The Four Tops were spinning long before Motown even came into the picture. Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo Benson and Lawrence Payton didn’t start out as Tops, but they started out as friends from the same Detroit neighborhood who just loved to sing.
They had success as a group (The Four Aims) performing not only in a blossoming Detroit music scene, but all over the map. The only problem was, they weren’t making any money.
They knew if they were going to get beyond the “singing for their supper” gigs, a record deal was a must and they heard about this Motown thing.
So they hooked up with Berry Gordy Jr.‘s Motown Records in 1964, and defined the label’s R&B sound of the ’60s. Once in that stable of talent, they were paired with the top production and recording team of Holland-Dozier-Holland and soon released “Baby I Need Your Lovin’.”
They were off and running, scoring hit after hit including one of the most popular Motown songs ever, “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Among other Four Tops hits are, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over),” “Walk Away Renee,” “Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever,” and “Bernadette.”
The Four Tops were one of the few groups to remain intact throughout their career. In 1997, Lawrence Payton passed away but they continued as a three-piece until they recruited a fourth member, Theo Peoples, formerly of The Temptations. Levi Stubbs next left the group and Ronnie McNeir joined the group. Benson died in 2005 with Payton’s son, Roquel Payton replacing him. Alexander Morris joined the group in January of this year. Thus, Fakir is the only surviving founding member.
The Four Tops have won many awards during their long and distinguished career, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the R&B Music Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame. They have received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, were named as one of Billboard magazine’s Top 100 Artists of All Time and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
While this unique group of men already had a sound, it needed a little work.
“Before Motown, we had already been together for several years and appeared on two or three different record labels as well as performing cover songs for concerts, so we had a definite sound,” Duke Fakir said. “But it wasn’t a good recording sound. Motown defined our recording sound.
“I’ve always said Holland-Dozier-Holland were the greatest tailors of music. They tailor-made Top 10 hits for us; No. 1 hits for the Supremes; No. 5 hits for Martha and the Vandellas — all these different kinds of productions in the realm of Motown.
“Being at Motown was incredible. It’s so hard to explain and when artists have tried to describe it, it only hits about 20 percent of the reality. The feeling was electric, fun and we helped each other. Whatever needed to be done, we did it. I sang on Temp records in the background once; and when one of us wasn’t there, someone sang on our records. I missed a recording session and Eddie Kendrick sang on ‘Same Old Song.’ We were always helping each other, and yes, we were competitive, but it made us perform at our highest levels.”
While the groups were like family, Gordy played up the competitive angle and audiences loved it.
“Berry Gordy liked the competition between the Temps and us. He played it up when we toured together as a revue,” Fakir said. “The general public liked the competition and created it in their minds.
“We were great friends and after a show, we’d hang out, have a meal, a drink, go to a club and dance, or whatever. After we got older, we’d just go back to our different hotels and go to bed — oh, the changing of the times.”
The Detroit music scene was alive with talent long before Motown. It was part of a huge melting pot of different kinds of music with roots connected to the south, north, east and west.
“The music scene in Detroit was buzzing — actually, it wasn’t just Detroit, it was all over the place with all kinds of music — jazz, middle of the road, you name it.
”It was The Funk Brothers and us in the different clubs — Detroit, Vegas, the Catskills, the Penthouse and Playboy circuits,” he explained. “We performed in burlesque clubs where they booed us because they wanted to see the girls — and the next week we were working in a supper club called the Black Orchid wearing black ties and tuxedos and singing to standing ovations,” he said with a laugh.
“We had a small following back then and we had a career, but we were not making a lot of money. We had to get to the masses and recording was the key. We knew we had to go to Motown and come back home to Detroit.
When it came to fine-tuning their craft at Motown, the Four Tops were A students and ready to embrace all they could become as a result.
“Berry Gordy was about building stars, not just building recording careers,” Fakir said. “Artists got whatever they needed, anything to make them better. If they needed more dance steps or needed to know how to dress for the act, or the right kind of music and arrangements, how to talk in public — whatever they needed to learn — they got. Mainly, they learned how to be polished.”
In addition to breaking down racial barriers with music, these groups also brought about social change.
“I’m more proud of the cultural change (we helped bring about). We helped in our own way to fight for desegregation,” Fakir explained. “At the same time Martin Luther King was marching, we were quietly going into people’s houses on television and radio with music. We eased into people’s lives. We softened the blow a bit before they realized, ‘Oh, s---, they in my house!’
Did they ever get a shot at “My Girl?”
“That song was written especially for the Temptations by Smokey Robinson,” he said. “The only song Smokey wrote for us was ‘Still Waters Run Deep.’ Most of the writers were assigned to specific artists. H-D-H were assigned to us.”
And that particular matchup created musical magic for the Four Tops. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” opened the floodgates to hit after hit — reaching further than the guys ever expected.
“It was an album song that we were just tinkering with, like the (Bob) Dylan thing where he was singing and talking on the same song. It sounded nice and they did it just to see what would happen,” Fakir said.
“We didn’t think much about it until we had a meeting with Berry Gordy and he told us the song was going to be our next hit and it was going to be as big as ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,’ he added. “We didn’t even remember recording it other than just playing around so we were asking him ‘Please don’t make it a hit, we were just messing around.’ We didn’t think it was that good at all. He laughed and said, ‘I know what I’m doing.’
“I left the office fairly angry. I was in my car when I heard it come on the radio and when I listened to it I was astounded,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t hear it before — why I didn’t hear that song as a singer or a hit. It was a great moment and I thought, ‘I’m glad he didn’t listen to us.’
That was the beginning of a successful career enjoyed by all the guys — who never forgot they were friends first and foremost. So losing a member was like losing a brother.
“When we lost Lawrence Payton, it was devastating,” Fakir said. “As much as we planned on certain things, we never planned to be apart. We were stunned when Lawrence died. After we got over it and started singing with just the three of us, we still grieved.
“After that, we were devastated when Obie (Renaldo) passed because it was so sudden.
“The thing about us is we were all close — but Levi (Stubbs) and I were a little closer. We started out as good friends. He lived with me his last year in high school.
“Levi stopped because of his health — he had a couple of strokes. Even when we hadn’t sung together in eight years, he would still listen to us and we still spent time together. Once he passed, my whole world changed.
“I really miss Levi — I miss his spirit, his voice, his jokes and his character,” he said. “But the ‘new’ guys who came on board at the time were already part of our family — Lawrence Payton Jr., (Roquel), and Ronnie McNeir, who was like Obie’s baby brother. Now I’m in the role of mentoring the guys, who will have a hand in carrying on the legacy of the Four Tops. I’m not ready to bury myself. The thing I want to do is keep the legacy strong before I leave.”
Keeping the legacy as well as the music alive these days is the most important thing.
“When we first started singing professionally in 1954, we knew this is what we wanted to do for a lifetime,” he said. “When you’re young and dumb, 20 to 25 years is a career. Never in our wildest dreams did I think we’d still be at it.”
The group celebrates 65 years this year.
“That’s huge to me,” Fakir added. “I’m very proud of that.”
That four-part harmony will be front and center when the Tops return to Laughlin.
“We’re looking forward to coming back to Laughlin. I get particularly anxious to come back to a place we haven’t been in a while because we work to make the show a little more stronger,” he said.
“People will get the typical Four Tops classic hits, plus other songs they may not be aware that we do. A highlight in the middle of the show is a tribute to the other three Tops. Audiences appreciate the way we do that. It’s different, in an upbeat and a touching way. I was very fortunate to be with those guys.”