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A Quietus Interview

The Last Top: Duke Fakir Of The Four Tops Interviewed
Hazel Sheffield , March 26th, 2010 08:43

Hazel Sheffield talks to the last original member of Motown sensations The Four Tops about growing up in Detroit and the genius of Michael Jackson

They say it’s lonely at the top. Not many people ever get there and stay there long enough to report back. Motown managed it – so many times over in the decade or so of the label’s heyday that its founder, Berry Gordy Jr, must have one hell of a hanging space for his collection of hit records. Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops and others all racked up Billboard Number 1 singles for the label.

Berry Gordy was a businessman: he knew that the right marketing would allow him to sell Motown to his black brothers at home and a new generation of wealthy, music-savvy white kids. His brand – a winning combination of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s killer repertoire of hits, sharp suits and the finest vocalists he could get his hands on – was the musical tipping point that saw segregation at gigs, cultural apartheid and colour prejudice in music finally start to be overturned.

Not least among the artists Berry Gordy invited into his fold were The Four Tops, now one of their longest surviving acts. With their current UK tour, they have entered their seventh decade of gigs. It’s the first decade that Duke Fakir will tour as the last surviving member, since the legendary Levi Stubbs passed away following a battle with cancer in 2008.

Fakir, now 74, joined The Four Tops in 1953, back when they were called ‘The Four Aimes (“because they were aiming for the top!”). He played with bandmates Obie Benson, Lawrence Payton and Levi Stubbs for ten years in the cabaret clubs of Broadway and Vegas before they finally signed to Motown in 1964, hungry to match the chart success of their peers. That came just a year later, when ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ peaked at number 11 in the US. 43 years later, when Lawrence Payton passed away from liver cancer, they were still together.

Fakir might be the last ‘Top, but he doesn’t seem so lonely. He’s got new Tops: Theo Peoples (formerly of The Temptations), Rokie Payton (son of Lawrence Payton) and Ronnie McNeir, who will join him on tour. But it’s the fans, the people that come to see these remarkably humble “hard working men from Detroit in shiny jackets”, that give the Tops all the love they need to keep on gigging, as Fakir tells The Quietus...

So, Duke, you’re coming back to the UK?

Duke Fakir: Yes, and as always it’s a delightful trip. Whatever year it is that we do come, and now it’s like every year, it’s still the trip of the year. Over the years – in the sixties, seventies and eighties – we’ve made so many wonderful friends there, had so many great times there, party times as well as performing times, it’s incredible. And I commend the people of the UK, there are so many words I don’t even have in my vocabulary to describe all of the wonderful things they’ve given us.

But what is it about The Four Tops that still endures?

DF: Well, I think originally it starts with the music. The songs that were written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland were really some of the greatest songs of that era, probably some of the greatest songs ever, I’d like to think. Reaching people with those songs, when we starting coming over, they started liking us personally – the way we perform, the passion that we have with our performance, the way we carried ourselves throughout the years. And how we respect them as the people that are really the stars of the show – I mean, we’re just hard working guys from Detroit with shiny jackets. They’re the stars because they pay the wage, they buy the records, the come to the concerts and get up on the stage and dance, they show you love. It’s really awesome!

Is that why you’re still playing?

DF: Oh absolutely, that’s exactly why we’re still playing. Because it’s something that I love doing, first of all, and when it’s like that you just can’t walk away! You just can’t walk away from love. And that’s what we get from it. This is not a job, this is not something that we look forward to retiring from. And probably, like the other three Tops, I’ll probably just keep going until I can’t go anymore or until I drop!

There was never a point, when you lost some of your bandmates, when you thought it might be time to call it a day?

DF: Well yes, there was a time. When the first one passed away, when Lawrence Payton passed away, at that time in my life none of us expected anyone to leave. We were shattered. We really did think about just giving it up, because we always thought we’d just be together. But after thinking about it we decided that of course Lawrence would still have wanted us to go on and sing, and people will still hopefully enjoy our music without him here.

For a year we travelled with just the three of us. That spot was precious, we didn’t want to fill anyone in that spot. After a year I guess you could say our grieving was minimal, we decided to put another person in that spot. And people seemed like they appreciated the whole carrying on, and that we still did it with passion. They know when they come to see us that we’re not just up there going through the motions, we’re doing it with a passion. And not only that, when you’re working with The Temptations there’s a little extra going on! You’ve got to work hard because they’re pushing you and you’re pushing them, so the people really get the best out of the both of us when we’re together like that.

You don’t feel that spirit of The Four Tops died with the original Tops?

DF: You know, even though I’m not with the original Tops, they’re still like an extension of the family. We have the son of Lawrence Payton, Lawrence Payton Jr, who is just like his dad. Then we have Ronnie McNeir who was a solo artist on Motown for 30 years. He was Obie Benson’s - the second one that passed away - Obie Benson’s best friend and they wrote songs together. He travelled with us many times, he’s just like Obie, looks like him, talk like him, so it’s almost like Obie is still here! And then Theo Peoples, who is the new lead singer, we worked with him when he was with The Temptations, so we’ve known him for many years and he just seemed the perfect fit. Back then he used to do back up vocals for Levi in case Levi got sick or anything. So it’s not like I’m working with strangers, I’m carrying on the legend of the Four Tops in a manner that the Four Tops would have loved. It’s not like I’ve just picked three strangers and said let’s go ahead.

What was it about your relationship with the other Four Tops that kept you together for 43 years? That’s a staggering length of time for a band.

DF: It’s all about love! We loved each other as men, as friends. We loved singing together, we knew we blended really well together. We loved entertaining – we all had the same passion for entertaining people and we loved the way we thought about each other. No one had any higher praise for any of us than each another.

We were very democratic. We paid our bills and we just split the cost four ways and we went about it like that. It’s always just been that way. I think I had more fun with those men than with any other friends I’ve ever had, I mean real fun, we had fun! We’d go home together, hang out together, play cards together – we had fun!

It was the greatest thing, working with those guys, and it was the hardest thing when they left.

You all met and grew up in Detroit, right?

DF: Yes, all born and raised in Detroit.

What did you learn from growing in Detroit that prepared you for what was to come in the Four Tops?

DF: Well, first of all, Detroit is full of churches. It’s one of those cities in which gospel music has always been prevalent, jazz music had always been prevalent. Back in the day this was a jazz town. Big bands back in the day used to just come and hang around Detroit because there were so many great musicians here. It’s been like that, always down through the years. And when I was born we went to church, just like a couple of the other guys, so we sang all our lives, pretty much. I’ve sang all my life! My mother worked at church and my cousins and I, we all went to choir, we grew up there.

But I didn’t think it was going to be my life’s venture – it was just something I was doing. I was preparing myself for college and I had a scholarship to go, as well as Mr Benson, he had a scholarship to go, in fact we had a scholarship to go to the same college. But then we started singing in some amateur shows and a guy said that he could get us a job during the summer. So we started working, and that was the first professional engagement, we got paid and the people enjoyed it – and right there we decided we would keep on doing what we were doing. So we made a big bet on ourselves, and it paid off!

You were singing for some ten years before you joined Motown. How did Motown change you?

DF: Oh it was totally life changing! But first of all, those first ten years, they were great, they were fun, we learned so much, we went many places – we were much more fortunate than a lot of people starting out. We went to places like Las Vegas, we played loads of clubs, we were back-up vocals for Billy Epstein and we went to all the major clubs in the country. We were on Broadway as a singing group. So we had great experience, probably some of the greatest fun, coming up. But what we realised was that we really weren’t popular everywhere, particularly from working with other bands, we realised we really weren’t as popular as some friends of ours who were signing up with Motown and becoming really big stars. It seemed like we should be there!

So in 1963 we signed up with Motown and it was lifechanging, immediately. Our first record release, ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’, it just took our breath away. There was just such good production, and it just changed our life. Everywhere we went the world loved us. All of sudden everywhere you’d go, you’d hear your music. You’d be driving down the street with the car windows open and you’d hear yourself singing. The first time we got off the plane in the UK people were there greeting us, I thought it was a diplomat on the plane behind us but people were there to greet us!

It was just totally amazing. From that day, since 1964, it’s been probably the greatest life that anyone could have, and we’re not talking about in dollars and cents, we’re just talking about the love that has surrounded us, the choice of things to do, the places that we went, the people that we met, and the ease with which it has been for us to go through life, not having to quarrel and split up and not have these dramatic changes with the group – it’s just been absolutely amazing. I cherish each one of those moments.

Did it never nearly drive you crazy – all the attention, all the cash that started coming in?

DF: Nothing drives me crazy. I think evidently I was born to do this. At my age you would think travelling as much as I do would drive me up the wall, but no! I’m always anticipating where I’m going, what I’m doing next. I get on the plane and I say ‘phew!’ because the phone doesn’t ring, and I can read a book, watch a movie, I can just take a nap. And when I get where I’m going, that becomes the best part of my day because I’m about to do the thing that I love the most. It can be the smallest city in the states or it could be the largest venue in the world – I’m still excited and I anticipate that evening.

It’s great to still have passion for what I do. I think that that’s a blessing. The moment I do not have passion, or the moment that people start looking at us and saying ‘you’ve been here a few times, we’re a little bit tired, why don’t you go home and sit on the couch’, if I start feeling that I’d had enough I would, but I haven’t.

Did you think that Michael Jackson had lost his passion in the end?

DF: You know, as he slowed down in his recording, I could see a change coming, I don’t know what it was but I remember him as probably the greatest entertainer.

When was the last time you saw him?

DF: Well the last time I saw him was years ago. Could’ve been in Vegas maybe ten, twelve years ago. I was in Vegas, I was in one of the shops and he came in, he said “Hi Duke, how are you?” and we gave each other a hug, and that was the last time. He’s always been softly-spoken, but I just admired his talent. I remember the first time we saw The Jackson 5 as kids when they came to Motown, performing, getting ready to do some recording. We listened to them sing and we heard this little kid sing, and we said “that is not a boy! That is a grown man. That little boy sing better than most men I know.”

He always just had that great talent. When you see some of the shows or see some of the DVDs and you see how well he sang, how well he danced and how well he performed and the way he did it with passion – that’s who he was. Who he was on stage was Michael Jackson. Who he was offstage, sometimes I don’t think he knew. But I will always just remember him as the best entertainer. And I’ve seen pretty much all of them.

It was such a sad thing.

DF: Yes, and sad that he had to leave at such an early age. But it happens in this world. A lot of entertainers seem to be leaving us at the wrong time.

Not you!

DF: I try to think that by the grace of God, I’m still here. So I think I’ll be doing it like my partners did – doing it ‘til I drop! Right now, sometimes I sit back and I put on one of those older records and I can remember the day we recorded it, the things we said to each other, how we felt when we first heard those records and the things we did to celebrate. It’s just been amazing and it still is – I can’t wait to get over there!

The Four Tops are currently playing with The Temptations on the 'Greatest Hits' tour, with special guests The Drifters and Three Degrees. The remaining dates are at Nottingham Arena on March 25 and London O2 Arena on March 26. Buy tickets here