For 10 years, before “Baby I Need Your Loving” turned their world around in 1964 and began a 22-year string of pop hits, the Four Tops made a comfortable living singing jazz and show tunes on the supper-club circuit.
Abdul “Duke” Fakir, one-fourth of one of the rock era’s most durable and talented vocal groups, gets misty-eyed thinking back on their early days.
“While we were coming up in those 10 years, from start to Motown,” Fakir said recently, “these were the type of engagements we were working, like in lounges or smart supper clubs in Canada and America and backup vocals for Billy Eckstine. We were fooled into thinking this is what we longed for and we were used to singing those kinds of songs.
“Even after we became commercialized and we were having wonderful hits, which we were loving to death, we always reverted back to songs like ‘In the Still of the Nite,’ ‘The Girl From Ipanema,’ ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ That’s what the Tops were about.”
After seeing the Four Tops perform on “The Tonight Show” in 1963, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. signed them to his jazz-oriented Workshop label. He sent them into a studio with a formidable big band to work on their debut album, “Breaking Through.” A few months later, Motown producers Holland, Dozier and Holland approached Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton with a song they thought was perfectly suited for them.
The Four Tops recorded “Baby I Need Your Loving”; it nearly cracked Billboard’s Top 10; “Breaking Through” was shelved permanently, and the rest is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame history.
“Breaking Through” was buried in Motown’s vaults, but it weighed heavily on Fakir’s mind.
“A couple of years ago, I started inquiring about this album,” Fakir said recently. “I knew it was in there somewhere. I called the company and told them that the Four Tops would like to get in there and buy it or lease it and we’ll do something with it or it was just going to stay in there and collect dust. I hadn’t heard it since we finished it, so I didn’t know if it was any good.
“The catalog guy called me back after digging around and finding it. He said, ‘This stuff is pretty terrific; I’m sorry, but we’re going to put this out ourselves.’ I was so happy about that.”
Fakir’s dream came true: Motown/UMG released “Breaking Through” on Sept. 28 as part of its “Lost & Found” series. Three other rarities were issued the same day – Marvin Gaye’s “Love Starved Heart: Marvin in the Sixties,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Along Came Love (1958-1964)” and the Temptations’ “You’ve Got to Earn It (1962-1968).”
“They did a wonderful job,” Fakir said. “The quality is excellent. Whether it sells or not is questionable, but I’m just glad it’s out. This is the way the Tops sang as youngsters. We started out singing all types of songs, but we leaned more toward jazz, simply because back in the early ’50s a lot of that was going on and we wanted to be a different kind of group. We wanted to be a good singing, entertaining type of group, so we learned many of these songs.”
The album features standards and show tunes (such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”), some jazz and blues (“Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You”), two original Motown tunes (“Discovered” and “Maybe Today”) and a rare lead vocal by Benson on Rodgers & Hart’s “This Can’t Be Love.”
The Four Tops may have had 45 pop chart hits, but they always let bits and pieces of their jazz-tinged past creep into their live performances, Fakir said.
“We put that in our act because we were always looking to be a Vegas-type group,” he said. “We were patterning ourselves more after the Mills Brothers than anybody else. We saw them in Vegas in ’59 and people loved them and they had been in the business forever. We wanted that.”
Fakir wishes Payton was around to hear “Breaking Through.” He died on June 20, 1997, at age 59. They may still perform as the Four Tops, with a capable stand-in, but it will never be the same without Payton, Fakir said.
“Lawrence was the musical glue that kept things together,” he said. “He had a great ear. He kept us rehearsing, he kept us working with different sounds. He was the musical man. If you listen to the ‘Breaking Through’ album, you can hear he does a lot of lead on those jazz things. He was very smooth.
“It was hard to carry on after he died. We were devastated, very hurt. We knew we could exist, but for a minute we didn’t want to exist. It was like, ‘Man, it’s time to give it up,’ but I think our love for the music, the love for the business was too great. And Lawrence would want us to carry on.
“For a year and a half, we did nothing. We didn’t even think about replacing him; in fact, we refused to. Whatever we did, we let our conductor sing the fourth part. We did our show with three onstage and we were going to let the audience determine whether we needed to replace or fill that spot. The audience never blinked; we never lost a customer. We always acknowledge him before each show.”
Fakir is a happy man now that “Breaking Through” is available.
“I hope people enjoy it,” he said. “I know a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, that’s not the Tops.’ Some people might say, ‘Wow, I’d like to hear more,’ and some people may be on the fence. I’m anxious to see their reaction.
“The main thing is, I have a copy. It’s for my listening pleasure. I keep it in my car, and if I’m doing errands or going to the golf course, that’s what I put on. It takes me back, and sometimes it brings tears to my eyes; now I can always remember the wonderful days when we were trying to touch the sun.”
BWF (before we forget): Reach out, the Four Tops will be there on the Web @ www.motown.com.
The Four Tops album discography – “Four Tops” (Motown, 1964); “Four Tops Second Album” (1965); “4 Tops On Top” (1966); “Four Tops Live” (1966); “4 Tops On Broadway” (1967); “Four Tops Reach Out” (1967); “Yesterday’s Dreams” (1968); “Soul Spin” (1969); “Four Tops Now!” (1969); “The Magnificent 7” (1970); “Changing Times” (1970); “Still Waters Run Deep” (1970); “The Return of the Magnificent Seven” (1971); “Dynamite” (1971); “Nature Planned It” (1972); “Keeper of the Castle” (Dunhill, 1972); “Main Street People” (1973); “Meeting of the Minds” (1974); “Live & In Concert” (1974); “Night Lights Harmony” (ABC, 1975); “Catfish” (1976); “The Show Must Go On” (1977); “At the Top” (1978); “It’s All in the Game” (MFP, 1979); “Tonight!” (Casablanca, 1981); “One More Mountain” (1982); “Back Where I Belong” (Motown, 1983); “Magic” (1985); “Hot Nights” (1986); “Indestructible” (Arista, 1988); “Christmas Here With You” (Motown, 1995).