By Charles Hallman
Legendary artists such as Abdul “Duke” Fakir can spin a yarn or two when given the opportunity. The sole surviving original member of the Four Tops took full advantage of this during a question and answer period at Minneapolis’ St. Peter’s AME Church last month. He was in town to receive the church’s first annual “Living Legend” award.
“I have a testimony” for every question, the 78-year-old Fakir said proudly. “I had a chance all my life to use what God has given to me. It’s amazing that after 60 years, I still enjoy what I do, [and] that I am still able to do what I love to do.”
“Class” was the group’s trademark, said Fakir. “We also had our ideas on how we wanted to be seen as singers. We were gentlemen… people respected that. We wanted to show people how to dress… we knew how to engage our audience. We wanted to be different and we were looking at the things we needed to do that we thought would separate us [from other groups]. We did it all with class.”
Following are excerpts from the half-hour Q&A session:
On the Four Tops’ staying power (over 60 years), and if there were ever times they thought they would go their separate ways: “Like any family, we had arguments — but there never was a time we came close to breaking up. We made some mistakes, but they weren’t big ones — we called it another learning lesson and moved on. We probably had more fun than any four guys that I could imagine. We played golf, basketball, [and] cards together.
“We were all family-oriented. We got our strength from our families. We had great support all along the way.”
On their days before the Four Tops became popular: “Before people knew us, they started hearing about these four young guys from Detroit who could really sing. We had many fans but we
weren’t selling records. We could sing live [but in the studio] you have to be able to capture something of yourself and put it on that disc. Levi was one of the best [at that].”
Advice he would give to aspiring artists: “The strongest advice I can give you is [to ask yourself] how good are you. How bad do you think you want to do this? Are you good enough to reach the level that you like to be? It is going to take all of your commitment.” He said that “it’s more about marketing” than talent with some artists. “You have to have commitment. It has to come from the heart. If you are thinking about dollars, that’s the hardest way to get to anything.”
On the legendary Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band: “The Funk Brothers were absolutely amazing.”
On performing onstage: “Every night [onstage] all I can see is love,” said Fakir. “I look out in the audience and the people — I can see love in their eyes, respect… you can see thank you. It is all positive. It’s quite amazing that love is all around you, and joy and happiness. We respected [the audience] because they are the stars.”
On where the group name “Four Tops” came from: “First of all, we started out as the Four Aims. We took that name [because] we wanted our name to signify what we [wanted]. At a recording session [at Chess Records] in 1956 [we were told] we had to change our name. [Someone] said there are the four Ames brothers — they’re White. Our musical director who came from Detroit asked why the Four Aims; we said we were shooting for the stars. Then what about the Four Tops? Everybody said it sounded good to them.”
On being the last Four Top: “I can remember at Levi [Stubbs’] funeral (in 2008), that’s when I felt I was the last one left. The night before, I was thinking about all the good times, but the one thing we never thought about was when we would be apart from each other. But that night, Obie [Benson], Levi and Lawrence [Payton] came to me [in a dream] and said, ‘Duke, people help us in so many ways… we didn’t get a chance to say thank you. So before you go, you tell everybody… just tell them thank you. Before you go, just do that.’”
On the current state of music, especially R&B and hip hop: “I don’t listen to current radio. Every generation has their music [but] I listen to 60s, 70s and 80s music. I have nothing against rap artists and all [other current artists].”
Finally, Fakir announced that a musical based on the Four Tops music is being developed, and he’s working on his memoir — he hopes both will be out sometime this year.
“We didn’t do this by ourselves. We had help from everywhere. After all these years, it’s amazing that we go [places to perform] and have the house sold out… you want to give everybody your best,” concluded Fakir.
Next: A one-on-one with Duke Fakir