SOUND & VISION
Edition #3 – March 25, 2016
The Four Tops are coming through the area on tour once again- this time with The Temptations. This legendary Motown group remains one of the greatest soul acts of all time. Here is a rare interview with Duke Fakir, the only original member of the group.
Conducted a few years ago, he talks about the origins of the group and the legacy they created at Motown.
Few groups have had the continual success and creative consistency as The 4 Tops. Formed in Detroit in 1954 as a jazz vocal quartet, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Levi Stubbs eventually signed with Motwon and became the world’s premier R&B male vocal quartet. From 1964 through the mid 1980s, they had over a dozen Top 40 hits, including 5 in Billboards Top 5.
The Four Tops remained intact for a remarkable 43 years, without a single personnel change, until 1997, when Payton died after a short illness with liver cancer. In succeeding years Benson and Stubbs also passed away- leaving Duke Fakir, the sole original member and current leader.
Universal Music now controls and maintains the legendary 4 Tops catalog, and have kept the musical legacy alive with a number of carefully planned re-issues.
Touring with their old friends, The Temptations, the Four Tops still tour and do over a 100 dates a year. The group’s last studio album was produced by legendary Motown producer Norman Whitfield.
We sat down with Duke Fakir from the Four Tops to discuss, the group’s amazing 62 year career, and the quartet’s brave new future…….
Universal had issued its Lost Sessions releases on Motown, and put in the 2000s had put out Breaking Through – The Four Tops Lost Masterpiece. This is basically an album of jazz vocal songs that the 4 Tops recorded for Motown that was never released. What is the story behind the release? You were a jazz vocal quartet and not an R&B group when you first started?
Duke: Well, when we first started, we just – basically we learned all kind of songs, but when we started tending to learn more jazz tunes, simply because jazz was very popular around Detroit at that particular time, and we wanted to be slightly different. I’ll put it like that. We wanted to be – you could say, “outstanding”! We realized we had good singing voices, we had the kind of voices that rally blended well together and we had one guy in the group who had one of those kind of ears that was like the ears of an arranger. He could just hear any chord and how to put them together and so we just started singing these things. And it got to be very exciting! And what we found out, because we used to work a lot – was that people held us in a higher amount of respect because we could actually sing more intricate chords than the usual 1 –3 – 5 regular church kind of chords and so forth. And people would look at you with a little more respect and they’d say, “Wow, these guys are good!” I think you start liking stuff like that, you know what I mean? We really learned a lot of songs like that.
When you guys began, there were obviously, I imagine there were jazz clubs and then there were probably your more traditional R&B clubs, which R&B was really in it’s infancy really at that point.
Duke: Right, absolutely.
So, with you guys, was it kind of almost a snobbish thing, like, “No, we’re not going to bring us down to the R&B thing,” because jazz people can be a little elitist you know.
Duke: Let me put it like this. We never did a show that was fully all jazz. We would do some R&B, you know, we might open with a jazz song, – actually, one of our opener songs, “This Can’t Be Love”, which is the opening tune on the album. Then we would sing, probably what ever was one of the popular R&B tunes currently on the charts. It could’ve been from Ray Charles, it could’ve been from the Clovers, or anybody. Or then we might do a ballad Dinah Washington might have done, “What a Difference A Day Makes”. We would mix it up pretty well, but we would always have, back then you’d do 25 or 30 minute shows. Of course, you were not a big star, do you know what I mean, (laughing). We might do half and half, basically, then that was a R&B club. But we also worked, not just R&B clubs, we would work – we got into a thing where we would work supper clubs sometime. Like the Chi Chi club in Palm Springs. We would work a lot up on Canada. We had a group that went to Vegas and worked in the lounge, called, Four Tops Plus Four, which was comprised of a jazz group that all of us were about the same age but all these guys went on to be jazz giants! And the group comprised of, OK, the four of us singing, but on drums, it was Roy Brooks, on tenor sax, it was Joe Henderson, on piano, it was Kirk Likeslee???and on bass it was a guy named, his last name was Sherlock, I could never remember his first name, but all of them went on to be either great giant soloists by themselves, or became great jazz players in other groups. So, we did a lot of mixture things, but we kept leaning towards learning more jazz songs.
I had no clue that you guys were together, this was like 10 years before you ended up on Motown right?
Duke: It was pretty much just about 10 years. We started in 1954, we came to Motown in 1963 and had our first hit there in 1964. We had a good 10 years of learning and experiencing things with eachother. Just out there on the road, learning a lot about the business.
Now, was there any other formula when you started the group? Obviously you guys came out of the Doo Wop era. Are there recordings of the Four Tops as a Doo Wop group?
Duke: Yeah, but it wasn’t thick Doo Wop that we were singing. We were singing whatever they gave us to record at that time. We had a couple of songs on Chess and we were the Four Ames at that time – NO – that’s when we changed our name to the Four Tops in 1956. We started out as the Four Ames but there were 4 Ames Brothers out there, so when we got our first recording contract with Chess Records, we changed it to the Four Tops. It’s not really Doo Wop – Because we sang all kinds of music even though we started out singing Doo Wop, we could sing a little bit of everything, so these songs, they asked us to sing and we sang them. They were written by a friend of ours, but it didn’t work.
And we hadn’t developed our true sound yet. We were very versatile. We were singing – from A to Z. We could sing like the Platters, the Cre Cuts, the Freshman, The Dominoes, you name it! That’s why we became hits! We found our recording sounds.
Did Barry Gordy, obviously he had been in Detroit and Motown the whole time, was he acutely aware of who you were and your talent long before he signed you?
Duke: Absolutely! We were very close to Barry Gordy prior to him owning the company. In fact, we were one of the first he approached when he started the company, but we decided not to because we didn’t think he had a chance, you know. Barry Gordy, in his youth, was a songwriter and he wrote a lot of songs for Jackie Wilson, along with the cousin of Lawrence Payton, who was the one who passed away. Lawrence’s cousin, Billy Davis, who became an executive in advertising for – wrote songs with Barry for Jackie Wilson. We were all very close, we were all around while he was doing that. Plus, Barry Gordy, had a camera, picture taking concession at one of the hot clubs in town, called ??? Flame Showbar, where a lot of the acts would come in there and play. And we worked there frequently and we were always in there. So, we knew him as a kid, an entrepreneur, running around with his little box, you know those little tape recorders and as a songwriter. So, we were fairly close. He knew of us quite well.
So, who was it that eventually convinced all you guys to hook up and do it. Was it somebody in your camp, was it somebody in his camp? What was it?
Duke: What happened, it was like a combination. Timing was perfect. We had tried 2 or 3 record companies, and had no success. We’d been with Columbia, Riverside, we had been with Chess and at that time, by then, Motown was really starting to make hits around that time. We were doing the Tonight Show, and as soon as it was over, Barry had seen the show, and we had done, “In The Still Of The Night” with one of those big band arrangements and four part harmony. And he was overly impressed, so he had Mickey Stevens, who was his A&R director and a good friend of ours, get in touch with us. He said he had to have us at Motown. But the timing was great because we were ready to give it a shot! So, we came back to Detroit. We had been traveling around looking for work really. We came back to Detroit and sat and had a conversation with him and then he offered us a great record deal….. hits!
He guaranteed you hits?
Duke: laughing – yeah!
I’ll tell you what, I think he came through with his end of the deal….
Duke: That’s for sure.
Yeah but what you did in the beginning Motown rejected, right?
Duke: The problem was – here’s what happened….Barry, after hearing us sing, “In The Still Of The Night”, this is what he heard us doing. He said, “Oh, this would be great for my company. It’s a whole new different kind of style. It’s not the stuff that was selling right now, but maybe we could sell this with you all.” So, he told us “Arrange what you’d need” and he said “We’ll put you in with a big band or a little jazz group or whatever you need and we’ll just start recording here. – All kinds of stuff! We’ll even go to a club and do some live stuff!” Which we never did. What we did, – the Graystone Ballroom, which he owned, we had a lot of friends come by, a lot like a big dance party. We cut a lot of live stuff there. That didn’t come out as well. It was going ( or wasn’t) to be a live jazz album. But anyway, he put this stuff together. While we were putting this together, and we were recording for about a year, he also put us with Holland, Dozier and Holland. He said, “I’m going to see if they can come up with something for you also.” Well, fortunately, of course, they did! They came up with “Baby I Need Your Loving” and once that came out, the album got pushed more and more to the side and just got really lost in the shuffle!
You had this enormous hit with “Baby I Need Your Lovin” in 1964. Talk about the early days with Motown, please….
Duke: It was incredible especially being with a family like the Motown family. It was like a fraternity. We had great times around the studio. We had great times on the road with the Motown Review that traveled a lot. And it was so constant competition of trying to be #1. After a while, if you didn’t get to a Top 10, it was like, you were nobody!
How did Barry keep the competitiveness there without the jealousy and people trying to sabotage eachother. I’ve interviewed these Motown legends and they’ve all said to me, it was like, “OK, you’re number one this week, but I’m going to be number one next week. It wasn’t like anybody envious of anyone else…
Duke: Yeah, that’s right. It was not. I mean, it was wonderful competition and the competition stemmed all the way from the engineer of one project to the producer, to the musicians, to the artists themselves. I mean, everybody was all competing to try to be #1, or to outdo the engineer that works in the daytime, or, Holland, Dozier and Holland were always trying to outdo Norman Whitfield, and so forth and so on. But it was done beautifully because it was all done so close in these wonderful little houses. We would just be from room to room, helping eachother, we would write songs with somebody or try to write, if you needed an extra voice in the session, we’d go and do it. I mean, how we did it, I guess you would say it was like a big family house! It just – I mean, the environment was there, the closeness was there, it was just never a point of visciouness. It was like a system, having a wonderful time growing up, because, you know, we used to sit on the stairways and talk about these things hopefully happening, and of course, when they started happening, the dreams that you aspired to “I hope you can get your little house” , “I hope you can buy your woman a Cadillac.” … You know, when these things start happening, you just end up sharing them with each other. And that I think help keeps part of the camaraderie there. We used to have house parties with eachother, house dinners. We all would love sports. We played sports with eachother or basketball or whatever it was. It was just a whole thing.
It appears as though the Four Tops really kept a perspective. Obviously, you stayed together with the original line up for 43 years without any personnel changes before Lawrence and the others passed away. That is almost unheard of in this business, as long as you guys have done it, but, it seems …and , I don’t know how true that TV thing was about the Temptations, but it seems like you guys didn’t get into the drugs and the drinking and all that, and you didn’t get out of control with the women and all that stuff. Somehow, you kept that all in check. Was that a conscious effort on the Four Tops part?
Duke: Yes, it was. We did drink. You know, we partied almost like everybody, but not quite. But we partied because when you’re poor and you’ve scuffled for a long time, you enjoy, when you start getting money and it starts comes pretty fast, you just start enjoying life. One of the things that we had that a lot of the other groups at Motown didn’t have, see, we weren’t formed or picked up by Barry. We were, what we thought a fairly successful group, I mean, we had been together for 10 years and formed a relationship. We didn’t have somebody to help put it together that we depended on for this and that. Do you know what I mean? We were very independent of a lot of things. But one thing, we were dependent upon eachother for everything. We were used to that. We were used to sharing everything with eachother. We were used to helping eachother. If we saw one guy falling off the hill too fast, we would pull him up and talk to him and say, “Hey look, this is not what this is about!” Let’s do this, let’s do that”. We’ve got families with a very close circle. It was like a big family. Our wives would help chip in and pull us together or have long chats with us. We didn’t pull out of Detroit. We stayed as a nucleus.
That probably had a lot to do with it; staying in Detroit.
Duke: Oh, absolutely! After a while, that was really the whole thing because we kept our roots there within the family structure. And that kept us as a family. And it really kept us pulling eachother up. I mean, because I’m not going to say we were perfect by any means, but we had eachother that we could depend on and we were looking out for eachother all the time. If we saw somebody going overboard or anything, somebody would tug on his coat, or pull him up or chastise him or whatever it took to pull him back into the fold. Do you know what I mean?
It must have been wonderful working with Holland, Dozier, Holland. I mean, I meant Lamont and we talked at an event – he said those guys would go in a room like every day. – it would be just like a job. They’d just go in and write and minutes later of therey’d be a hit song…
Duke: They’d be in the studio every single day, or a room somewhere everyday they would be creating, writing, putting together. And it was just a joy to just come in and sit around with them. We’d even play cards half the day. While I was playing cards, one would be in the corner thinking of a title to a song. Everything you’d say – they would try to pick out a just strong title. And then one of them would just get up and start playing his stuff on the piano and before you knew it, you’d have something. I mean, they were all really diligent about what they did, but they were also really tailors of music. You know, you go to the tailor to get a special suit made, they could tailor make you a song in a minute!
You guys had an amazing fit with Holland, Dozier, Holland. I mean, they wrote these unbelievable songs and I know they wrote for the Supremes, and the Temptations and people like that, but for me, it was the stuff they wrote for you! I mean, “Bernadette”, “I’ll Be There” , “Reach Out”! There was a mix with you guys! Do you think that you were there favorites?
Duke: I don’t know – we were friends.
Duke: Between us, or between us and them, or things that they saw us do, or some things that happened in their lives, and we were all very close-knit. You’re right, they did tailor make songs for us
Was there any song that came out of the bunch that you know, became a huge hit, that maybe was unusual, that wasn’t supposed to be recorded, or somebody was supposed to get that song that you guys stole or?
Duke: Yeah, Bernadette! Because, when Levon sings he he talks through it. “Bernadette”, they say, “Man, you’re supposed to sing on the record. But man, when you get to that point in that song, you want to tell the people what’s happening!” And the guys said, “Well, there’s not going to be anything like that! They released that record on Thursday, Friday, the record sold so many, by Monday, it was a million seller! It was the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever – all over the world! That was “Bernadette” ! And the guy would say, when you start doing the spiel almost like rags to rap type stuff. They guy would say, “Well, why did you do that?” He’d say, “Because it just felt that way!” You know what I mean?
So, actually, “Bernadette” in a lot of ways, was one of the first rap records ever!
Duke: Actually, you can say that!
Yeah, because it was never done before. And if you play back Motown, the first Motown song with strings on it was, “Baby I Need Your Lovin”’!
That’s a great fact to know…
Duke: It was great! They were great songwriters and producers and I think, to me, at that time, to me, they’re still the best writers, ever ever!
Did it bother you and the other Motown artists that Barry used to have – a lot different Motown acts cover the same song and then kind of decide who was going to have it? I know that Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye kind of had a little problem with “Heard It Through The Grapevine” even though they both had hits with it. Did that bother you that that happened?
Duke: We didn’t seem to have that problem. That didn’t bother me. I mean, because it seemed like, when we had our hit record, it was our hit record. Now, if anybody did anything after that, that was fine! I mean, all they did was keep our name going stronger. It didn’t bother us whatsoever. As long as we had our time and our radio slots that we could get our stuff played on. You know, that didn’t bother us about people covering, or other artists covering or – I don’t think it affected us nearly as much as maybe some others. Because Holland, Dozier, & Holland would sit and tailor make stuff for us, and when they thought they’d done enough of that, then they started picking nice tunes for us to cover for other people, like, “I Was A Carpenter”.
An amazing family came out of Motown. You hear different things from a lot of different people. Some people say, “Well Barry was behind his artists and righteous, and all that and then you hear stories that maybe the artist didn’t get paid what they should’ve gotten paid and maybe Barry was a little more of an egomaniac?
Duke: Let me put it like this. Before we went to Motown, we were just a group scuffling trying to find our dinner table. After we had left Motown, we were world famous, and we had brought home to our families and we’re still working and we’re still doing those things, and we’re still selling the Motown sound. We still love Barry, and Barry loves us. We did not get a raw deal, we got a wonderful deal. The best deal that I ever had in my life! And I think he’s a wonderful guy. He had a family philosophy. He made – the artists, and the engineers, and the musicians – everybody, like, were at their peak when they were at Motown. It was very warm and wonderfully competitive. Everybody was competitive, but it was still a family.
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