Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1068

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Feature

The Four Tops: Let's go round again

The Four Tops @bluesandsoul.com
The Four Tops @bluesandsoul.com The Four Tops @bluesandsoul.com The Four Tops @bluesandsoul.com The Four Tops @bluesandsoul.com

Initially formed as The Four Aims in Detroit, Michigan in 1954 by baritone lead singer Levi Stubbs plus fellow group-members Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ 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 ‘Motown Sound’ of the Sixties through a string of classic transatlantic smashes recorded with the label’s chart-topping in-house writer/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland (peaking with the groundbreaking 1966 US and UK Number One ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’), 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 ‘Obie’ and Levi having now also passed away (in 2005 and 2008 respectively), the quartet’s 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 ‘Duke’ as their only surviving original member - with the group’s present line-up being completed by newer recruits Theo Peoples, Ronnie McNeir and Lawrence Payton, Jr.

Indeed, with The Four Tops’ 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 Motown’s most successful male act in the UK), the tour’s title ‘Greatest Hits’ should certainly prove apt. As the foursome promise to blend Sixties Motown stompers like ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ (their first US Number One), ‘Bernadette’, ‘The Same Old Song’ plus their aforementioned signature anthem ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ with hauntingly soulful ballad smashes like 1964’s ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ (their debut US hit) and 1968’s ‘Walk Away Renee’; while also performing later British Top Three singles like 1971’s powerful, UK-recorded ‘Simple Game’ (the first Motown single to be recorded outside America) and 1981’s US R&B Number One ‘When She Was My Girl’ (one of their biggest global hits) along the way.

Taking time out of tour rehearsals, a charming, now-73-year-old ‘Duke’ Fakir discusses with Pete Lewis the Tops’ upcoming UK tour; in addition to such relatively-unexplored topics as the “new” Four Tops line-up; his ideas on today’s “bogus” Motown groups; plus the quartet’s 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: “I 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, ‘Feel at home! Forget the worries of the day and the things that are happening outside of this concert hall! Let’s have FUN!’… 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 Beatles’ manager. He promised that, if we worked as hard as he knew we could and performed the way he knew we could, we’d 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 we’re humbly grateful for the way they’ve treated us over the years.”

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

DUKE: “Well, of course, they’re 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 ‘crib babies’ 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 I’m really, sincerely looking forward to this upcoming trip back to the UK - especially in the spring-time - ‘cause we usually come there in the fall. I can’t wait!”

PETE: You’re co-headlining with The Temptations this time - something you’ve been doing regularly since both groups performed together in a “battle-of-the-bands” as part of Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV spectacular back in 1983…

DUKE: “Well, in people’s minds, the two groups have always been in competition. They’ve always put The Tops against The Temptations, and vice versa. You know, ‘Who’s the best? Who’s the greatest? Who SINGS the best? Who DANCES the best? Who PERFORMS the best?’… 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, it’s 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! ‘Cause, if you don’t do the best you can and you don’t stay up to your level of true entertainment, you will get run over by a truck better known as ‘The Temptations’!”

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

DUKE: “Let’s start with Theo Peoples, ‘cause 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 ‘This is IT! Let’s throw in the TOWEL!’… Because we never thought that we’d be separated. You know, when we were young the four of us made a pact that, as long as we could, we’d 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 ‘Look, why don’t we ask him to join us?’. 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 ‘Yes! GREAT idea!’... So, we got over our grieving and we finally hired Theo. And it was genuinely good to have him in the group.”

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

DUKE: “Well, 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 ‘Obie’’s 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 couldn’t make it; he was just OUT. So I immediately called Theo and was like ‘Well Theo, it’s time for you to take the LEAD!’… So, because he didn’t know all the lyrics to all the songs, right away he went to his computer, printed out all the lyrics he didn’t know, went to the venue, placed them all across the stage... And he ended up doing a wonderful job! And so, because we’d 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.”

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

DUKE: “Well, when ‘Obie’ passed (in 2005), we finally realised that Lawrence Payton, Jr. (aka ‘Rokie’ Payton) was finally ready to join the group. You know, he’s always been like his dad; he sounds like him; he’s very musical - plus he has the same Four Tops zeal that all four of us original members had. So, when ‘Obie’ passed away, he stepped right IN! He knew all of the parts automatically because he’d known all the songs for years. So we didn’t have to rehearse with him. Plus he’d finally matured enough, we thought, for him to become a fully-fledged member of The Tops. And of course, he fitted in perfectly.”

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

DUKE: “To me the new group is like an extension of the family, because we’ve all been very close for so many years. You know, it’s not like I had to put an ad in the paper saying ‘I need three singers where one sings tenor, one sings lead, one sings bass’ - it wasn’t LIKE that! Each one of them just kinda fell into their spot at the right time. Which makes it easier for ME. ‘Cause I truly miss Lawrence, Obie AND Levi - I’d be lying if I said I didn’t - 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 I’m very pleased that it IS! We still perform with passion. And, while of course you can’t beat the originals, there’s 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. I’m a little older than the others, so I don’t 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.”

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

DUKE: “Yes, we are working on an album right now. Basically that’s what we’re doing in our leisure time. So far we’ve recorded five or six songs, and we’ll probably have it finished within the next few months. Of course, a big challenge about all that is that we’ll have to release it in a totally different way than how we did when The Four Tops were selling records, because it’s a completely different INDUSTRY today. So we’re 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 they’d give a good record deal to or promote properly. So, because we are intending to do it globally, I’m 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, I’m not even COUNTING on radio. Because, unless it’s a classic station, they won’t 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 that’s what we’re working towards right now.”

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

DUKE: “Well, I really don’t 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 ‘The Four Tops’, and it cost us a lot of money to get them to stop and to get our name back. Because they’d applied for the trademark name ‘The Four Tops’ - and, because we didn’t KNOW about it, we hadn’t 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 it’s horrendous that these people make a living off of someone else’s WORK! Because it’s something I’d never DO! Even if I WASN’T in The Four Tops and I was trying to survive, I’d still try to survive through my own way of doing things and under my own NAME! But, you know, that’s 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.”

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

DUKE: “In 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, Detroit’s 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, I’d LISTEN to it; whether it be on the country stations, the pop chart, whatever.”

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: “Being 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 LEVI’s 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 - ‘cause that was the thing to DO at that time. Then one day our friends insisted we sang at a local birthday party with ‘Obie’ and Lawrence - who were attending Northern High - and from that Levi and I were like ‘You know what? It might be a pretty good idea for all four of us to join together’… So one day we all got together, and realised it was just what we needed!”

PETE: Initially you called yourselves “The Four Aims”. So why and when did you change your name to “The Four Tops”?

DUKE: “When we first got together, we didn’t wanna name ourselves after a bird, we didn’t 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 ‘The Four Aims’! 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 ‘The Four Ames Brothers’, and so (label owners) Leonard and Phil Chess were like ‘I think we’d better change the name, fellas. Because we don’t want people to get the two groups mixed up’... 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 ‘Well, how did you first come up with the name The Four Aims?’... And we replied ‘Because we’re aiming for the stars! We’re trying to reach the TOP!’... So Maurice then said ‘Well, what about The Four TOPS?’… And immediately everybody just looked at each other and was like ‘Well, that sounds pretty neat!’... And that’s how we became ‘The Four Tops’!”

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

DUKE: “We’d known Berry Gordy from our early days working in the Detroit nightclubs. Firstly he was a songwriter for Jackie Wilson - Levi’s cousin - and secondly Lawrence’s 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 ‘I like the way you guys sing’. But because we didn’t have any faith in a black record company at that time - it hadn’t been proven yet that it could work - we were like ‘Nah, it’s OK’, and we went on to other things... Until 1963, when we started looking back. We’d been with Columbia Records, we’d been with Chess Records, we’d 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 ‘Look, we need to talk to Berry’... Meanwhile at the same time someone in New York had noticed us and asked us to perform on ‘The Tonight Show’. So we went on there and sang ‘In The Still Of The Night’. And, when Berry saw us on TV, he told his A&R director ‘Look, I want these guys! You know them well. Get in touch!’... 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!”

PETE: Arguably The Four Tops’ greatest period was the string of international smash singles you recorded at Motown with the label’s chart-topping in-house writer/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland in the mid-Sixties (‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’; ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love’; ‘Bernadette’ etc). How do you now look back on that musical partnership?

DUKE: “I call Holland, Dozier & Holland the greatest TAILORS of music. Because they’d tailor-make songs for EVERYBODY! Like one day they’d come to us with the track pretty much already laid-out. I mean, we had very little input - they’d just ask ‘What else, if anything, do you think you’re gonna need in the background?’… Then the next day they’d 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 Holland’s lyrics were always just superb… So yeah, to me Holland-Dozier-Holland are some of the greatest writers and producers EVER!”

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

DUKE: “For 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 that’s genuinely the reason why we stayed TOGETHER! Because we loved everything we did together, and everything we did for other PEOPLE!”

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

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Words PETE LEWIS

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