Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, an American singer and founding member of the Four Tops chats with Kevin Cooper about coping with self isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, working with Berry Gordy at Motown, performing and recording with the late Levi Stubbs, and the Four Tops’ forthcoming tour of the UK.

Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir is an American singer and a founding member of the Motown act, the Four Tops. A first tenor, he is the group’s lone surviving original member performing today with Ronnie McNeir, Lawrence ‘Roquel’ Payton Jr (son of original member Lawrence Payton) and lead vocalist Alexander Morris.

He met fellow founding member, Levi Stubbs whilst at school through some neighbourhood football games and because of their shared love of singing they asked Lawrence Payton and Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson to join them in 1953. They originally called themselves The Four Aims, but they subsequently changed their name to the Four Tops. They performed over four decades until 1997 without a change in personnel.

Initially the group had very little recording success until they signed with the newly established Tamla Motown Records in 1963. They soon became one of the biggest recording groups of the 60’s, with fourteen charted hits through until the early 80’s with the likes of I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), Walk Away Renee, It’s The Same Old Song, Baby I Need Your Loving and Reach Out (I’ll Be There).

The Four Tops were the main male vocal group for the highly successful song writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who crafted a stream of hit singles for Motown. They left Motown in 1967 and the Four Tops were assigned to a number of producers, primarily Frank Wilson, but they were not able to replicate their previous success.

When Motown left Detroit in 1972 and relocated to Los Angeles, the Four Tops signed a new record deal with ABC/Dunhill Records where they released their 1973 million seller Ain’t No Woman which was written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter.

As a member of the Four Tops, Fakir was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997, was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999, awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, received the Grammy Life Achievement Award in 2009 and was included in the Billboard Magazine Top 100 Recording Artists of All Time.

Whilst self isolating from the Covid–19 pandemic at his home in Detroit, ‘Duke’ took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Duke’ good morning, how are you today?

(Laughter) well, what can I say, I’m doing quite well for an old fart thank you Kevin, but more to the point how are you today?

(Laughter) you and me both ‘Duke’, you and me both and before we move on let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure. I feel that it is still a wonderful world, and it is still a wonderful place to be.

I totally agree but have to say that it is a strange place to be at this moment in time, wouldn’t you agree?

Oh, at the moment it really is quite strange. It is comfortable whilst at the same time it is uncomfortable. For me, it is comfortable as I can rest at home and relax. I love that because that is what I do nowadays between concerts. However, under these conditions I have to say that it does feel a little uncomfortable and I am a little concerned as to just how all of this is going to turn out. Having said that I am always optimistic so, hopefully in the next three months at the most, maybe we should be back to almost normal. That is just my feeling.

I have a problem with that.

Really?

Yes, I have already forgotten what normal is (laughter).

(Laughter) well I can just about remember that.

Well, before we both forget why we are here, let’s talk about your forthcoming tour, the Four Tops and The Temptations with special guests Odyssey which comes to Nottingham on Friday 30th October. Are you looking forward to being back here performing in the UK?

Yes, I am, I truly am. For me, coming over to the UK as I have said many times before, this really is the pinnacle of touring for me. The UK has always been so loving, so friendly and so warm to us; it really is a fun trip whenever we come back to the UK. We enjoy every moment of it. I can remember back in our early days we enjoyed some of the by-products of that, things like having our clothes made over there, getting our shoes handmade, being able to enjoy the other side of things, other than just enjoying the wonderful reception that we would receive over there. I would walk the streets of London daily just shopping and looking at all of the sights that I had read about back home in the USA.

Sometimes, I would have my family with me, and to me, everything was new and wonderful. Quite a lot is still wonderful, but I just can’t shop around like I used too. I don’t get around much anymore, but I am still prepared to do those wonderful shows. I have to tell you that after all of these years, the reception that the fans over there in the UK, give to me, is incredible. That is all that I can say; it is truly wonderfully incredible. I love every minute of it.

The fans here in the UK embraced all of the Motown artists right from day one, didn’t they?

Yes, they did, they just grabbed us, held onto us, and they won’t let go, thank god (laughter).

Whenever you come back to the UK, do you still feel that warmth and affection?

Absolutely. From the moment that we arrive there, it is always the same. Every show is almost as though we are back in 1966. It really is incredible. What you have to remember is that half of the current audiences must now be the children of the original fans and record buyers, but they are still there. That loving feeling is always there. They know all of the words to the songs, and I hate to say it, but I feel like it is 1966. The feeling that I get is the same as I did back then in 1966 and for me, that is absolutely incredible and wonderfully so (laughter).

When you have any downtime, do you still listen to the Four Tops?

Oh yes, I have to be totally honest with you and say yes, indeed I do. A lot of times when I am home alone, I still listen to some of those recordings that we made, not just the singles, but I find myself listening to the whole album. I have to say that I feel that a lot of those songs are still sounding just as good today as they did forty and fifty years ago. To me, they still feel fresh and have a wonderful feeling and sound to them, and I am so very proud that we got the chance to record such wonderful songs. I am totally amazed that our music has lasted that long.

Naturally, I can’t speak to you without mentioning Motown. Were they good times?

Absolutely, they really were great times back in the Motown days. Motown really was like a college of music, let me put it like that. We were learning our trade and showmanship together with just how to make hit records (laughter). It really was so much fun. A lot of the time we would just go along to Motown and hang out at Hitsville, even when we weren’t recording, which I have to say was very seldom. Most of the time we would be in the studio recording, and if we were not recording our new single, we would be proving backing vocals to one of the other acts. Our vocals didn’t always make it onto the final cut of the record, but we did a hell of a lot of that. We just did a hell of a lot of hanging out there (laughter).

If we weren’t recording, we would be in the production room listening to Norman Whitfield writing for The Temptations, or we would be talking with Smokey (Robinson) or Holland-Dozier-Holland. We would find ourselves goofing around with The Supremes and The Marvelettes; it really was like a wonderful homespun college. It really was.

A lot has been both said and written about The Boss at Motown, Mr Berry Gordy Jr. What was he like to work for?

Well you know, I think that every artist has a very different opinion of Berry (laughter). My opinion was that I loved working for him. I learnt a lot from him; he was quite the businessman, but he also had a big heart. If Berry liked you, then you could learn a hell of a lot from him, and to this day, he is still one of my greatest mentors. He did a lot of great things for the Four Tops; he did us a lot of favours aside from just making hit records. Having said that there were a couple of times that we were disappointed about a few things, but that was always overshadowed by the makeup (laughter). I have fond memories; to me he is still a great mentor, and I really do have so much respect and love for Berry.

Please don’t take this the wrong way because looking at your Motown catalogue this is either a very brave or a very stupid comment for me to make, but I have always thought that the Four Tops got stronger after you left Motown. Albums such as 1972’s Keeper Of The Castle, 1973’s Main Street People and 1974’s Meeting Of The Minds. Would you agree with that?

(Laughter) well what can I say, I totally agree with you when you say that is a very brave comment for you to make. However, having said that, I really do love the three albums that you have mentioned there so I really would have to say that it might have (laughter). I know that there were some things that we did over at ABC/Dunhill Records and still to this day I love those albums. We got to work a little different to how we had worked over at Motown. The music was a little different to how it had been over at Motown, but it was good music. In fact I would go so far as to say that it was great music. I have to say that I always felt that the singles were not in the same vein as the classic Holland-Dozier-Holland hits that we had recorded for Motown.

Having said that, the albums themselves were both musically and artistically done in a very professional manner. They sounded great and they also had a great feeling to them. So, in answer to your very brave question, I would have to say that yes, I have that very same feeling too.

I have always thought that the albums, Keeper Of The Castle and Main Street People are wonderful pieces of work.

Thank you for saying that, I really do appreciate you saying that. We always enjoyed working with (Dennis) Lambert and (Brian) Potter who were both great songwriters. It was so much fun working with them. It wasn’t quite like Motown, but it was enjoyable for us because Lambert and Potter were both very artistic. They loved to hear us harmonise, and I have to say that they bought that out of us, more so than a lot of the classic singles did at Motown. All in all, I would have to say that it was an enjoyable stint in our careers but at heart we were still Motown artists through and through and we told them that. That wasn’t a problem for us because ABC/Dunhill Records always knew that, they both respected and loved that about us.

A funny thing is that about a year or so after we left ABC/Dunhill Records in order to join Casablanca Records, Berry Gordy took Steve Berri, the then president of ABC/Dunhill Records and made him the President of Motown and also bought up all of the recordings that we had made over there (laughter). So, what I am trying to say is that the love showed for the Four Tops from both Motown and Berry was still there. We loved that.

In 1983 you re-joined Motown. Just how did that feel, was it like going home?

Yes, it was, and it really did feel as though we should never have left Motown when we did. Our hearts had always been with Motown and they always will be. However, things were a little different when we re-joined the company because they had moved to the West Coast by then, and so it wasn’t quite the home coming like it was originally. It no longer felt as though we were all kids at college, growing up within the music business. It was a little different, but it was still great for us to be back at Motown.

Was that original commitment to the Four Tops still there from the company or had things changed whilst you had been away?

To be honest with you, I have always felt that a couple of the albums that we recorded for Motown after our return were not released as well as they should have been, because as you know, there had been a spat between Berry and the Holland brothers. Having said all of that it truly was a joy for us all to be back home.

As I mentioned earlier, I personally feel that some of your post-Motown recordings really are up there with your best. For example, Are You Man Enough from the Shaft In Africa movie soundtrack; I feel that is a tremendous recording.

Thank you so much for saying that. I have to tell you that I have always loved that particular song; we all enjoyed doing it, and it really is a great song. I must say that in my opinion, Lambert and Potter really were great songwriters. Naturally they bought us songs that were a little different to the Motown sound, but they were great songwriters. I really do treasure a lot of the recordings that we did over there and I am so pleased that you enjoyed it as well.

I would like to ask you a couple of questions about the late Levi Stubbs if I may?

Sure, that’s fine, go for it.

Just what was it like performing and recording with the man who had without doubt the most recognisable voice within the music business?

Well, what can I say, from the very first time that I heard Levi’s voice I simply fell in love with it. I first heard Levi sing when we were both twelve years old; he was a guest on one of the music tours that were in town at that time. I heard him and I said “wow, this young man can sing” and after that Levi and I became close friends. Being totally honest with you, I personally feel that Levi had one of the greatest voices of our time. He could sing anything, and he could sing it well. He could make you feel it, he could interpret lyrics, and he really was a true artist. He would wrap himself up in a song and he would deliver it with a great amount of feeling. He would give you the upmost feelings out of those lyrics.

After Levi passed on 17th October 2008, did you ever feel that it was time to call it a day?

Well, I will tell you what, after Levi passed, that was the first time in my life that I really felt totally alone, and even though we had good backup, it was nothing like the original Four Tops. We lost Lawrence (Payton) on 20th June 1997, Renaldo ‘Obie’ (Benson) on 1st July 2005 and as you rightly say we lost Levi on 17th October 2008 and let me tell you, as each one of them passed a little bit of me left with them. When Levi left us, I found myself in a quandary as to what I was going to do from that moment on but after a while I realised that the name together with the legacy that they had left us simply had to carry on, and judging by the audience reaction it soon became pretty evident that I did the right thing and I really do feel good about that.

Being the sole surviving member does that bring added pressures?

Yes, it does, of course it does. I often question myself and ask why I am the one that is left. We all lived our lives pretty much the same; we were all of a similar age, and they have gone on. It has been some years and here I am, I am still up there huffing and puffing and I thank God that I still have a decent tenor voice as I did as a young man and it makes me think ‘’Duke’, you were made for this’ (laughter). This is my destiny; I am proud that I have been able to carry on and help maintain the legacy which they worked so hard to create. I aim to keep that alive for as long as I can. I feel like a proud Keeper Of The Castle (laughter).

I see what you did there (laughter). That’s the title of the album which you released in November 1972 for Dunhill Records and the first hit single that you had after leaving Motown.

(Laughter) wow, I was just checking to see if you were still with me, but you certainly know the history behind the Four Tops.

I like to think so (laughter).

Good man keep it up (laughter).

Going back to the tour, you have Odyssey opening for you this year. What have you done with The Tavares and Freda Payne, have you locked them in a cupboard somewhere?

(Laughter) now wouldn’t that be a great idea (laughter). I personally love singing with both The Tavares and Freda; we have so much fun together and we have become great pals over the years. They both put on such a wonderful show; they can still sing quite well, and so it has always been a huge joy to have them on the tours with us. I have personally known Freda from way back, even before Motown. When Freda was just a little girl, we used to sing in Jazz clubs with her. So, we have been great pals for so many years. That’s a great thing about this business, once you meet someone in this business; it’s like that relationship simply carries on and carries on. But you know what it is like, at the end of the day it is all down to availability, so who knows, maybe next time. We will just have to wait and see.

Taking you back to 1988, you got to work with Lamont Dozier once again, together with Phil Collins, on Loco In Acapulco from the movie Buster. How was that?

That really was an exciting time for us, and it was something different. We all thought that the song was great, and as you say, Lamont was there working with us which made us all feel quite at home. We were very excited about doing that, and what made it so special was that Phil actually sang on the recording as well. We all felt very proud that we could record one of Phil’s songs and on top of all that, it was a really good song. Nowadays we open the show quite a lot with Loco In Acapulco, and we were all very proud of just how it turned out. I have a lot of respect for Phil Collins; he is a great songwriter and performer in his own right.

I can remember when we came over to London and performed in 1988 at the Hammersmith Apollo, Phil came out onto the stage and performed that song with us and let me tell you, that was remarkable (laughter).

So, just what can we expect from the tour?

What can I say; the Four Tops will be the Four Tops (laughter). We really don’t want to change too many things (laughter). We will be performing all our classics, songs like I Can’t Help Myself, Walk Away Renee, It’s The Same Old Song, Baby I Need Your Loving and we might even squeeze in Loco In Acapulco, which are really the songs that today’s audiences expect from us.

You say that you won’t be changing too much, but haven’t you now got a new lead singer since the last time that you were over here in the UK, a certain Alexander Morris, who is a pastor in the city of Detroit?

(Laughter) just who have you been speaking to (laughter). Yes, that’s right, Alexander has joined us, and we are all really proud of him. He is such a deliverer. Alexander has a big soul, he has a wonderful way with the audience, and we are so very proud to have him in the position of leading those songs. He is just about as close to Levi in his presentation; the way that he appeals to the audience, the way that he grabs those songs, probably more so than anyone that we have ever had. We are all really looking forward to coming over there to the UK and see if the audiences over there truly accept him, although I’m sure that they will. This will most probably be one of our greatest trips of the year, it always is.

It certainly won’t feel old, that’s for sure, and it won’t feel tired, that’s for sure. It will be exciting; it will be sounding good which is just how it should be. It will be so exciting for us to travel to the UK especially after getting over this current problem, whatever this current problem is. Hopefully, we are coming out of the other side now. I don’t think that I can take this sitting around much longer. After a tour I can usually manage around two weeks of sitting at home which I really do enjoy but after that, I tend to get really antsy (laughter). Being honest, I am getting close to that right now (laughter).

Fingers crossed I will be photographing and reviewing your show here in Nottingham at the Motorpoint Arena on Friday 30th October.

That really is wonderful; we always enjoy playing in Nottingham. That is one of our favourite venues on the tour.

Well it just so happens that it will be my 37th wedding anniversary that night.

Really, wow well please do come backstage and say hi to me and the rest of the boys. Then you can give me your details and if you don’t mind, I will give you and your wife a shout out on stage. I would love to do that.

That would be absolutely fantastic, thank you.

You are very welcome Kevin.

You have now been in the business for sixty-seven years; would you do it all over again?

Well, what can I say, I have enjoyed every one of those sixty-seven years and I am looking forward to at least making it to seventy (laughter)? Whenever people ask me about quitting, I always say that first of all I don’t have a job. This is something that I enjoy doing, so why would I retire (laughter). So, as long as I am professionally able to do that, I will.

On that note ‘Duke’, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been absolutely delightful.

It’s been a joy Kevin, thank you so very much. Make sure that you get your people to sort out you and your good lady coming backstage to see us all when we get over there to Nottingham. Stay safe and speak soon.