‘We carried pistols to defend ourselves’: the Four Tops and the Temptations on six decades of soul

As they tour the UK together, Motown icons Duke Fakir and Otis Williams reflect on meeting the Beatles, facing down white supremacists, and the collaborators they’ve lost along the way

Duke Fakir, the last surviving founding member of the Four Tops, is reminiscing on the halcyon days of Detroit’s seminal soul music label as it made its mark on the 1960s. “Motown really did feel like a big family back then,” he says. “We all hung out, partied, played golf, held BBQs, appeared on one another’s records. Those were amazing times.”

The Temptations’ Otis Williams agrees: “Motown was no happenstance. God brought that up to start. Detroit, Michigan, was known for the big three – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Now the city’s going to be known as the Big Four because Motown has made a similar impact to those automobile manufacturers.”

From their respective 1964 debut hits, the Temptations’ The Way You Do the Things You Do and the Four Tops’ Baby I Need Your Loving, through socially conscious soul epics Ball of Confusion and Still Water (Peace) and beyond, the Tops and The Temptations have created some of history’s most indelible soul songs. And the two singers have been friends since those early days. This week, the last two men standing from the original lineups of Motown’s greatest male vocal groups are undertaking another joint tour of the UK.

The Temptations in 1965, from left, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams and Eddie Kendricks.
The Temptations in 1965, from left, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams and Eddie Kendricks. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Fakir and Williams speak on separate Zoom calls from their respective homes in Detroit and Los Angeles before they set off. Their recollections of the original Motown period speak to their personalities: Fakir possesses a mellifluous voice and often speaks in endearing platitudes; Williams enunciates his philosophical musings in the deepest, gruffest tones imaginable. “We have such loyal fans here – they really know our songs and give us so much love,” says Williams, clearly still excited about the prospect of crossing the pond even after so many trips. Fakir concurs: “Sometimes I think Motown is more popular and appreciated in Britain than in the US.”

Many of the UK’s most celebrated musicians have counted among those admirers: Dusty Springfield and the Beatles championed the Tops, while the Rolling Stones, Faces and Rod Stewart all covered Temptations hits. Fakir recalls Beatles manager Brian Epstein helping break the Tops here: “Brian was the promoter who brought us to the UK for the first time.” Although the Tops had just had a huge hit, Epstein decided to put them on in the Savoy theatre, a more intimate venue. The crowd gave the band a standing ovation, and Epstein met the band backstage with tears in his eyes. “He then took us to a party, and as we entered he introduced us to the Beatles and they told us how they loved our music.”

‘Sometimes I think Motown is more popular in Britain than in the US’ … the Four Tops outside St Paul’s Cathedral, London in 1966. From left: Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, Levi Stubbs, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir and Lawrence Payton.
‘Sometimes I think Motown is more popular in Britain than in the US’ … the Four Tops outside St Paul’s Cathedral, London in 1966. From left: Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, Levi Stubbs, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir and Lawrence Payton. Photograph: AP

Fakir describes that night as “one of the most memorable and magical of my life. … I got chatting to Paul McCartney and he was asking me how we did certain vocal harmonies,” he says. “There were lots of musicians there – members of the Stones and Small Faces and other bands too. Everyone was smoking hash and having a high old time!”

Motown’s legacy in the UK is undeniable to this day, as evidenced by Diana Ross’s triumphant Glastonbury legends performance this year. Both men agree that Ross, like them, can still turn it on. “Berry Gordy’s vision with Motown – the songs, the producers, the artists, the training we all received in how to present ourselves – he was thinking long term,” says Williams. “That’s why Diana and Stevie and the Tops and Temptations are still out here.”

There’s no doubting Gordy’s genius and the durability of Motown’s finest songs. But Williams and Fakir deserve credit for ensuring their groups remain top level draws – especially given that neither were originally the lead vocalists in their respective groups. “I had a long apprenticeship,” says Fakir. “The Tops formed in 1953 and we didn’t score our first hit until 1964 but, during those years, we were busy working clubs across America and, with that, came an understanding of how to make sure things ran smoothly.”

“I learnt how to take care of business because no one else would,” Williams says circumspectly.

The Temptations and the Tops first performed together on Motown revues in the mid-1960s. Touring a US riven by civil rights struggles, both groups faced threats from white supremacists. “Both of our groups were carrying pistols to defend ourselves, and everyone else, on tour,” says Williams. “One night in Alabama we stood side of stage and watched the audience while the Tops were performing in case anyone tried anything, then they did the same for us. When our bus went to leave later that night, these white guys started shooting at it! Luckily, no one was hurt but things were crazy back then.” He pauses. “Just like they’ve gone crazy again now.”

The Temptations perform on Top of the Pops in 1972.
An undeniable legacy … the Temptations perform on Top of the Pops in 1972. Photograph: Ron Howard/Redferns

But over the years, the internal relationships of the two groups would come to stand in dramatic contrast: the Tops were a band of brothers, the Temptations extraordinarily dysfunctional. “We were friends who worked things out democratically,” says Fakir. It was only cancer – which claimed Lawrence Payton in 1997, Obie Benson in 2005 and the quartet’s mighty lead vocalist Levi Stubbs in 2008 – that diminished a band that formed as teenagers in 1953. “Each of us had his role in the group and we all worked together. We’re only human, so we did have disagreements – but we were a loving unit.”

Love is not a word Williams uses to describe the Temptations: the acrimonious departures of lead vocalists David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, followed by Paul Williams’ death in 1973, spelt the end of the classic lineup. Other members were fired, or quit following altercations. After Melvin Franklin died of a brain seizure in 1995, it left Otis Williams as the only original member. By then Ruffin, Kendricks and Paul Williams had all died – from an overdose, lung cancer and gunshot, respectively. As we speak, both men regularly thank God for their good health and lengthy careers.

For a hugely successful outfit who created such uplifting music, the Temptations’ story is a tragic one. “Success can test an individual so as to reveal their true self,” Williams says, when asked about why the Temptations were so conflicted, “I hate that there was not enough solidarity for us to hang on in there. I hate that I lost my guys, because we made such an impact on the world. But the one thing that’s constant in life is change. It’s not the guys that go ahead and take the money out and think it’s all about them who always survive. I went through a lot but God in his infinite wisdom left me here to carry on in their spirit.”

Despite the adversity they’ve faced, and the members they’ve lost, both groups are, perhaps improbably, still going strong. Earlier this year, the Temptations released a new album, Temptations 60, marking 60 years since their debut, while Fakir has recently published an autobiography, I’ll Be There: My Life With The Four Tops. Still, both Williams and Fakir seem aware that their days of touring can’t last forever. Williams is 80 while Fakir is 86; the former says he’s in “good shape, so long as God allows”, but the latter is ready to call it a day. “This tour will be my last of the UK,” says Fakir. “I’m planning on retiring in the next year.”

Will the Tops continue without him?

“The Tops will go on forever, just like Motown,” he replies. “This is forever music.”

• The Four Tops and the Temptations play Bournemouth International Centre on Friday; touring until 11 October. I’ll Be There, My Life With the Four Tops by Duke Fakir is out now on Omnibus Press.

Contributor

Garth Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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