30 and under! And I like to call them the âcrib babiesâ of the ORIGINAL fans! Because they heard that music so much as babies in the cribs and while they were growing up, that it was just ingrained INTO them! So it was really great to see so many of these young people at our shows! They knew all the lyrics, they were all up on the stage with us... I mean, it was almost like a throwback to the Sixties - and very exciting! And so Iâm really, sincerely looking forward to this upcoming trip back to the UK - especially in the spring-time - âcause we usually come there in the fall. I canât wait!â

PETE: Youâre co-headlining with The Temptations this time - something youâve been doing regularly since both groups performed together in a âbattle-of-the-bandsâ as part of Motownâs 25th Anniversary TV spectacular back in 1983â¦

DUKE: âWell, in peopleâs minds, the two groups have always been in competition. Theyâve always put The Tops against The Temptations, and vice versa. You know, âWhoâs the best? Whoâs the greatest? Who SINGS the best? Who DANCES the best? Who PERFORMS the best?â⦠And so, to get us both onstage at the same concert, I think gives people a chance to properly EVALUATE all that. I mean, to put it into sports connotations, itâs like a championship game! But, while it is very competitive, at the same time the two groups are also great FRIENDS! We go out together, we eat together a lot... BUT, when we come on that stage, we definitely are trying to be the best we CAN be! âCause, if you donât do the best you can and you donât stay up to your level of true entertainment, you will get run over by a truck better known as âThe Temptationsâ!â

PETE: Youâre sadly now the only surviving original member of The Four Tops. So can you fill me in on the three newer members?

DUKE: âLetâs start with Theo Peoples, âcause he was the first replacement. At first, when Lawrence Payton passed away in 1987, it was SHATTERING to us. You know, we were on the brink of saying âThis is IT! Letâs throw in the TOWEL!â⦠Because we never thought that weâd be separated. You know, when we were young the four of us made a pact that, as long as we could, weâd BE together and SING together. And so after a while, to be honest, we just never thought any one of us would pass away. So, when Lawrence did, it was DEVASTATING. And for a little over a year the three of us just sang by ourselves, using the fourth voice of one of the band members to make the harmony right. But then, when we realised Theo Peoples had left The Temptations - obviously we knew him quite well, because the two groups often worked together - Levi and I talked about it and I was like âLook, why donât we ask him to join us?â. Because, with him being a great harmony man, I felt he could be a great back-up vocalist and sing the parts Lawrence had done. Plus he LOOKED the part, and would fit in VISUALLY. So Levi was like âYes! GREAT idea!â... So, we got over our grieving and we finally hired Theo. And it was genuinely good to have him in the group.â

PETE: So how and when did Seventies/Eighties cult soul hero Ronnie McNeir become part of the current line-up?

DUKE: âWell, because Levi was getting ill and getting sick, we started to realise we needed to have some back-up people around us - like a Broadway show, where you have to have people to fill in, in case somebody gets sick. So Ronnie McNeir had been âObieââs best friend for 30 years, plus he was a solo artist who was already a great vocalist - I mean, on the Northern soul scene they still play a lot of his records. So, with him having been a good friend for so long, we decided to have him on the sidelines in case somebody got sick... Anyway, one day back in 2000 we were performing in concert with The Beach Boys. We had 19,000 people out there waiting, and Levi called me - about four hours before the show - and said he just couldnât make it; he was just OUT. So I immediately called Theo and was like âWell Theo, itâs time for you to take the LEAD!â⦠So, because he didnât know all the lyrics to all the songs, right away he went to his computer, printed out all the lyrics he didnât know, went to the venue, placed them all across the stage... And he ended up doing a wonderful job! And so, because weâd now moved Theo into the LEAD spot, that was when we decided to call on Ronnie McNeir to take on the empty spot that Theo had previously been occupying.â

PETE: So when did Lawrence Paytonâs son become the third new member of The Tops?

DUKE: âWell, when âObieâ passed (in 2005), we finally realised that Lawrence Payton, Jr. (aka âRokieâ Payton) was finally ready to join the group. You know, heâs always been like his dad; he sounds like him; heâs very musical - plus he has the same Four Tops zeal that all four of us original members had. So, when âObieâ passed away, he stepped right IN! He knew all of the parts automatically because heâd known all the songs for years. So we didnât have to rehearse with him. Plus heâd finally matured enough, we thought, for him to become a fully-fledged member of The Tops. And of course, he fitted in perfectly.â

PETE: So overall, what are your personal feelings about the current Four Tops line-up?

DUKE: âTo me the new group is like an extension of the family, because weâve all been very close for so many years. You know, itâs not like I had to put an ad in the paper saying âI need three singers where one sings tenor, one sings lead, one sings bassâ - it wasnât LIKE that! Each one of them just kinda fell into their spot at the right time. Which makes it easier for ME. âCause I truly miss Lawrence, Obie AND Levi - Iâd be lying if I said I didnât - and not one of them could EVER be replaced. But, you know, these new guys do perform well enough for the people to still enjoy the shows and still enjoy the music. So for me it kinda makes it bittersweet. Because, at the end of the day, the legacy is still going on, and Iâm very pleased that it IS! We still perform with passion. And, while of course you canât beat the originals, thereâs no doubt in our minds that this line-up is about as close to the originals as you can possibly GET! Plus on a personal level we all get along quite well too. Iâm a little older than the others, so I donât hang out with them as much as I did with the ORIGINAL Tops. I mean, we did EVERYTHING together - we played golf, we went to restaurants... But, you know, the new members and I still have fun together, and the time that we do spend together is enjoyable.â

PETE: Are there any plans for the ânewâ Four Tops line-up to release a new album?

DUKE: âYes, we are working on an album right now. Basically thatâs what weâre doing in our leisure time. So far weâve recorded five or six songs, and weâll probably have it finished within the next few months. Of course, a big challenge about all that is that weâll have to release it in a totally different way than how we did when The Four Tops were selling records, because itâs a completely different INDUSTRY today. So weâre not gonna be doing it through a regular record company - because they just look at artists of our age and our calibre as wonderful classic artists, but not a group theyâd give a good record deal to or promote properly. So, because we are intending to do it globally, Iâm currently setting up a team of what I call people who really know the industry as it is NOW and the best way for us to sell records TODAY - whether it be through television, the internet, the different websites... I mean, Iâm not even COUNTING on radio. Because, unless itâs a classic station, they wonât play anything new by groups from our era. But, you know, we will do what needs to be DONE! Because I know that we still sing well enough to have a major album that could top the charts, and hopefully give us a couple of great Number One singles! So thatâs what weâre working towards right now.â

PETE: So what are your ideas on these âbogusâ groups that tour by falsely using the Four Tops name - a situation that seems to plague most of the classic Motown groups today?

DUKE: âWell, I really donât like it. In fact, I get real UPSET about it! I mean, as you know, just recently in the UK there was this group going around as âThe Four Topsâ, and it cost us a lot of money to get them to stop and to get our name back. Because theyâd applied for the trademark name âThe Four Topsâ - and, because we didnât KNOW about it, we hadnât been able to CONTEST it. So they ended up being given that name, and so we then had to go to court to have it taken AWAY from them. And I just think itâs horrendous that these people make a living off of someone elseâs WORK! Because itâs something Iâd never DO! Even if I WASNâT in The Four Tops and I was trying to survive, Iâd still try to survive through my own way of doing things and under my own NAME! But, you know, thatâs the way of the world. So we fight AGAINST it. I abhor it, I hate it - as most of us original artists DO, because it does devalue the name of the group. But the best you can do is try to combat it as much as possible, without getting too angry about it and just let the lawyers do what they can DO.â

PETE: You (along with the other Four Tops) grew up in Detroitâs North End during the Forties and Fifties. How do you recall the cityâs musical climate at that time?

DUKE: âIn terms of music, Detroit had ALWAYS been a Mecca. And at that time - the Forties - it was primarily a jazz centre, and music was EVERYWHERE! I mean, you had big-bands playing jazz in the nightclubs - plus, of course, Detroitâs always also been a GOSPEL centre. Which is why so many noted soul and jazz singers have come from there - all the way back to Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Della Reese⦠So, as I was growing up, everywhere I turned I always heard music. And, as a kid listening to the radio, I was the kind of guy who liked every genre of music there WAS! If it was a good song, Iâd LISTEN to it; whether it be on the country stations, the pop chart, whatever.â

PETE: The Four Tops first came together as a group in 1954, while you were all still High School students in Detroit. What was the story there?

DUKE: âBeing that I grew up in the church where my mother was the piano player and my family was the choir, music was ALWAYS in my background. Plus it was always in LEVIâs background. I mean, he and Little Willie John lived just two doors away from each other; Jackie Wilson was his cousin⦠And, since he was around thirteen years old, Levi was always known as this kinda run-around-town guy that could sing lead vocals. So, with Levi and me going to the same High School - Pershing High - we became friends from an early age. We grew up playing sports together and just generally doings things that little kids do around town, plus we used to sing in different little groups - âcause that was the thing to DO at that time. Then one day our friends insisted we sang at a local birthday party with âObieâ and Lawrence - who were attending Northern High - and from that Levi and I were like âYou know what? It might be a pretty good idea for all four of us to join togetherâ⦠So one day we all got together, and realised it was just what we needed!â

PETE: Initially you called yourselves âThe Four Aimsâ. So why and when did you change your name to âThe Four Topsâ?

DUKE: âWhen we first got together, we didnât wanna name ourselves after a bird, we didnât wanna be anything that crawls⦠Instead, we wanted our name to mean something that we were trying to BE or DO. So, because we were always aiming for something, we called ourselves âThe Four Aimsâ! But then the name-change happened in 1956 at our first recording session for Chess Records. At the time there was a very popular group called âThe Four Ames Brothersâ, and so (label owners) Leonard and Phil Chess were like âI think weâd better change the name, fellas. Because we donât want people to get the two groups mixed upâ... I mean, this was despite the fact that the names were spelt different - we were The AIMS and they were The AMES Brothers. So our musical director - Mr. Maurice King - was like âWell, how did you first come up with the name The Four Aims?â... And we replied âBecause weâre aiming for the stars! Weâre trying to reach the TOP!â... So Maurice then said âWell, what about The Four TOPS?â⦠And immediately everybody just looked at each other and was like âWell, that sounds pretty neat!â... And thatâs how we became âThe Four Topsâ!â

PETE: So how did you eventually sign with Berry Gordyâs then-rapidly-rising Motown Records in 1963?

DUKE: âWeâd known Berry Gordy from our early days working in the Detroit nightclubs. Firstly he was a songwriter for Jackie Wilson - Leviâs cousin - and secondly Lawrenceâs cousin was actually co-writing all those hits for Jackie WITH Berry. So, because we knew him quite well, when Berry started Motown in 1959 he casually asked us if we wanted to become a part of his company. He was like âI like the way you guys singâ. But because we didnât have any faith in a black record company at that time - it hadnât been proven yet that it could work - we were like âNah, itâs OKâ, and we went on to other things... Until 1963, when we started looking back. Weâd been with Columbia Records, weâd been with Chess Records, weâd been with Riverside Records - and nothing had HAPPENED for us. But, at the same time, we kept noticing our friend back home in Detroit was by now having great SUCCESS selling records! So we were like âLook, we need to talk to Berryâ... Meanwhile at the same time someone in New York had noticed us and asked us to perform on âThe Tonight Showâ. So we went on there and sang âIn The Still Of The Nightâ. And, when Berry saw us on TV, he told his A&R director âLook, I want these guys! You know them well. Get in touch!â... So we were both kinda looking for each other at the same time! So we came back home to Detroit, sat down with Berry, and made a deal. He kept his word - and I guess the rest has become, as they say, historia!â

PETE: Arguably The Four Topsâ greatest period was the string of international smash singles you recorded at Motown with the labelâs chart-topping in-house writer/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland in the mid-Sixties (âReach Out, Iâll Be Thereâ; âStanding In The Shadows Of Loveâ; âBernadetteâ etc). How do you now look back on that musical partnership?

DUKE: âI call Holland, Dozier & Holland the greatest TAILORS of music. Because theyâd tailor-make songs for EVERYBODY! Like one day theyâd come to us with the track pretty much already laid-out. I mean, we had very little input - theyâd just ask âWhat else, if anything, do you think youâre gonna need in the background?â⦠Then the next day theyâd do the same thing with Martha & The Vandellas, the next day with The Supremes... And all of these records were tremendous songs and tremendous HITS! I mean, musically they made people FEEL good; Eddie Hollandâs lyrics were always just superb⦠So yeah, to me Holland-Dozier-Holland are some of the greatest writers and producers EVER!â

PETE: The Four Topsâ original line-up remained intact for 43 years (from forming in 1954 to Lawrence Paytonâs death in 1997) - a record unmatched by any other recording group. Why do you feel you stayed together for so long?

DUKE: âFor us it was EASY! It was all down to those four letters - L.O.V.E.! We loved the people we entertained, and we loved everything about the way we did things together! You know, everyone in the group had a particular role, or roles, to play that we all played very well... And thatâs genuinely the reason why we stayed TOGETHER! Because we loved everything we did together, and everything we did for other PEOPLE!â

The Four Tops and The Temptations Greatest Hits UK tour runs from March 14 to 26 inclusive.

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