By Jeremy Miles
There’s something very special about The Four Tops. You only have to listen to the hits that propelled them to stardom back in the 1960s to realise that 40 years on they still have that oomph. It’s simply impossible not to want to dance.
Yet if The Tops hadn’t been in the right place at the right time those brilliant 45s like I Can’t Help Myself, Standing in the Shadows of Love, Bernadette and Reach Out and I’ll Be There might never have seen the light of day.
Levi Stubbs, Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Peyton - four young singers from the tough North End district of Detroit - had already spent a decade singing jazz standards on the US cabaret circuit when they became Motown’s most formidable hit machine.
The record company decided to team their amazing four part harmonies with songwriters Holland Dozier and Holland. Throwing in some towering brass and orchestral arrangements driven along by James Jamerson’s inimitable thundering bass and they had themselves the perfect blend of black soul and white pop.
The Four Tops music instantly swept onto the dance-floors of Britain. After 10 years of playing middle of the bill at a thousand anonymous clubs, The Four Tops were suddenly pop stars welcomed as conquering heroes in the land of The Beatles.
Sadly Lawrence Peyton and Obie Benson are no longer with us and ill-health has meant that Levi Stubbs has had to retire from live performances.
But recalling that first UK promotional visit back in 1965, Duke Fakir – the only original Top still performing – still talks of the astonishment and joy the band felt at being greeted, 5000 miles from home, by screaming, adoring fans.
Speaking from his home in Detroit as the current Four Tops line-up prepared to head for Britain for a series of dates, including the Bournemouth International Centre on Friday night, Duke told me: “It was amazing. We got such a welcome. Becoming global stars, travelling all that way and having people say ‘We love you.’ It brought tears to my eyes. I’ll never forget it.
He still talks of the excitement of being in England which in the mid sixties was the undisputed home of the greatest popular music in the world
“You have to remember there was some great material coming out of the UK from people like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Small Faces, Tom Jones…We loved them all.”
He admits that part of the thrill of arriving on these shores for the first time was down to the fact that the band didn’t actually realise they were going to Britain until they were about to get on the plane. When they’re management had told them they had tickets booked for “the UK” it hadn’t quite registered.
“We a thought we were going to the Ukraine,” chuckled Duke. The Tops were delighted when they found they were heading for London.
“It was exciting from day one, the way people treated us was absolutely awesome. I remember Brian Epstein, who was instrumental in our first tour, saying that the way we’d be promoted in England would be exactly the way the Beatles were treated in the USA, and he actually did that. It was amazing.
He admits that the songwriting and production team of Holland Dozier and Holland was a transforming force in their careers.
“They produced major songs for us, for Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, Junior Walker… artistes that were all completely different.
They were a great talent first of all writing major hit songs and then actually tailoring and producing the m for particular artists. I give them so much credit.”
In fact such is the quality of those numbers that Duke says he still loves performing them more than four decades on.
“Some people would probably say ‘Oh I’m tired of singing this stuff’. But it’s not like that with me nor has it ever been with any of The Tops.
“We’ve always enjoyed the songs because they have always been so highly appreciated by our audiences. They seem absolutely fresh every time.”
Being the last member of the original band still performing means that for Duke every show is packed with memories of his old friends.
Performing is absolutely bitter sweet for me. This is the legacy of the Four Tops. Sometimes I get a little emotional. Each song brings back great memories but sometimes it makes me rather tearful.”
He remembers his all of his old comrades with great affection but says he was hit particularly hard by the death Obie Benson a couple of years ago.
“He was my running mate, we went everywhere together. I think we must have been to every bar in the UK together. He was my real fun Buddy we just had great fun. That was devastating.”