[JPL] Still Standing in the Shadows of Motown
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Wed Jul 28 14:51:53 EDT 2004
Still Standing in the Shadows of Motown
July 27, 2004
By MICHELINE MAYNARD
DETROIT, July 24 - Inside the tiny house where Motown
Records began, Abdul Fakir is standing in famed Studio A,
pointing out the worn spots on the floor where he and other
members of the Four Tops stood when cutting their records.
He gestures to the sound booth, where the songwriters
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland sat,
tweaking their arrangements. Motown's founder, Berry Gordy,
stayed in his office upstairs in a house next door. But Mr.
Gordy could hear the session through the walls. "If he came
down, you had a hit," recalled Mr. Fakir, known as Duke.
On a day last month, a group of tourists descends the
stairs. They fill the small studio, now part of the Motown
Historical Museum, clamoring for autographs. Eulalio Brown
of Port Huron, Mich., awaits his moment. Posing for a
picture with Mr. Fakir, Mr. Brown, who claims a collection
of Motown records "as big as Motown itself," is asked what
set the Four Tops apart. "Longevity," he says, noting their
five decades as recording artists.
Yet time has ravaged the Tops, too. Half the group no
longer performs, including Levi Stubbs, whose gravelly
voice was the signature of almost every song. Younger
replacements have felt the sting of audiences who wanted
nothing to change. Hits are scarce, too: the last was 15
But while other groups of their era have broken up or been
relegated to county fairs, the Tops still draw crowds to
summer amphitheaters, where they crisply perform classics
like "Standing in the Shadows of Love," as well as jazz
tunes and fresh pop material.
And while the group is split on whether to continue if
another original member can't go on, the Tops aren't
packing up their sequined tuxedos just yet. On Wednesday,
the group marks its 50th anniversary at a concert here that
is being taped as their first television special.
Lifelong friends like Aretha Franklin and Mary Wilson, an
original Supreme, will be on hand at the Detroit Opera
House, honoring the group that was formed after its four
original members, then high school students, met at a party
Mr. Fakir, 68, will join Renaldo Benson, known as Obie, who
is also 68, along with the two newest Tops, Ronnie McNair,
54, and Theo Peoples, 43. Mr. Peoples, formerly of the
Temptations, will take on the parts sung by Mr. Stubbs, who
stopped singing four years ago, felled by ill heath.
Now confined to a wheelchair, Mr. Stubbs, who declined to
be interviewed, last appeared in public in April, at a
benefit in Detroit.
The other original Top, Lawrence Payton, died in 1997.
Their absence makes the anniversary bittersweet. "It's like
having one body with two limbs missing," Mr. Benson said
over a lobster lunch last month in a downtown Detroit
Not that the new members have had it easy. Mr. Peoples, the
youngest Top, watched fans walk out of concerts when they
discovered that he, not Mr. Stubbs, was singing lead. Not
that he blamed them. "They're loyal fans of Levi's," Mr.
Peoples said. "I can't take that as an insult."
The Tops frequently team up with Mr. Peoples's former
group, the Temptations, with whom they first sang on
Motown's 25th-anniversary special in 1983. Audiences
sometimes confuse the two groups, given that they consist
of identically dressed black men (five in the case of the
Temptations) who sing in harmony and perform dance
routines. But numbers tell the story: over the years there
have been 21 Temptations, but only 6 Tops. And for the
first 43 years, simply Mr. Fakir, Mr. Benson, Mr. Stubbs
and Mr. Payton.
Mr. Fakir credits the quartet's closeness to the years they
spent bouncing around the jazz club circuit. Leaving
Detroit for New York, they shared a studio apartment and
rotated three suits among them. (The Top with the most
important appointment had first pick, Mr. Fakir said.)
The Tops toured with the jazz balladeer Billy Eckstine, who
admonished them to forgo fancy dance steps until they had
mastered their songs, as well as Count Basie and his
orchestra. In 1963 they landed on the Jack Paar "Tonight"
show, singing a jazz arrangement of "In the Still of the
Watching in Detroit, Mr. Gordy instructed his staff to sign
them up. By then the Tops were eager to trade the club
scene for a label already known for generating hits, said
Suzanne E. Smith, assistant professor at George Mason
University and the author of "Dancing in the Street: Motown
and the Cultural Politics of Detroit."
But it took the Hollands and Mr. Dozier another year after
that to concoct the Tops' first hit single, "Baby, I Need
Your Lovin'," in 1964, and another year for the Tops to
land their first No. 1 hit, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar
Pie, Honey Bunch)." Their second No. 1 hit, "Reach Out,
I'll Be There," followed in 1966.
"We didn't know what bag to put them in," Mr. Dozier said
by telephone from his home in Las Vegas. They concluded
that Mr. Stubbs's plaintive voice should be most prominent,
backed by the Tops' harmonies and layered with vocals by a
female group, the Andantes.
Motown's choreographers and costume designers added to the
presentation - "things they wouldn't have gotten" without
joining Motown, Ms. Smith said.
Snappily dressed even offstage, the Tops liked to carouse
in all corners of the globe. Mr. Dozier remembers 18-hour
days that stretched until 3 a.m.
But relations with Motown grew strained by the early 70's,
when Mr. Gordy took the label to Los Angeles. That was
around the time Mr. Benson went in a decidedly un-Tops
direction by writing the lyrics for "What's Goin' On,"
which Marvin Gaye recorded after revamping it with Al
Cleveland. Gaye embraced the protest song over initial
objections of Mr. Gordy, who doubted the tune would sell,
Mr. Benson said.
Mr. Benson was inspired to write it after an afternoon in
the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. He was
stunned, he said, when police descended on a crowd of
hippies, pummeling them for no apparent reason.
After leaving Motown, the Tops scored occasional hits
through the 1970's and 1980's, the last being
"Indestructible," which reached No. 35 on the pop charts in
1988. Mr. Stubbs meanwhile became known to a new generation
as the voice of a man-eating plant in the film version of
"Little Shop of Horrors."
While its Motown hits sell tickets, Mr. Fakir said the Tops
were always cycling newer material through their act,
saving their biggest songs, like "Reach Out" for a
show-ending medley. By that point familiar lyrics like
"I'll be there, to always see you through" are a game saver
in the event of an off night.
"They could be sick, they could be on crutches," he
explains, but once the audience hears those words, "Wham!
You've got 'em."
The decline of Mr. Stubbs and Mr. Payton's death are
cautionary tales to Mr. Fakir and Mr. Benson, who have
talked about retiring the Tops should one of them falter.
"We're not worried about ourselves, but we want people to
enjoy it," Mr. Fakir said. He went on, "When things start
to diminish, it's time to go home."
That prospect alarms Mr. Peoples and Mr. McNair, who
separately insisted they would be willing to carry on the
Tops' tradition. "This is history," Mr. Peoples said. "I
just can't see people not having the option of going to see
the Four Tops anymore."
Mr. McNair added: "It's not about who's up there. It's
about the music."
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