“It’s the greatest high in the world” – DUKE FAKIR talks about the FOUR TOPS’ forthcoming UK tour with The Temptations

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  • “It’s the greatest high in the world” – DUKE FAKIR talks about the FOUR TOPS’ forthcoming UK tour with The Temptations


           The mighty Four Tops scored their first British hit way back in 1965 with ‘I Can’t Help Myself,’ a key record that helped to establish Detroit’s Motown sound in the UK. Fifty-three years and thirty-four UK charts hits later, miraculously, this legendary vocal quartet are still going strong. Though only Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir remains from the original line-up, they keep the authentic spirit of Motown alive. Frequent visitors to the UK since their very first tour in 1967, the Four Tops are due to return to these shores later this year in November, when they will be performing in tandem with another iconic Motor City vocal group, The Temptations. For fans of both groups and Motown, the keenly-anticipated tour promises ten magical nights of nostalgia in places ranging from Glasgow and Gateshead to Bournemouth and Southend-on-Sea.

Ahead of the tour, the Tops’ main man, Duke Fakir (pictured second from right above), is waxing lyrical about the United Kingdom and its inhabitants. “It’s our favourite country,” he says. “It’s such a great place coming over there and we love the way they reward us and respect us.” In terms of what the group will be serving up to their British fans, Duke says: “We aim to please so we’ll be sure to give them all the best of the things they love to hear. It’s the finest tour of the year for us when we come to the UK. We know they want to hear the classics and we’ll also be sure to do some tunes that are more popular in the UK than they are here in the US.”

The Four Tops have been combining their talents on the road with The Temptations in Britain for many years now. Though they used to be fierce rivals at Motown, beneath the competitiveness lie deeper bonds of kinship and brotherhood. “We’re very good friends and have been for a long time,” says Duke. “Years ago, we used to hang out after the shows. We’d bounce around and have a few drinks here and there but now we’re older and we save our energy pretty much for the stage. So when we’re on the road together, we eat a lot of meals together and sometimes play cards and if it’s warm enough, we’ll play golf as well. Sometimes we even shop together. Myself and Ron Tyson of the Temptations are extremely close and are particularly into clothes shopping and like to go to Bond Street.”

Joining the Tops and Tempts on this tour is another noted US vocal group that was big in the ’70s, Tavares. “They’re a great group,” says Duke. “They have a couple of golfers and we have a couple of golfers, and we’ve done that a couple of times. So we try to make the trip very, very comfortable and enjoyable. They add to the competition so you have to totally be at your best every night, which totally rewards the audiences 100%. You have to enjoy what you’re doing because every night is extremely important and it’s not just a gig to get through or what we call a ‘hit and split.’ It’s going out there and doing a job for the people …but it’s fun!”                   altDuke has vivid memories of The Four Tops’ maiden UK tour in 1967. “It was great,” he says. “The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein (pictured above with the group) was a great promoter. I remember the promise he made us when we came over there for a promotional trip before the tour. It was our last promotion show and there were a lot of media there. Before we when on, he asked us backstage, he said, ‘look fellers, I would love you to do the best show that you’ve ever done. I’ve seen one of your great show and if you do one like that, I swear I will make you as popular here (in England) as my Beatles are in the US. I’ll make you front-page news every time you come.’ That was a great inspiration to us for him to say that, so we went out there and gave what was probably one of our best shows. We were all excited when we got off and so was he. He said fellers, ‘you’ve got it, now watch what happens on this tour.’ And sure enough the tour was a sell-out.”

 Duke recalls Epstein held an after-tour party, where he and the Tops had an opportunity to meet and hang out with many British musicians. “It was wonderful party. He had the Rolling Stones there, the Small Faces, The Who, and The Beatles and almost every up-and-coming group from England were there. It was great fun.”

Was it really the swinging ’60s then? “Oh, absolutely, and we swung with it,” laughs Duke. “We used to have so much fun in the UK ’cause we would go out at night to a lot of different clubs. They were great days. They really respected the Motown sound. It was just a great feeling and it’s been like that ever since.”

Duke reveals that the reception that the Tops got in Britain was overwhelming and genuinely moved them. “I just started thinking, wow, here we are thousands of miles away from home and these people are shouting and yelling “we love you!” It just really brought tears to my eyes, to realise that our music and really touched people in other countries,” he says.  “To have that kind of success and having people talking about how they loved you because of your music was just exciting and rewarding.”

                   altThe group’s biggest UK hit was ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ which peaked at number one in the autumn of 1966. Duke says that  when they first heard the Holland-Dozier-Holland written and produced tune they couldn’t imagine it would become one of their biggest records. “We thought the opposite,” confesses Duke, who says they recorded the song originally as an album cut and didn’t expect it to be released as a single. In fact, when Motown boss Berry Gordy summoned them to his office and announced that he was going to play them a song that “is going to be one of your biggest hits ever” they were shocked by what they heard. Duke takes up the story. “He played ‘Reach Out’ and after about a minute of the song we said, “Berry, you’re releasing that? He said it’s going to be a great hit but we said Berry, look, we’ve got great momentum, please don’t put that out, it will be on the charts with an anchor.” Duke chuckles at his recollection of the time he questioned Berry Gordy’s judgement but at the time he wasn’t laughing. “We walked out of the office very disappointed. We chatted and even talked about Berry, saying ‘man, he must be losing it…losing his ears or his taste.'”

Though crestfallen at what was chosen as their next Motown single, the Tops had to go along with Gordy’s decision and ultimately, it wasn’t one that they regretted. Duke recalls that his change of mind came shortly after that meeting in Berry Gordy’s office. “About two weeks later, I was driving in my car and I heard ‘Reach Out’  on the radio, ” he says, “and believe me, when I heard it, something had changed from that version that we had heard in his office. That song jumped out of the radio into my heart and head and I was ecstatic. I thought it was a monstrous song. I turned my car around and went back to the studio and ran up to Berry’s office, knocked on his door, opened it, and said ‘Berry, don’t even ask us anything… just keep releasing those wonderful songs, bye!'”

              altThey never questioned Berry Gordy’s decisions on song selection again. ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ was just one of many hits written (others included ‘I Can’t Help Myself,’ ‘Standing In the Shadows Of Love,’ and ‘Bernadette’) for the group by the songwriting production trio comprising the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie, with Lamont Dozier. “They were incredibly talented but first of all, they were great friends,” reveals Duke.  “I gave them the nickname, “the tailors of music,” because they could tailor you for what you needed in term of hits. They could do that for us, the Tops, and they could do that for other, different artists, like the Vandellas, the Supremes, or Junior Walker.” Recalling their modus operandi, Duke says that the trio found out what made each act they worked with tick. “They’d call you in the office and sit down with you and go over your history and get to know you …and it just seemed like they just knew what would sell. There was just like walking into a tailor’s shop and getting fitted, and then you’d come back from second fitting, and when they gave you the finished product, it was top ten. But they were wonderful friends and we’ve had a lifelong friendship that’s still going on. They’re among the greatest writers and producers of all time.”

Despite their loyalty to Gordy and Motown, the Tops did the unthinkable and left Motown in 1972.“We didn’t want to leave,” stresses Duke, disclosing that the group was effectively pushed through the exit door at Berry Gordy’s company, which was in the throes of great upheaval as it was moving its base from Detroit to Los Angeles.  “Berry was out in California making the transition to the West Coast and he gave up the presidency for a while Berry Gordy to a gentleman called Ewart Abner, who was also the manager of Stevie Wonder. When it was time for us to renegotiate a new contract, which we were excited about, and we went into his office.  I asked him, ‘when do we start the negotiations?’  and said, ‘look, fellers, let me say this. I think you’ve had your run already. We’ve run out of juice for you guys so we’re not going to extend the contract.'”

Abner had dropped an unpleasant and devastating bombshell on the group.  Says Duke: “We were flabbergasted. We looked at him and I said ‘are you kidding?’ He said, ‘no, you’ve had it.’ We almost cried we were so angry. I wanted to hit him in his eye because I couldn’t believe it but managed to control myself.”

The Tops left Abner’s office feeling disgruntled and genuinely disillusioned with Motown. Though surplus to requirements at the label, they were still a name act with an unimpeachable track record of scoring hits and selling records, so they weren’t without a record deal for very long. Recalls Duke: “We started talking to a gentleman we know that knew a lot of people in the record business and he said ‘look, I can get you guys a deal.’ Two days later, he called us and said ‘there’s a record company that have these two songs that want you and they are called ABC/Dunhill.'” 

Intrigued, the Tops decided to audition the label and the songs that had lined up for them. “I said, well let’s hear the songs because we can tell by the songs whether the writers and the producers are good enough for us to go there,” says Duke. “We heard very raw versions of ‘Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)’ and ‘Keeper Of The Castle.’ We said, ‘wow, those are good songs,’ so we talked to them and they sent for us to go to California, and we sat down that day and made a deal and started recording almost instantly.”

                        altAt ABC/Dunhill, The Four Tops reinvented themselves, scoring big US chart hits  with the two songs that Duke mentioned, both penned by Brian Potter and Dennis Lambert. “We enjoyed it there and true enough, we were able to come across with a couple of good hits,” says Duke. He also says that after they quit Motown, Berry Gordy contacted them and was profoundly unhappy at what had transpired and the manner in which events had unfolded. “He called us and said, ‘why didn’t you call me? I would never have let you go.’ I said ‘we were getting angry and we weren’t calling nobody – and  we just thought it was the decision of Motown period.'”

                        altDuke also told Gordy (pictured above) that on the plus side, it  offered the group a chance to prove themselves and to see if they could achieve success outside of Motown. “It was a challenge even though it was heartbreaking,” says Duke, “but it was a challenge that worked. But he did say, look, any time you want to come back, come in the front door, the back door, or the side door, because part of this house is yours.’ That was great to hear and we did eventually go back. A lot of people think that we walked away but we never would have done that.  In fact, we told them, at ABC/Dunhill, no matter what we do here, and we’ll give you our best forever, we’re really Motown at heart.”

Despite what went down with the Tops and Motown in 1972, there were no bad feelings.  “He was still “Daddy” Berry to us,” laughs Duke. “I’ve always respected him. He admired us but I admired him twice as much and we went back to Motown a couple of times. It’s always been open and even now, we’re the greatest of friends and he’s still one of the greatest mentors I’ve had.”

                                  altDuke Fakir (above) might be 82 now but he still seems at the top of his game – what keeps him motivated and how does he keep his voice in good shape? “That’s a very good question,” he responds. “Well, first of all, it’s because I feel capable that I can still do what I’ve been doing for years.  My voice hasn’t really changed, hardly at all. Of course, I’ve lost a couple of steps with the dance movements and cut them in half, but I still can sing at a professional level. I’ve pretty much got the same range and the tone that I’ve always had and I have to thank the Lord for that. Nowadays, I know how to keep my voice in shape but back when we were younger, it just came natural but I used to stay up nights, drink and smoke a lot. We partied and had fun. We were young men that never had anything at all. When you first start realising that you can do this, you can do that, you do that.”

But the partying and hedonism ceased for Duke about twenty years ago. “That’s when I stopped drinking, smoking, and all that kind of stuff. I started going back to Church like I did when I was a young man and I think that saved me from ruining my voice.” Even so,  Duke doesn’t live like a monk and doesn’t claim to be abstemious.  “I like a glass of wine and have a bottle of beer now and then but no real drinking,” he confesses. “I go to bed at night now. I think that’s a big difference, and I have a wife that will not let me eat unhealthy food. We’ve enjoyed our life together, she said,  and that your age you have to be really careful. So she keeps me aware of a lot of things that I should do. She’s like my angel on my shoulder.”

Duke admits that recently, having notched up his 82nd birthday, he has contemplated hanging up his microphone for good. “I thought about retiring last year,” he reveals. “It hit me. I said to myself, at my age you shouldn’t be doing what you were doing as a kid. It doesn’t make sense.” But when he thought more deeply about making a decision and surveyed what his life would be like if he was to retire, he decided to carry on. “I thought, well, what am I going to do if I retire? I can’t play golf like I used to – I play little bit, but I can’t hit the ball nowhere anymore. I don’t hang out in clubs no more. I don’t have any social life except family. So all I’d do is eat and watch TV and lay back and wait for the man with the sickle. So I decided not to retire at all. I’m just going to keep going until I drop, my voice changes, or they stop calling me. One of three. But it won’t be my decision for me to retire.”

What keeps Duke going more than anything is his passion for performing as a member of the Four Tops. He’s been doing it since 1953 when the group were known as the Four Aims. “I enjoy what I’m doing,” he declares with tangible fervour. “I love what I do and it’s still something that I can do…and I can do it at the same pace as these young pups we have in the group, though they laugh about it.”

Duke really does prove the old adage that age is just a number. And as he’s got older, he’s not, like many people, grown more cynical and disillusioned with life. In fact, he’s brimming with a beatific sense of positivity and oozes good vibrations. “If your heart is in it, you can do whatever you want for as long as you want… I try to set that example,” he says. “Being in The Four Tops is not work to me at all yet and I don’t think it ever will be. So I’m still doing it and enjoying it. I’m so blessed that I’m still able to do it. It’s fun travelling and seeing people giving you great receptions. You can’t beat it. It’s the greatest high in the world.”

And who are we to disagree with him?



The tour schedule:


Read SJF’s interview with The Temptations’ Otis Williams here: