By Charles Hallman
Abdul “Duke” Fakir, the sole surviving original member of the Four Tops, recently was honored as a “Living Legend.” St. Peter’s AME Church in South Minneapolis on February 23 honored Fakir during its first annual Living Legend Sunday morning service.
Born in Detroit in 1935, Fakir later met Lawrence Payton, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Levi Stubbs in high school, and together they formed a singing group in 1954. Originally called the Four Aims, a musical director suggested they change their name to The Four Tops — to avoid being confused with another group called the Ames Brothers.
They remained together for over four decades without a single personnel change until Payton died in 1997, then Benson died in 2005 and Stubbs in 2008. Fakir, now 78 years old, still performs today with three new members.
“We celebrate a legend that is still with us,” says St. Peter Senior Pastor Rev. Nazim Fakir of his father. “It is even more special for me because I’ve watched this man my whole life. He always has been my hero. He’s iconic and legendary. He has been on the forefront of Black music in this country, and of all music in the world.”
“This man sings with a pure personable voice. When you listen to the harmony of the Four Tops, they all fall in right behind him,” says Rev. Fakir of Duke Fakir, who regularly sings first tenor.
Most fans know the Four Tops from their Motown days beginning in the early 1960s, but the group were on the Chess label for several years before signing with Motown, where their first big hit was “I Can’t Help Myself,” which reached number one on the U.S. charts.
Rev. Fakir quickly pointed out that as the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago has been recognized this year, so should the Four Tops and what they did. “While they were singing on Ed Sullivan that night, the Four Tops were in London doing the same thing,” recalls the pastor. “They show you the crowds that received the Beatles in this country; the English crowds were doing the same thing for the Four Tops, the Supremes and the Temptations as Berry Gordy sent his Black artists to stages all around the world.”
“I’m totally honored,” the senior Fakir said humbly as he accepted the award from his son. “I was eight years old, and I had a pretty nice voice,” he recalled. “I didn’t like to sing solo” but sang in various choirs either in church or in school.
Fakir admits that it was the insistence of “my good friend Levi” that got him into singing in a group. “Levi and I went to this party [in 1954] and needed two more guys to sing with us. We knew Obie Benson could sing, and we knew Lawrence Payton could sing, so we invited them to the party. [The party organizers] asked Levi and me to sing, but we said that we have four of us. We sung one of the songs that was popular at that time [and] right then and there, we knew we should form a group.
“We made a bond that we were chosen to do what we do, and that we were going to do this for life,” says Fakir of him and his late group mates. “We kept those promises until death did us part. We made some wonderful music and the Lord has just blessed us in every way possible.
“We found out that Lawrence Payton had such a musical ear that we could sing any kind of harmony and take any kind of tune and turn it our way,” he says proudly. “That’s what we did for about 10 years. We were very fortunate to work in [Las] Vegas, the Playboy Club and all around.”
The Four Tops are the only singing group to remain together for over five decades, and Duke Fakir “is now the sole survivor — the one who tells the story on how they got over,” says his son. “People don’t talk as much as they should about [how] Duke, Obie, Lawrence and Levi stayed together for 44 years. By the time 1997 rolled around, there had been 18 different Temptations. But the reality is that there was a brotherhood and a camaraderie that held these men together.”
The senior Fakir adds however that it took quite a while before his mom accepted his profession, which he started shortly after he graduated from high school: She often told him that he was “singing for the devil.”
The Four Tops have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1990), the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1997), the Grammy Hall of Fame (1998), the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (1999), received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2009), recognized as one of Billboard Magazine’s Top 100 Artists of All Time (2010), Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame (2013) and the recipients of countless other awards. But did he ever win over his mom?
“My mother got on me for 10-12 years,” responds Fakir, who adds that she later did accept his vocation.
The Four Tops today still are performing — Payton’s son, Lawrence Jr., Spike Bonhart and Ronnie McNeir along with Fakir “continue to reach, influence and affect a wide intersection of audiences today.”
Next: Duke Fakir answers questions from the audience — each with a story.
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