BOOK REVIEW: Duke Fakir; I’ll Be There-My Life With the Four Tops (Omnibus Press)

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He’s taken his time, but at last Four Tops founding member, 86 year old  ABDUL “DUKE FAKIR has put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and published his memoirs. However ‘I’ll Be There-My Life With the Four Tops’ Is much, much more than Duke’s autobiography. As the title suggests, it’s also the story of one of soul’s best-loved and most-enduring groups but there’s an awful lot more crammed into the volume’s 227 pages too. There’s insights into all kinds of issues  like the tough, uncompromising but mainly fair way in which Berry Gordy treated his artists, the way Holland-Dozier-Holland worked, the camaraderie that existed between the Motown stars (in Duke’s case that spilled over into a serious dalliance with Mary Wilson), the working of the so-called chittlin’ circuit, life for Afro/American communities in places like Detroit, how stardom can inflate egos, why may musicians look for solace in drugs and drink and much more.

Duke Fakir, we learn,  was born in 1935 of mixed race parentage – his father was a Muslim from Bangladesh, his mother a fire and brimstone Christian of African slave heritage. One of 6 children, his nickname was conferred on him by his mother who brought him up after the  failure of her marriage. A talented scholar and sportsman, Duke found music a real outlet and eventually he teamed up with neighbour Levi Stubb and eventually Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson to form the Four Aims in 1953. With a sound that melded doo-wop with harmonic jazz, the Aims found plenty of work on the chittlin’ circuit and local holiday resorts, honing a sharp stage presence and learning from stalwarts like Billy Eckstine. After a brief stint at Chess (where label bosses suggested a name change to the Four Tops) and Columbia, the quartet were signed to Motown. There their first recordings were jazzy readings of standards (their forté at the time). Those  sessions were deemed uncommercial by Berry Gordy who decided to pair them with Holland-Dozier-Holland. The Tops changed their stye and, of course,  launched a hugely successful career, becoming mainstays of the classic “Motown sound”.

Despite that, they were dumped by Motown in 1972 but recording success continued at labels like ABC/Dunhill and Casablanca; then as the hits eventually dried up, the Tops focused on live performances and toured the world, playing everywhere to packed houses – which despite the rigours of the road and the sad passing of Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Obie Benson, Duke still embraces with his current band mates – Ronnie McNeir, Alex Morris and Lawrence Payton Jr.

As ‘I’ll Be There-My Life With the Four Tops’ unfolds, two key issues stand out. First, the wonderful, inter-dependent relationship and mutual respect the original Tops shared. That fellowship is best illustrated here by the fact that Berry Gordy long harboured a desire to get Levi Stubbs to go solo – or at least to rename the band with his name out  front.  Levi resolutely refused – even turning down a lucrative offer from Gordy to feature in movies alongside Diana Ross. To him, the band (his life-long friends) were what was important!

The second key issue that comes through here is the simple fact that Duke Fakir is a thoroughly decent human being who simply wanted to the best for those he loved and worked with. Sure, it’s his book, but he pulls no punches. He talks freely about his addictions – cocaine, alcohol, gambling, the failure of his first marriage and more, but, turning to his god and with a loving second marriage, he pulls on through. A survivor of a triple heart bypass surgery, Duke is now a stalwart of his local church – mentoring men, preaching and working in soup kitchens.  In short, he’s a  kind and gentle gentleman (having interviewed the man a number of times, I can tell you that’s true).

He also reveals that from an early age he felt guided by sorts of visions (he often talks about being visited by a “lady in White”) which mapped out his future – pointing the way in which he should go to fulfil his destiny. You might want to treat that with a pinch or two of salt but what is irrefutable (salt notwithstanding!) is that the Four Tops, marshalled by Abdul Duke Fakir, have made  a major contribution to modern popular culture and brought pleasure to millions and with the seemingly indestructible Duke at the helm who knows how long they may go on doing just that!

(BB) 4/5