May 17, 2006
The Four Tops: Still Spinning
Fans often categorize the music that poured out of Motown in the 60s and 70s as "timeless."
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The Four Tops, apparently, have taken that literally – the group has been on the road for 52 years. On May 27, The Tops will bring their patented sound to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the last of the original members, pointed out the group struggled for 10 years before their breakout hits. Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, and Lawrence Payton were childhood friends who attended Northern High School together in Detroit. They wanted to be entertainers, and worked hard to achieve the goal.
"We were out there trying to make it for 10 years," Fakir recalled. "The Catskills, Canada, Jazz — we were backup singers for Billy Eckstine. We were even in a Broadway play."
Berry Gordy, the genius behind Motown, tried to sign the foursome in 1959. "We signed with Columbia instead," Fakir said. "Fortunately, he got in touch with us again in 1963. We wanted a hit record and he promised hit records and he delivered. We came back to Detroit."
Gordy had assembled a hit-making machine. The fabulous Funk Brothers, the cream of the nation's studio musicians, set up shop in Berry's swank studio. The most prolific songwriting team in the history of pop music did the rest.
Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland — collectively Holland Dozier Holland — had deep roots in Detroit. "They were great buddies and friends. We'd eat together, went to the bars together," Fakir said. "We were very close."
The trio had already penned "Please Mr. Postman" for the Marvelettes and hits for Martha and the Vandellas ("Heat Wave") when they turned their attention to the Tops and the Supremes.
"They were great tailors — they would tailor a song for the artist. They were always thinking of us. I'm amazed at how good they were," Fakir said. "They created their own curve."
The hits still form the core of the band's repertoire, including "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself," "It's The Same Old Song," "Reach Out And I'll Be There," "Standing In The Shadows Of Love," and "Bernadette." Amazingly, HDH wrote 10 consecutive hits for the Supremes during the same time period.
"Everything was such a high standard," Fakir said. "We used the Funk Brothers. We'd go out on the road for a week and when we got back they'd have eight or nine new tracks all polished and ready to go. They gave us a red carpet ride." When the songwriting unit left Motown in 1967, Fakir said the music suffered at first but the Tops rebounded nonetheless.
"We were more upset than anyone when they left. It was a big void. No one else knew how to produce and write for us." The Tops continued to climb the charts with hits like "River Deep and Mountain High" and "There Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got)," in the 70s and "When She Was My Girl," in 1981. The group's tours kept them in the public eye.
In 1983, Gordy suggested the Tops pair with The Temptations to perform on the television special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow." They were a smash, and the revitalized groups hit the road together on the T&T tour.
"People thought we were rivals but we were friends," Fakir said. "The audiences liked us both. They were a little more R&B, we were a little more pop. It brought out the best in us." The pairing survives today. "About 40% of our gigs are T&T, and we do Vegas at The Stardust every year."
Fakir said the Motown reunion was a seminal event. "If they had a camera rolling backstage it would have been the best reality show ever. It was a real family reunion, a big picnic." Michael Jackson, Fakir recalled, "was a great kid and an awesome entertainer. We were in awe of him but he was in awe of us."
The original Tops toured together from 1954 to 1997. In 1990, the band was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame by soul superstar Stevie Wonder.
On June 20, 1997, Payton died of a heart attack and the group chose Theo Peoples, who had been in The Temptations, to replace him. Payton's son Roquel replaced Benson, who became ill and later died in 2005. Ronnie McNair joined the group when the great Levi Stubbs, the group's lead vocalist, became ill (He later died as well). Peoples handles the lead vocals nowadays. Fakir said the band still does at least 100 shows a years and travels with two pianos, a bassist, drums, guitar, "and at least nine horn players — we're a big band, that's our roots."
The Four Tops have been all over the world. "We've been to a lot of places — Australia, Japan, Manila. Everywhere we go, people love Motown music," Fakir said. He has no idea how many gigs he's played. "I'd love to recount. We work all the time."